SPRINGFIELD -- Bar patrons may soon be able to win money playing video games — legally. Supporters say a measure awaiting approval by Gov. Rod Blagojevich would clarify the law so trivia buffs and electronic golfers can win cash or prizes. Gambling has nothing to do with it, they say.
By BRUCE RUSHTON
SPRINGFIELD -- Bar patrons may soon be able to win money playing video games — legally.
Supporters say a measure awaiting approval by Gov. Rod Blagojevich would clarify the law so trivia buffs and electronic golfers can win cash or prizes. Gambling has nothing to do with it, they say.
But opponents insist the bill, passed by the General Assembly two weeks ago, would expand gambling and mark the first step toward legal video-poker and slot machines in bars.
“I believe it was a concession to bar owners to make up for the smoking ban,” said Anita Bedell, executive director of the Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems. “They’ve been trying to legalize the video (gambling) machines. This opens the door. They’ll be back.”
“She sees danger everywhere,” retorted Zack Stamp, lobbyist for the Illinois Coin Machine Operators Association, which pushed for the new law. “We worked with the legislative staff. We worked with (the Department of) Revenue. We worked with liquor control. We think it is narrowly drawn to do exactly what we represented, no more and no less.”
The association has long pushed for the state to legalize and tax video gambling machines, which now operate without any regulation. The video game bill, Stamp said, is different.
For one thing, the bill says luck cannot predominate in a game. For another, the bill says the games must involve at least two players competing against each other, as opposed to playing against the house. And contests can’t include card games or any other game of chance allowed in casinos.
The Department of Revenue has taken a neutral position, but a spokesman said the bill doesn’t appear to be a godsend for gamblers.
“It looks to us like gambling is still prohibited,” said Mike Klemens. “The way we looked at it, you can have prizes for a (golf) driving contest. This is just the electronic equivalent of a driving contest.”
Adonna German, executive director of the Coin Machine Operators Association, said state liquor inspectors have questioned the legality of electronic trivia contests and tournaments for players of Golden Tee, a golf game, in some southern Illinois bars.
“The way the law was written before, it did say ‘skill,’” German said. “But it didn’t define what ‘skill’ meant. This is just a clarification. It’s not going to cover chance games.”
In Florida, courts are wrestling with the definition of “skill” under a so-called Chuck E. Cheese exception to the state’s gambling laws, which allows prizes to be awarded for games involving skill. Legislators intended the law to allow prizes for games such as Skee-Ball. But more than 200 arcades have sprung up featuring such games as a video slot machine with reels that stop spinning when a player presses a button.
“That sounds like a game of chance to me,” German said.
A Florida jury thought otherwise last year, however, and acquitted an arcade owner of gambling charges. Florida prosecutors are now suing the Florida Arcade Association in an effort to get the arcades declared illegal.
Illinois Church Action argues that the bill here, if signed by the governor, will create an expectation of payouts for every video game in the state. The group also says that a single game could have several contests every day.
“How are you going to distinguish between what’s legal and what’s illegal?” Bedell asked. “There are a lot of video games out there.”
The bill won’t result in games offering prizes in grocery stores, gas stations, Laundromats and other businesses aside from bars for the same reasons such businesses don’t have dart or pool tournaments, Stamp said.
“Simple economics require a league or a tournament,” he said. “People don’t hang around grocery stores to have league nights and do that.”
Bruce Rushton can be reached at (217) 788-1542 or firstname.lastname@example.org.