Why Make A Case Of Video Poker?


January 17, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

Even though Stephen Holniker is a very mild-mannered man who speaks in a careful and deliberate fashion, the Carroll County resident has trouble suppressing anger over the fact that his company, Advent Technologies, was rebuffed in its efforts to sell its video poker machines in Maryland.

His company has contracts to provide video poker machines to lottery agencies in Louisiana and South Dakota. If Advent's machines are good enough for other states, he asks, why aren't they used here in his home state?

The answer he got from Gov. William Donald Schaefer's administration, a big promoter of "Buy Maryland," was no thanks. His company then filed a protest against the state's awarding of a $49 million contract to the current lottery contractor, GTECH Inc., of Rhode Island, to supply the state with video terminals for the new keno lottery game.

The answer he got from the Carroll County commissioners on the issue of supplying video poker equipment to fraternal organizations was: We are impressed with the sophistication of your machines, but our community doesn't want to encourage gambling.

One of Advent's machines was used last December in a demonstration on behalf of legalizing video poker in Carroll's fraternal lodges. Commissioner Elmer C. Lippy was effusive in praising Advent Technologies, but he and the other commissioners decided not to support an effort to permit video poker machines in the county's 10 lodges.

The second rebuff came when Mr. Holniker made an 11th-hour attempt to supply the state lottery agency with video terminals for the keno game. Intent on going ahead with the game, the Board of Public Works accepted GTECH's no-bid contract. Given that keno is now up and running, there is little likelihood that Mr. Holniker's protest will be upheld and the GTECH contract would be rescinded.

In a brown brick building tucked behind a cleaners on Old Frederick Road in Catonsville, Mr. Holniker is demonstrating the newest video poker machine his company produces.

Touch the screen and five cards pop up for a game of draw poker. Touch it again and the machine automatically discards the worthless cards and draws the replacements.

With an electronic burp, the machine lets you know that you have lost. Put another coin in the box and play another hand. Within minutes you can play a dozen hands and lose several dollars. Or win, if the cards are falling in your favor.

Mr. Holniker then opens the door at the bottom of the machine and reveals the "brains" of the machine -- the circuit boards, modems, mechanical counters and wiring.

This video poker machine can "talk" with a centralized computer. It can recount to the computer all the hands played, how many credits were earned by the players, the current status of the machine and what, if anything, is wrong.

Open the door to the machine, it tells the computer and prints a receipt. Fiddle with the coin box, the central computer is notified. Try toreplace a circuit board that controls the game and the whole machine goes dead. Mr. Holniker points out all the safeguards that would prevent tampering or skimming from the machine.

"Technology has given us the answers," he says. "Experience has taught what the potential problems are, and we have created a means of dealing with them. This is a foolproof system."

VTC As far as Mr. Holniker is concerned, people cannot legitimately object to video poker because of the multiple safeguards built into the apparatus. The only other objection is on moral grounds, which he dismisses as one group trying to impose its values on another.

To Mr. Holniker, playing video poker is like smoking or drinking alcohol. He maintains there is nothing inherently wrong with video poker and it is perfectly acceptable if played in moderation.

"I don't understand why people object to video poker. To my mind, Lotto is a much more dangerous game," Mr. Holniker says. "When you play Lotto you have the potential of changing your lifestyle if you win. That possibility makes people do irrational things. Winning at video poker will just put a few extra bucks into your pockets."

He is particularly miffed that the county commissioners did not appoint a committee to study all of the ramifications of legalizing video poker in Carroll County. He recites the numbers of dollars that could be generated for the lodges that could be donated to charity and taxed by the county government.

Given the rather large investment Advent has made in developing, manufacturering and marketing its video poker machine, it is not surprising that Mr. Holniker wants it to be used in Maryland.

Many of his arguments -- playing video poker is a matter of choice; it is acceptable if done in moderation -- are framed the same way the tobacco industry frames its justification for allowing unregulated smoking. The industry doesn't worry about the consequences of smoking, saying that is the responsibility of the people who smoke.

The same can be said about video poker. For people in Mr. Holniker's industry, video poker is a way of making a living. But there are consequences to legalizing video poker that the rest of society must worry about. It is those concerns that are hindering Mr. Holniker's efforts to sell his machine in Carroll County.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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