Jackpot! Las Vegas, 19-21 April 2002

Jackpot! was hosted by Just Passing Through LLC in Las Vegas from April 19–21, 2002. Team Advil entered as the Asbestos family. I did a fairly complete writeup of Jackpot! (below) afterwards. Games Magazine did a 6 page story on Jackpot!. And our application video (56 MB QT) is pretty entertaining.

Jackpot, The Game, and the Adventures of the Asbestos Family on a Las Vegas Vacation

From 19–21 April, 2002, I participated in the Jackpot Game in Las Vegas, hosted by Just Passing Through, LLC. I captained my usual team, Team Advil. However, in Jackpot we were required to take the name of a mineral, so we went as the Asbestos Family. 12 families participated in the event. Asbestos consisted of:

John Owens (that's me!);

Scott Pegg (pic), longtime member of Team Advil and the person with whom I've done the most Games;

Alex Aravanis (pic) and Greg Yap (pic), also old-school Advilites;

Mohammed (moe.) Badi (pic), who's played several Games but only joined Team Advil for Zelda in October 2001;

and Deirdre Wheeler (pic), Game rookie (and only person on the team with a broken foot).


Applications were available in January 2002. I received a CD (thanks to Alexandra Dixon for scanning) that had both music and data files on it. The music files were from an album called "Jackpot: The Las Vegas Story"—lounge music, mostly. The music wasn't complete—pieces were missing from the ends of the songs.

The data file was a PDF with a long piece of coded ciphertext. Frequency analysis indicated this wasn't just a plain cryptogram, and it didn't have any word breaks that would make it easier to decode. The coding system turned out to be Vigenere—we broke it the hard way, but it turned out that if we'd used the song lengths we could have derived the key (using CDDB and the album they'd entered there).

The application also had two secret bits: first, the Macintosh desktop file that came with the data segment of the CD had a secret message inside that indicated using the number 604 in the application would receive a bonus; second, using the song lengths in a different way pointed you to a CD Universe review that in turn told you to use an elephant in your application.

The code sequence itself decoded to instructions to submit a 2–5 minute video as an application. With the help of my brother and his roommate Kenny Meehan we spent a day in Santa Cruz filming the video and doing an initial edit, then another evening doing a final edit. The result turned out pretty well, and we were accepted. We were one of two teams to find both bonuses in the application.

12 teams were accepted, and we all chose family names at this point. In a Jackpot questionnaire, we also submitted food requests and a logo and chose "roles" on the team named after creatures in the desert; I was a roadrunner, and some of the other roles were cactus, coyote, and so on. The Jackpot website also had several prepuzzles, which, when decoded, indicated that bringing a large protractor, Simpsons information, and an almanac would be useful.

We also received plot information. Our family was to visit the "Scruem, Ova, Agin, and Agin" timeshare seminar over the weekend. Game Control was actually members of the Pyrite family, and they reported that Bob Scruem had found coded directions to a treasure and to its rightful owners. The treasure was hidden by Jack Pyrite, progenitor of the Pyrite family. Bob intended to steal the treasure for himself, and our task was to find the key to the treasure and to find the rightful owners.

We were asked to be in Las Vegas by 4 pm on Friday, 19 April, and that the festivities would begin at 6 pm. We were picked up at the airport by a Jackpot representative and brought to the Stratosphere Hotel north of the Strip. They gave us an information binder with Las Vegas and US maps. We assembled in our rooms and had social hour in the ground-floor bar with the other teams before taking the elevator to the Stratosphere's tower (the highest structure in Las Vegas) for a banquet dinner.

For the banquet we wore costumes: full-body clean room suits with our "Team Advil Asbestos Installation Squad" logo on the back and nametags on the front. Looked pretty sharp, if I do say so myself. We were seated with the rookie team "Batamonium" at one table. There were several filming crews at dinner, and several members of the press as well; I talked with a reporter from Wired for a little while. On each table was a large playing card per team (joker, in this case) with a character name and part of the plot. (I pose with the card and suitable beverage.) The card (like all further cards) contained a character description (of Bob Scruem, in this case) and part of a description of a series of poker games.

After dinner was a presentation by Bob Scruem. It contained information on timeshares, including photos from the videos, and he spent a lot of time on one particular slide that showed in which countries SOAA had timeshare interests. Though we didn't decode it properly in time, it told us to be ready at 8 am. Then we had an icebreaker; our creature roles reassigned us to one of 6 tables. The Cacti had a drinking contest; other contests involved flipping cards or poker chips; as Roadrunners, we had to tell a joke each to the whole room. Anyway, it was a nice way to meet a member of each of the other teams. We enjoyed the night air and the view after dinner.


