An odd encounter, betting on the Net Web wagering: Putting a bet down in new on-line games challenges both your gambling instincts and computer skills. Oh, make sure to read the fine print first.

April 18, 1996|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,SUN STAFF

You sign on to the latest Internet gambling venture to experience the thrill of a wager, in a game that might even be illegal. Could computer games be any more exciting?

Well, yes.

The recent launch of the Real-TIME Prizes Network by a company based in Silver Spring has raised some questions about the place of gambling on the Internet. Is the venture illegal, or is it OK because it's a "game of skill," as the company puts it? And will its ready access -- through your home computer -- lure an alarming number of compulsive gamblers?

Not unless your average gambler has a degree in computer science.

The money-based games offered here are surrounded by a thicket of thorny technical processes. And although some games are gratis, the process for building free "RealTIME tokens" to play trivia is laboriously dull.

If you're not willing to fork over your credit card, the Prizes Network Web site, at http: //www.prizes.com/, asks you to use "Prize-LINKS" -- scavenger-hunt-like jumps to sponsoring companies' Web sites where you learn all about the company, answer a few questions and then earn a few measly tokens.

There are also free games in which you can win as much as a million dollars, but you can play only once an hour. Ho-hum.

You have to bet real money to get into the fast-paced trivia games that offer cash prizes (unless you've spent an alarm-ing amount of time in the Prize-LINKS accruing credits). And to bet real money, you have to take 40 minutes to download the software. That is, after you figure out that you have to download the software and actually find it.

And when you download the software, finding the mysteriously named file you've downloaded and figuring out how to get into the game can be even more complicated. Plus, if you're not using Net-scape as your Web browser, you may not be able to play at all.

So, suppose you actually get to the point where you can play the trivia games and you want to spend a little money. You give up lots of vital info about yourself -- to spend, say, $10 on 1,200 tokens -- including your credit card number (Visa, MasterCard or American Express). Handing over your credit card number is always a mark of bravery when you're on-line, although the company assures users that its encrypted files are secure.

Then, finally, you can play trivia.

Each five-minute game costs 100 tokens and is time-intensive -- if you don't answer the multiple-guess questions quickly, you lose points. If you answer incorrectly, you lose big points. If you don't answer at all, you get a few points, but you've lost time -- and, in effect, that means you've lost points.

And these questions! It's like a twisted version of the Baby Boomer Edition of Trivial Pursuit, heavy on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," advertising motifs and comic book publishers.

There are a few political questions, as well as some that only Wall Street analysts can answer (who remembers at what number the stock market closed on any given day?). There are a few no-brainers, but very few.

The questions themselves are riddled with misspellings; can no one get Nicolas Cage's name right? We can only hope that the facts are correct; players aren't told what they got wrong.

After game time is up, you then play a quick, mathematical tie- breaker game that may count later if two players are equally ranked. Prizes are awarded daily and weekly, based on rankings. It's all very mysterious, and feels a little like "Quiz Show."

You have to wait a day to see if you ranked highly enough to win. The Sun player's profile showed an apparent third-place win of 50 bucks, although it wasn't listed among the daily rankings.

We were still trying to figure that out when we got e-mail saying that because of our residency in Maryland, we weren't eligible to win. Some other states' residents are in the same fix, presumably because of gambling laws.

Our first thought: Where was that in the fine print? Couldn't they have told us that when we filled out our electronic profile, before we blew $10 on a game we couldn't win? This is a computer system, right?

The info is there in the fine print, but you have to look hard and deep.

If you win a cash prize, and you're eligible to win, it's mailed to you. If you win tokens, which are worth a penny each, you can trade them for prizes or gamble them away. Players may donate their tokens' cash value to charity at 50 cents on the dollar.

Tokens are the main currency of the Prizes Network, becauseany ranked scores below third place are paid in tokens. The hitch to placing in the top three: You can't play again for a week!

What a pain. This gambler would rather play bingo.

Pub Date: 4/18/96

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