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Best of Donald Catlin

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Zzyzx

4 October 2004

Zzyzx? What is that? Some strange mathematical variable? Not even close. It is something that every gambler driving between Los Angeles and Las Vegas encounters and something I've been curious about for years. I thought I'd take a break from the mathematics this month and tell you about it. First a little background.

If you drive from Las Vegas to Los Angeles on I-15 you arrive at the California fruit inspection station about 10 miles east of Barstow, some 100 miles after you cross the California, Nevada border at Primm. How can that be? The answer is that although there are several I-15 exits along the way, none of them lead anywhere with the exception of one, that being the exit at Baker. At Baker there is route 127 which leads to Death Valley. The other exits, however, do serve a purpose in that they provide service stations and restaurants. One of them, though, provides nothing to the traveler. That exit is the exit for Zzyzx Road. The Zzyzx Road exit provides just barren desert. For years I have driven by this exit and always wondered why it is there and how it came to have such a strange name. Perhaps some of you have had the same question

This past June I was driving from the west coast to Las Vegas on I-15 when I came on the same old sign:

Zzyzx Road
One Mile

I said to myself that once and for all I have to solve the mystery of this strangely named exit. When the exit appeared I took it and headed off on the road to the right since that was closest to my side of the highway. The pavement ended in a few hundred feet and I was on a sand road in the Mojave Desert. Specifically, I was on the edge of a dry lake called Soda Lake. This is a huge, flat, hot expanse that consists of salt and bicarbonate of soda. Not a very desirable spot to be (unless you have acid indigestion and enjoy 115-degree temperatures). I proceeded down the road and encountered a sign indicating that a spring called Soda Spring was 4 miles ahead. The road was horrible; perhaps I went the wrong direction. The road had a 25 mph speed limit which exactly matched the resonant frequency of the bumps; if you ever want to retrace my path in your own vehicle I suggest that you break the law and drive 35 mph so that you don't shake your car apart. Anyway, I continued on and much to my surprise I finally came to a beautiful lake lined by palm trees; this was Soda Spring. There were also several buildings. It turned out that these house a research facility called the Desert Studies Center and is affiliated with California State University. But what about this Zzyzx business?

It turns out that this spring had traditionally been known as Soda Springs. On September 13, 1944 a man by the name of Curtis Howe Springer arrived at Soda Springs with his wife Helen. Although by his own description Soda Springs was little more than a "mosquito swamp," Springer had visions for this spring. He claimed the spring under a mining claim from the Bureau of Land Management and renamed it "Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Resort." (By the way, Zzyzx is pronounced "zye-zix.") I have no idea how Springer came up with this strange name. But he started building a facility that could house and feed visitors and set up Zzyzx as a health spa and resort. He also marketed several health food products, published a newsletter, and had a daily radio program.

As time went by, however, complaints arose that the products didn't work as advertised. In addition many truly sick folks arrived at Zzyzx only to discover that they were miles from licensed medical care and ambulance service. He drew the wrath of the AMA, the Pure Food and Drug Administration, and the IRS. In 1968 the Bureau of Land Management began court proceedings to revoke his mining claim and in April of 1974 finally won their case, took possession of the spring, and evicted the Springers. The Springers moved to Las Vegas, vowed to fight the decision, but never prevailed. Curtis Springer died in Las Vegas in December of 1985 at age 85. Although the name of the spring reverted to its original name, Soda Spring, the road to the spring is still known as Zzyzx Road. How Springer came up with this strange name is still a mystery. So if any of you Los Angeles gamblers have wondered about this weird exit as I did, you now have the answer.

Here's an interesting coincidence. Right after my discovery I started a novel called The Narrows by Michael Connley. A lot of the action in the novel centers on Zzyzx Road. If any of you read this novel I should point out that Connley changed the name of Crystal, Nevada (the brothel center) to Clear, Nevada (get it?).

Last month I gave you a brain teaser and promised to give you the answer this month. Let me refresh your memory. The problem involved a deck of 52 playing cards where thirteen of the cards in the deck have been turned upside down. The problem is to divide the deck into two piles so that each pile has the same number of upside down cards. Moreover, you have to do this without looking, say, behind your back. Sound impossible? Here is the solution.

Deal thirteen cards off of the top of the deck. If there are x face up cards in the packet of thirteen then there are 13 - x face up cards remaining in the 39-card packet. If you turn over the thirteen packet there will now be 13 - x cards that are facing up, exactly the same number as in the thirty-nine packet. See you next month (with games and no more roads).

Donald Catlin

Don Catlin is a retired professor of mathematics and statistics from the University of Massachusetts. His original research area was in Stochastic Estimation applied to submarine navigation problems but has spent the last several years doing gaming analysis for gaming developers and writing about gaming. He is the author of The Lottery Book, The Truth Behind the Numbers published by Bonus books.

Books by Donald Catlin:

Lottery Book: The Truth Behind the Numbers
Donald Catlin
Don Catlin is a retired professor of mathematics and statistics from the University of Massachusetts. His original research area was in Stochastic Estimation applied to submarine navigation problems but has spent the last several years doing gaming analysis for gaming developers and writing about gaming. He is the author of The Lottery Book, The Truth Behind the Numbers published by Bonus books.

Books by Donald Catlin:

Lottery Book: The Truth Behind the Numbers