We'd agreed to be ready by 9 am (calisthenics were on the schedule for 9). Instead, we were awakened at 8 am with breakfast and the first clue. We were given a "Neo" (a Handspring Visor) and a playing card (queen, I think) which had a code on the bottom. Entering the code in the Neo started a timer, and hints for the puzzle were given out after a certain amount of time had passed. Scott, Deirdre, and Moe were in the other room, so we called them and they came down. The clue was a small paper booklet with Jack Pyrite's biography. We immediately went to the van to work on the clue there. Filming crews were waiting on top of the parking structure: "You guys are in the lead! How does it feel?" Um, no, we're just working on the clue here. We were passed by several teams who finished while we were working on it, led by Bloodstone (Blood & Bones).

The clue involved making a calendar per month and marking the dates mentioned in the book on the calendar. Each month generated 1 or 2 letters. The dates went from the 1800's well into the 2000's, making it tough to use the Neo or our Palms to get the day of the month. The perpetual calendar in the almanac and a phone call to colleague Kekoa helped get the rest.

The answer sent us to the Ethel M Chocolate Factory in Henderson, 10 miles southeast or so.

At the chocolate factory, we had our pictures taken and put on a chocolate bar. While we waited, we looked at the other apps on the Neo: a blackjack guide and a moving-box puzzle. The chocolate, when finished, had our picture and the phrase "Maguey Verde" plus a five-digit number. Next to the chocolate factory was a cactus garden, and finding the Maguey Verde cactus gave us the other 5 digits of the number. We called the number which directed us to the Callville Bay Marina on Lake Mead.

At the dock, we were given a speedboat and a lake map, and we set off for a specific cove mentioned in the phone message. We were accompanied by a Games Magazine reporter. We left at the same time as "Mukiltoneum" (the White team from Microsoft Games). Moe and Greg did some excellent piloting, never letting off the throttle, on the 20 minute ride each way. Lake Mead is beautiful—very blue water with desert all around. When we arrived at the cove Maguey Verde was waiting with the clue on land, so I stripped down to boxers and had a short swim in pretty cold water. Chilly ride back!

The clue was a series of 9 discs with pictures of celebrities on them with dates. (Disc clue.) One disc was red on both sides only. The discs corresponded to planets so they were to be placed in planet order, and each celebrity led to that celebrity's spouse (John McEnroe -> Tatum O'Neal, Roy Rogers -> Dale Evans, etc.). We used phone help for some of them (thanks Jeff!). And the red disc (Mars) corresponded to Venus. The first letters of the last names of each spouse spelled "HOOVERDAM" on one side and "ELEVENLOT" on the other. So, we headed south to Hoover Dam.

We crossed Hoover Dam to the Arizona side (parking lot 11, overlooking the dam) and met "Barley Corn", who told us a story of his girlfriend on the other side of the dam whom he couldn't visit because of trouble with the law. He asked us to take her a message. Moe and Alex dashed over to the other side and returned with a large semaphore flag, and we gave Barley the message from her. Grateful, he gave us a worksheet used for deciphering the metapuzzle of poker games.

The puzzle was semaphore based—it had a 15x15 grid of points. Each point had a dot, a letter, or a number inside. (Flag clue.) Numbers corresponded to lines in the cardinal directions, letters were mapped to their semaphore equivalents, and it spelled out (in large letters) directions to Dry Lake south of Boulder City.


We left at the same time as Bloodstone and we reached Dry Lake together. Driving south from Boulder City we could see (from miles away!) a huge dry lakebed and cars and structures in the middle. Arriving at the lake we found 12-foot high PVC dodecahedra and "Big Red", who inserted a small ball into the pipes making up the structure and locked it off with a padlock. We had to figure out how to manipulate the dodecahedron to make the ball fall out the hole coming from the other direction, without allowing the dodecahedron to touch the ground. This was complicated by most of the pipes being blocked. Fortunately, this didn't take too long, and the clue to the next place was inscribed on the ball.

Engraved on the ball was "Matt Simon" (a character in the plot) and "Techatticup". We spent 40 minutes trying to decode that name. It turned out that it's a small mine town 10 miles southeast, but that the version of the map that we'd been given did not have this town on it (though all the other teams did). Unfortunate. Game Control made the time lost up to us later.

