New spin on gambling debate: Are those bingo machines slots?

Arundel OK for devices could open Md. floodgates

March 17, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

In what could signal the start of a video gambling gold rush in Maryland, an Anne Arundel bingo hall operator is seeking permission from the county to put devices that are virtually indistinguishable from slot machines into his establishment.

Dozens more bingo operators could follow suit in what gambling experts say is the latest wave of gambling expansion - essentially video slot machines that have been modified to technically comply with state laws that permit bingo but prohibit traditional slots.

And the machines could flood the state regardless of what the General Assembly decides to do about legalizing slots because of county-by-county laws that allow bingo.

The state Senate has approved, for the second year in a row, a plan by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to legalize slots, though it faces an uncertain future in coming weeks in the House of Delegates.

The Anne Arundel County Amusement License Commission is considering a request from Edward O. Wayson Jr., made on behalf of the Maryland Commercial Bingo Coalition, to allow the devices.

The coalition includes the Wayson family, which owns a 750-seat bingo hall at Wayson's Corner, and the owners of two other commercial bingo halls in Anne Arundel County.

"We think the machines are legal," Wayson said.

Carrying names such as "Triple Threat Bingo," the machines feature colorful lights and spinning drums with depictions of cherries, diamonds and other icons familiar to slots players. Customers drop in coins, push a button and, if the cherries line up, can win hundreds of dollars.

But, unlike slot machines, the devices are modeled to track bingo play and they print out paper tickets for winners to cash rather than dropping money or tokens into a hopper.

Companies that furnish bingo supplies in Maryland say they would like to see them installed wherever bingo is played in Maryland, including games run by nonprofit fraternal groups, social service clubs and similar organizations that use bingo to raise money for charity.

"We're trying to push them ourselves in Anne Arundel County, Baltimore - any county in the state," said Frank Moran of Frank Moran & Sons, who heads a family-run bingo supply company in Arbutus.

One gambling industry analyst from Goldman Sachs, who attended a bingo-related trade conference in Las Vegas last week, was quoted as saying that Pennsylvania and California are likely to get 30,000 each of the bingo machines over the next four years and that Maryland is likely to get 7,750 or so.

That's about half the 15,500 slot machines Ehrlich wants to put at three horse tracks and three other sites in Maryland.

I. Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, Calif., and an expert on gambling law, said a series of court rulings has opened the door to the expansion of video bingo games that are virtually indistinguishable from slots.

"Even if it looks and plays like a slot machine, if it has the characteristics of bingo, then it's a bingo machine," Rose said, referring to the way courts have tended to view the issue.

In Maryland, the legal groundwork for allowing such machines was laid with a 2001 ruling in the Maryland Court of Appeals. The case involved the Rod & Reel in Chesapeake Beach, a restaurant and marina run by the Calvert County town's mayor, Gerald Donovan.

The court ruled that the Rod & Reel's "Lucky Tab II" machines were legal in Maryland.

The Rod & Reel has 75 of the devices in the bar area adjacent to its restaurant and in a second-floor hall where it runs traditional bingo games.

Specific machines

Donovan said the court ruling was specific to the type of machines he has, which are designed to comply with state law that allows bingo operators to sell instant bingo tickets, also known as "pull tabs."

The machines feature a spinning, video slot type reel with symbols such as cherries or playing cards. A winning combination triggers the machine to spit out a preprinted ticket with a bar code that can be redeemed for a cash prize.

Wayson is seeking to expand beyond those types of machines to ones that don't use preprinted tickets but are designed to technically comply with the rules for traditional bingo.

Experts say the latest versions of the machine - which are installed in many Indian-run casinos - resemble even more closely the operations of a true slot machine.

"All I can say is they are certainly closer to a slot machine than our machines," said Jim Breslo, president of Diamond Game. Breslo's California-based company manufactures the "pull tab" video bingo machines that were at issue in the Maryland lawsuit.

"There's one type of game approved in Maryland and that's our game," he said. "All these other games are an open question."

But Wayson said he believes the machines he wants to introduce meet all legal requirements. He said further that he thinks county regulatory officials have the authority to allow him to install the new machines, without necessarily having to seek changes to the county code though the County Council.

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