SOME SAY VIDEO-POKER LAW SHOULD BE CLARIFIED

Jim S. got hooked on “line-up” games.

“I had too much time on my hands,” said the 56-year-old Marietta resident. “I’m disabled and can’t work, so I used that to try to get some extra money.”

In an electronic line-up game, which come in names like Southern Gold and Hot Spot, the player tries to line up three rows of cherries, farm animals, cartoon faces or other symbols. If the symbols line up correctly, the player wins points. A player can collect points and redeem them for prizes like food or gift certificates.

Although these video games cost $1 per game, some machines accept larger bills – up to $100 bills – to amass an hour’s worth of games.

Jim S. said he got hooked on line-up games before July 2002, when then-Gov. Roy Barnes signed a bill intended to wipe out all video-gambling machines.

The law banned any commercial video machine – poker, keno, blackjack or other card game or spinning “line-up” games – based on chance, not skill.

Since July 2002, a new crop of video-game machines, similar to those that were banned, have popped up throughout Georgia, in bars, convenience stores and pool halls.

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The new wave of games uses animals, cartoon faces, cherries or other symbols. Some use a “stop” button that allows players to stop a spinning lineup.

Backers argue that they are games of skill, not chance.

Georgia district attorneys are split over whether the games involve enough real skill to be legal devices. Some argue that the law needs to be clarified.

“Any machine that mimics a slot machine or plays cards or does a lineup is illegal,” said Richmond County District Attorney Danny Craig.

But Bibb County District Attorney Howard Simms said confusion will remain until the state Legislature addresses the issue of a video game’s “skill” again.

“Someone is going to have to take one of these machine owners to trial and it will have to go as far as the Supreme Court,” Simms said. “But the Legislature could clear it up by saying these machines are legal and these aren’t.”

And Jim S. said he’s still hooked.

“The machines went away, and they came back,” he said. “Now they are a little different. They have animals on them instead of aces and deuces. They pay out the same way. You get tickets, and some places will give you cash.”

(Jim attends meetings of Gamblers Anonymous; one of the organization’s rules is that participants not reveal their last names.)

Anti-video poker groups say Jim S. is not alone. Electronic gambling is still a problem in Georgia, they say, two years after the Legislature voted to prohibit video poker.

“The public is not very aware of the power of this addiction,” said Arch Adams, founder of the advocacy group Stop Video Poker. “It’s a problem that extracts a particularly high social cost on us all.”

Confusion about state law

One reason Barnes and the General Assembly passed the video-poker law is that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation produced a report connecting video gambling to illegal cash payouts.

No machine-license owner or store owner with video-gambling machines today will admit to paying out cash prizes. But there is widespread disagreement over which video-gambling machines are legal and which ones are illegal.

“You can go to Blockbuster and rent a CD-rom to play video poker and that’s legal, but if you play it on a machine, it’s illegal,” said Les Schneider, a lobbyist for the Georgia Amusement and Music Operators Association. “That’s moronic.”

The law outlawed match-up, blackjack and other gambling machines, killing a $1 billion industry. Slot-machine-type games such as Cherry Master were supposed to vanish from public view and be consigned to storage until they could be sold. Owning these machines is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000.

Some machine makers went to great lengths to get in compliance with the law, even though they lost a great deal of business in the interim.

“It took a while for us to come up with a game that conforms with the law of Georgia,” said Fred Benschine, vice president of Gwinnett County-based Cadillac Jack Inc., maker of the Nudge’Em game. “We’ve done extensive research and we sought legal opinions that these games would comply with the laws, and they do.”

But opponents of the video-gambling industry say the machines made by Cadillac Jack and other companies are still illegal and are being used by unscrupulous bar owners and others to distribute illegal cash winnings.

“Many prosecutors are still struggling with the definition of the machines, but if you look at the statutory definition, it’s any machine that’s set up for play of video poker, blackjack or keno or mimics slot machines,” said Craig, the Richmond DA.

Amusement-industry representatives say it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are video-poker and video-gambling machines popping up again in Georgia. There is too much at stake for the companies, they say.