We arrived at the mine and received a tour from the owner. Until very recently it was an abandoned mine, but now it's used for tours and movie sets ("3000 Miles from Graceland" was a recent movie filmed there). In the mine we met "Matt Simon", a skeleton, who had a map next to him that led to two clues in the other buildings at the site.

One clue led to a Magic 8 Ball with the "8" written as "1000". The clue in the window of the 8 Ball said "I am unable to see the answer". The other clue was a grid of pool balls, 6x6, with a 1, 2, 3, and 4 ball on the outside at each of the N, E, S, and W directions. (Pool ball clue.) The 1000 indicated a binary encoding, and the 8 Ball message Braille, so we zipped through this clue: for n = 1 to 4, the nth bit of the binary encoding of the pool ball number was used to make a 6x6 grid of bits, which were read as Braille in the direction indicated by the n-ball. This led us to a turbine statue in Boulder City.

We called a hotel in Boulder City to get exact directions, since the statue wasn't on the map. We told him where we were and the directions were something like, "OK, go through a stop sign, go through the next stop sign, wave at me in the window on the right ..."

Inside the turbine was a box of postcards for "Sally Hanson" from Jack. We were told to drive north to Las Vegas at this point, so we stopped in a gas station parking lot (where we were approached to buy marijuana, thanks, guys). Arranging the postcards in chronological order and superimposing the US map with the locations marked over a dartboard (indicated in some of the accompanying text—here's where the protractor came in handy) put each city in a dartboard region, which, when mapped to letters, sent us to the Frenchman's Mountain interpretive site northeast of the city center. The bar next door to the gas station was kind enough to supply the dartboard used for this calculation.


At Frenchman's Mountain we were directed to a nearby park. At the park was a 5x2 grid of 1-foot square pads that we could step on. A signboard directed us to spell "Jackpot" one square at a time. We used the binary encoding of the letters (j = 10 = 01010); each person was responsible for 2 pads, the on and off states for each of the 5 bits. We were excited to finally spell it until it told us to do it faster. We had to spell it out 3 times in a row, ever faster, until we were finished and could go eat dinner at the barbeque area. We were tied with the Ice team at this point and behind only Doh!lomite.

We were directed to "tip Candi at The Library". We drove to the nearby library branch. No love. But, there's a strip club called "The Library" north of downtown. So that's where we headed. Candi wasn't there, but her lovely assistant gave an unnamed member of the team (not me) a lap dance and then a vibrator that vibrated in code (trinary). We zipped through this clue as well, which directed us to a tattoo parlor a few miles south. At the tattoo parlor, Deirdre got a fake tattoo of the Arc de Triomphe on her back. So we headed to the Paris casino on the Strip. It's about 10 pm at this point, so the Strip is pretty crowded.

At Paris, Moe, Scott, and I are chained and padlocked together. Alex, after being redirected to a bathroom, joins us a little later. Greg and Deirdre drive to meet us at New York, New York; the four of us, meanwhile, get to run a mile down the Strip enjoying the stares and comments of passersby. Arriving there we're unchained and given a large number of paper pyramids with playing cards and numbers on them as well as a deck of playing cards. The cards have questions on the back: "How many days are the steaks aged at this restaurant in New York, New York?" "How many butterflies in the women's bathroom at the Tropicana?" etc.—Moe, Greg, Scott, and Alex are dispatched to gather the information, and Deirdre and I assemble pyramids and answer the questions that we can answer.

The pyramids eventually are stacked into one giant pyramid and the cards on the front of the pyramid can be translated into letters. We're directed to the Old Yellow Horse Casino, 18 miles south and 6 miles east of the Luxor, in the middle of the desert. And we leave this clue, for the first time, in first place.

The Old Yellow Horse Casino is about the coolest thing I've ever seen. We're driving into the middle of the desert, in the middle of nowhere, and come around the corner and are met with an explosion of neon. GC has hauled 4 generators into the middle of nowhere and set up a little casino—blackjack tables, Red Bull and vodka on demand, and most of the Pyrite family on hand. We're all given wristbands when we get there, and a worksheet for solving the metapuzzle.

We get a little time to relax before starting the first clue (during which time the Doh!lomites arrive). We've been told to have our codes ready, so we do, but we're divided in half and I've got all the codes with me. We're separated by a tarp and a U-Haul truck with the generator, so we can't see the other half of the team. And we're in a small circle with a switch and a light bulb, and are given a padlock with "Wrong" and a combination and "Right" and numerical operations on it.

