At Bingo World in Brooklyn Park, rows of new video-gaming machines dazzle with displays of spinning cherries, 7's and BAR icons. The machines emit a series of throaty "ka-chings" when the symbols line up, and they can spit out vouchers that can be redeemed for hundreds of dollars.
Some patrons who feed $20 bills into the machines call them "slots," but the operators of three bingo halls in Anne Arundel County that have installed 200 of the machines during the past year consider them instant video bingo machines that conform with state and county laws.
Critics aren't so sure. As Maryland lawmakers resume the debate over legalizing slot machines statewide, House Speaker Michael E. Busch questioned whether there is a significant difference between the new video bingo machines and slots.
"That's a legitimate question - and one the attorney general ought to review," said Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and a slots opponent.
Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe, citing a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling six years ago that cleared the way for instant video bingo machines in Calvert County, said, "As far as state law goes, if [the new Anne Arundel machines] are the same as the Calvert County machines, they are legal."
Representatives for two of the three Anne Arundel establishments, Bingo World and Wayson's Bingo in Lothian, declined requests for comment. Officials at the third, Delta Daily Double Bingo in Laurel, referred questions to a manager, Craig Romak, who was unavailable for comment.
The emergence of instant video bingo machines in Anne Arundel comes as some Maryland lawmakers, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, have renewed a call to allow casino-style slot machines at the state's racetracks.
Gov. Martin O'Malley has indicated support for slots at racetracks but does not want the issue to dominate the 90-day General Assembly session.
Anne Arundel is one of three counties in Maryland that allow commercial bingo; the others are Calvert and Washington.
While the video bingo machines being used in Anne Arundel in many ways resemble and play like a slot machine, they apparently belong to a class of machines deemed legal by the Maryland Court of Appeals.
In a 2001 ruling, the state's highest court said that the Rod `N' Reel restaurant and marina in Chesapeake Beach was permitted to use 75 "Lucky Tab II" video bingo machines, classifying them as a game that's not casino-style gambling.
It all comes down to the pull tab.
According to the Web site of California-based Diamond Game Enterprises Inc., the manufacturer of most of the machines used in the county, video bingo games produce results by reading a spool of preprinted pull-tabs housed within the machine. With each play, the machines eject a small tab of paper with a barcode that corresponds to the game being played on the video screen.
Traditional slots, meanwhile, rely on a random number generator to produce results, with no preprinted paper component or limit on payouts.
Like other games, pull tabs have evolved with video models in an effort to match the quicker pace and thrill sought by gambling enthusiasts, say experts in the gaming industry.
"The goal is to make the machine look as much as a slot machine and still be in the letter of the law," said I. Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, Calif., and an expert on gambling law.
What opened the door to the video bingo machines in Anne Arundel, according to a county licensing official, was County Council passage in 2005 of a bill intended to prop up the local bingo industry by offering larger prizes and a wider variety of games.
The bill was introduced by then-County Executive Janet S. Owens, a champion of the local business community.
Owens received campaign contributions of $2,000 apiece in 2004 from the owners of Delta Bingo and Bingo World, and she shares South County roots with the Wayson family, which owns the third hall. State reports show that she received at least $2,250 in 2005-2006 from the Wayson family and business entities associated with the county's bingo halls.
Owens, who has hailed bingo as "an institution" in the county, has said that the contributions had nothing to do with her introduction of the bill.
Her measure allowed for "linked bingo," a game in which players from various locations compete over the Internet, phone or satellite connections, and it raised the jackpot limit to $300,000. But it also redefined instant-bingo games as "individually prepackaged cards, with winners determined by preprinted letters, numbers, or symbols."
That, according to Anne Hatcher, a county licensing official who is familiar with gaming machines, permitted the instant video bingo machines, which use symbols instead of letters but operate on the gaming and payout principles of instant bingo pull-tabs.
The County Council voted 6-1 to pass the measure, with only Democrat Barbara D. Samorajczyk dissenting.