ALBANY, N.Y. — Differentiating between slot machines and video lottery terminals sounds like a discussion only computer nerds or gamblers could enjoy.
Yet identifying those differences, if any exist, is one of the crucial issues in a challenge to the legality of the state’s plan to set up the gambling terminals, called VLTs, at most horse racing tracks in the state.
The hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues the cash-strapped state has expected to reap from the VLT casinos since the gambling law was approved in October 2001 makes the difference one that all New Yorkers should care about.
To Neil Murray, the issue is simple – slot machines, the classic one-armed bandits that have been the backbone of casinos in Nevada, New Jersey, Connecticut and elsewhere, are indistinguishable from VLTs. To identify differences is a “classic exercise” in semantics, Murray said.
A VLT “is a device that in and of itself is a slot machine,” said Murray, who is representing anti-gambling forces in a legal challenge before a mid-level state appeals courts. “This is a slot machine because it is implemented and operated by inserting something of value and something of value is provided.”
Not so fast, caution the pro-VLT forces, whose case is being argued by state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s office, plus lawyers for the gaming industry and racetrack operators.
VLTs are merely a clever way of dressing up what at its core is a lottery game, the pro-gamblers argue. While statutes in New York explicitly bar slot machines, state-run lottery games have been legal since voters amended the state constitution to allow them in 1966.
VLTs merely provide access to a new lottery game, the devices’ champions say.
Frederick Martin, a lawyer representing Yonkers Raceway, said gamblers play one-on-one against a traditional slot machine. Tumblers or other internal mechanisms decide when the slot machine pays off.
But VLTs are hooked into a central, lottery-like game in which players are competing with others for pieces of pools. For their play, whether it’s activated by pulling a lever or pressing a button, players are assigned numbers in those statewide pools that have been predetermined as winners or losers, Martin said.
The games are constantly being closed and new ones opened, according to Martin. In that respect, VLTs are not unlike the Quick Draw lottery game.
However, Martin said he can readily understand the confusion between VLTs and slot machines. Indeed, he said manufacturers intentionally give VLTs the look and feel of slot machines.
“To the player it looks like a slot,” he said. “It’s an attractive way of luring that (gambling) business back from Mr. (Donald) Trump and back from Atlantic City and back from Las Vegas.”
Martin added, “Physically they may look alike, but they are entirely different.”
Yonkers Raceway is investing $150 million to create a VLT casino at its harness racing facility north of New York City. It and other track operators who are similarly proceeding with VLT-related building plans are banking that the VLTs will not only be a big hit with New York gamblers who now take their business to other states, but that VLTs will be deemed constitutional in New York.
Murray agreed that VLT makers try to “deceive” gamblers into thinking they’re playing slot machines, but he contended there is no practical difference under New York law between the two.
That the VLT-vs.-slot machine issue is at the heart of the court challenge to the 2001 gambling law is no surprise. Critics in the Legislature predicted when the bill was before them that VLTs would be subject to legal challenge.
Perhaps to bolster the eventual court case that VLTs are different than slot machines, the 2001 gambling law designated the state Lottery Division to oversee the operation of the VLTs.
The state court will probably make its ruling in the gambling case this winter, though forces on both sides of the issue expect the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, to eventually determine the legality of the 2001 gambling law.