So our switch triggers their light and their switch triggers ours, and we need to exchange our information for theirs to open both of our padlocks. It takes the other half of the team a little while to realize what's going on, but we transmit the info in short order once we get the channel established. Very simple code: a = 1, b = 2, and so on.

Then we're put at a blackjack table and have to play 3 hands perfectly for four people (remember the blackjack guide on our Neo? We aren't allowed to use it here). The number of chips we have at the end, for each of the 4 of us playing, spells out "UNLV" and my wristband has "Flashlight Statue" written on the underside. So we're off north back to town.


The UNLV flashlight statue has copies of the game Continuo at its base. The Continuo tiles are marked with atomic symbols, and when we play the game through matching H to He, Li to Be, and so on, the scores generated translate to letters that send us to the Little White Wedding Chapel on Las Vegas Boulevard. I get a nice 15 minutes of sleep (my only sleep all night) on this one, as did some teammates—Greg and Alex powered through this clue.

At the chapel, Scott and Deirdre are married by an Elvis impersonator ("Chad"); the wedding certificate has chads punched in it and when we punch them out and place them over another document that we're given, we spell out a site in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area west of Las Vegas. We're still in the lead here, but not by much; we see 3 other teams arrive while we're working on it.

At Red Rocks we're given a series of photos. They correspond to a trip through the rocks (roughly, each photo is of the place from which the next photo is taken) and they're not easy to follow. Bloodstone arrives 10–15 minutes after we do and Doh!lomite not long after. Since we're all following the same photos, it's a little awkward. We find a photographer hidden but not what we're looking for, and Bloodstone finds it before us or Doh!lomite. Next thing we know, they're pulling out of the parking lot; Doh!lomite finds it next and us immediately after, so it's a 3 way race to the finish. What we found was a GPS coordinates for the next location, just up the road. (And thanks to Andrew Howard for lending us the very excellent Garmin eTrex GPS unit we used!)

The location has two huge rocks (500 feet tall or so) of sandstone and a deep ravine between. It's pretty clear the coordinates are either one of the summits or the ravine between them. We can see a Bloodstone member on top of the right rock when we arrive. You can't tell from in the ravine where you are via GPS because the sky is blocked. Mike Springer from Doh!lomite and I are both in the ravine with our receivers and then head up the left rock together when we don't find anything. He's faster than I am, but not by too much, and we make it near the top pretty quickly, triangulating from both of our GPS units. We find two Jackpot people near the top and about 20 feet from the summit one very tired Bloodstone member. Mike summits first, retrieving a large gold key from him and one for me, and we run back down the hill. There's a big tent behind the rocks and we run that way; Mike's ahead of me by about 10 seconds but he hands his key off to a teammate on the way, so I'm the first one to reach the tent with the key. And that turns out to be the finish line. As Mike's key reaches immediately afterwards, GC properly declared it a tie between the two teams. Massage therapists there made us feel pretty good about finishing, as did the gallon or so of orange juice I consumed to rehydrate.

The finish was a bit anticlimatic because we were still working on the metapuzzle from all the cards, and so we weren't expecting a finish line at that time. The metapuzzle had 3 parts. The first part was reconstructing the poker games, and Alex, Deirdre, and Greg had nearly finished by the time we reached the end. After we left the last clue site, we drove to a scenic overlook and worked on the rest of the metapuzzle. The second part was determining the significance of each of the cards. It turned out that each card's character corresponded to a Simpsons character and each card to a specific episode. The card game information and the episode titles are put into the metapuzzle worksheet to solve the metapuzzle.

We headed back to the hotel with our van and cleaned it out then took showers (or a swim for Alex and me) before heading to the final reception at 2 back in the tower. All the teams were at the reception, and there, GC revealed the end of the story. All the captains brought their keys to the front of the room and collectively opened a large wooden box (the treasure), which had t-shirts and silver medallions for each team member. Our family, Doh!lomite, and Bloodstone (and also Hematite, who found the best solution to the block puzzle) were awarded gold medallions for our performance. The metapuzzle revealed that the participating teams were the rightful owners of the treasure. I spent a little time talking with the film crew and Game Control then hopped a taxi back to the airport and home. I sure don't remember taking off and only barely remember landing—sleep was a must at this point.

Jackpot Game Control was kind enough to posted detailed results and an official wrapup. Games Magazine also published an excellent article.

John Owens | Game Home Page | Last updated .