“That’s the growing part of the video-game market, the video gambling market,” said Don Hankinson, owner of Phoenix Amusements in Atlanta and former president of the Georgia Amusement and Music Operators Association. “That’s what adults want to play. They don’t want to play Pac-Man or pinball. They want to play for prizes.”

Video-game machines with line-up games can be seen at multiple locations in Macon. Store owners and machine distributors declined to comment to a Telegraph reporter when contacted in person and by phone.

What is ‘skill’?

The main sticking point, say machine makers, distributors and store owners, is the definition of the word “skill.”

Line-up games “are illegal even if some skill is required,” said Craig. “The words are very clearly set forth in the statute.” A recent ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court backs up his opinion, he said.

But the law does not adequately define “skill,” Schneider said.

“This law was badly prepared and as a result it’s been confusing for the industry and for law enforcement and it screams to be rewritten,” Schneider said. “It has to be redone. It doesn’t make any sense.”

The video games have been changed to give the machines’ owners a way to justify their legality to officials, said Simms, the Bibb DA.

“There’s a new twist on them,” Simms said. “The old type of machines can be changed to some new version where it’s not the traditional kind of skill stop, it’s something else.”

Skill-based games are commonplace, said Rep. David Lucas, D-Macon. Go into any children’s restaurant, like Chuck E. Cheese, or a shopping-mall arcade, and it’s possible to find skill-based games, like Skee-Ball, that reward prizes to players.

“Law enforcement is not going to go after Chuck E. Cheese because they have Skee-Ball games,” Lucas said.

Lucas led a filibuster in the 2001 legislative session against the ban on video poker.

The uncertainty over the definition of skill has essentially frozen law enforcement officials in their tracks, Adams said. But some law enforcement officials have taken action.

Officials seized 13 machines in Coweta County in July on the charge the owners were paying out cash. But some of the same games are in operation in Bibb County, and it’s up to law enforcement to determine and prove that the owners are paying out cash prizes, say industry representatives.

“You go from county to county, and in some counties there are video-poker machines and then in some counties there aren’t any,” said Jim Tudor, executive director of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores. “Some law enforcement people don’t know these machines are new and improved to skirt the law.”

Video poker may be issue for ’04 General Assembly

During this year’s General Assembly, Lucas and others introduced a bill to bring back video poker.

Lucas wanted the machines to return, but for the state to tax them at a high level. The law could have raised an additional $40 million to $50 million in tax revenue, Lucas said.

Lucas may try to push the bill through the General Assembly again next year. With a budget shortfall that some estimates place as high as $1 billion, Lucas thinks more lawmakers will listen to a proposal that could raise tax revenue.

Veterans groups like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars want video-poker machines to be legal. The groups operate the machines in social clubs, and they say the state is losing out on a double-shot of financial gain.

With a tax on video-gambling machines, the state could raise additional revenue. And veterans’ groups plow the proceeds from video games back into community-service projects.

Although owners of match-up and blackjack machines are required to buy a decal and license from the state Department of Revenue, Georgia never taxed video-gambling machines. South Carolina levied steep taxes on its video-poker machines, when the industry was legal in that state.

The state’s July 2002 ban did lower the amount of money Georgia collected on amusement-machine decals and licenses. The state collected $2.5 million on licenses and decals in the fiscal year ending June 2002, before the law was changed. In the next fiscal year, after the law was changed, the state collected $1.7 million, said Department of Revenue spokesman Charles Willey. A decal costs $25, while license fees range from $250 to $2,500.

But the Legislature may take up video poker to refine the law that bans the machines, said Stop Video Poker’s Adams.

The attorney general’s office has weighed in that line-up machines are illegal, but local law enforcement officials and prosecutors “would literally have to take the machines apart and see how they were set up,” to determine if they were truly based on skill, not chance, said Russ Willard, a spokesman for Attorney General Thurbert Baker.

Whatever happens, someone in state government needs to end the confusion, Simms said.

“The machines need to be either legal or illegal,” Simms said. “Somebody just needs to clear this up.”