A lucrative underground gambling industry is grinding to a halt as Utah bar owners become aware of a new law that makes it illegal to have and use most video gaming machines.
"Don't say `mini-industry,' " said Lt. Andy Anderson, who supervises gambling and state liquor enforcement for the Department of Public Safety. "It's a mega-industry."Not for long.
Gov. Mike Leavitt this month signed a bill that makes it illegal to have machines with certain "gaming characteristics" in Utah bars, private clubs and bowling alleys.
Police say they conservatively estimate 500 machines around the state will be put out of commission - taking with them profits that average $200 to $2,000 a week. This industry generates $10 million to $200 million in cash for owners and the distributors who rent the machines.
Local bartenders aren't amused.
The machines offer patrons entertainment, not cash. "It'd be like taking pool tables out of a bar," said Ken Marlowe, a bartender at the Bar X Inn, a legendary college hangout downtown.
Bar X has a couple of the machines - owners just purchased a new "Golden T" golf game - but the games are just for fun, he says. "It's totally not a problem. Nobody gambles in this bar."
"Paying out" is a sensitive, hush-hush activity that local bartenders are reluctant to admit happens at all. But undercover police operations show some bartenders do pay for credits earned on a variety of video machines that mimic the slots and computerized poker games popular in Wendover and Las Vegas.
This in Utah's conservative anti-gambling climate prompted amend-ments to the gambling statute.
State law says Utah businesses that sell alcohol "may not engage in or permit any form of gambling." The new law, sponsored by Rep. Blake Chard of Davis County, amends the gambling statutes to include any "video gaming devices."
And despite successful efforts by Utah's Hospitality Association to amend the bill during the recent legislative session, the law takes in most video gaming machines on the market, according to Lt. Mitch Ingersol.
If the machine has the following characteristics, it's now illegal under the following definition provided in the law:
- If the machine has a video display or computer mechanism for play-ing a game.
- If the length of play of any single game is not substantially affected by skill. In other words, if it has the element of chance, Anderson explains.
- If it has a meter tracking or recording mechanism that records or tracks money, tokens, games or credits accumulated or remaining. Most of the machines have second counters to track the amounts paid out, Anderson says.
- If it provides for a greater return of credits, games or money.
- If you put money in to start the process.
"The key is almost a common sense issue," Anderson says.
If it looks like a dog, barks like a dog and wags its tail like a dog, it's probably a dog, he said.
The machines often have signs that say, "For amusement only," but Anderson called the signs a "farce."
Some of the machines look like slot machines, with tumblers and wheels; others are the equivalent of KENO, a popular gambling game. And there are hundreds of varieties of card games.
In its April newsletter, the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control will try to educate liquor licensees about the new bill. It will do a direct mailing to let them know what's now illegal.
"We are expecting voluntary compliance in removing the machines," Ingersol said. "We don't want to have to go out and seize these machines."
Kent Knowley, owner of the popular Port O' Call restaurant and bar, isn't worried. Owners with legitimate games used for amusement and entertainment have nothing to fear.
"It shouldn't have one bit of impact on my business," said Know-ley, also president of the Utah Hospitality Association.
The video card games in his downtown private club are just one offering in a big menu for patrons. Port O' Call also has pool tables, dart boards, pinball machines, golf machines, 30 television sets and 18 satellite dishes from which to draw programs and games.
It's not that gambling doesn't occur, Knowley said. It does. "There's a whole lot of it going on in town. . . . It's not something you're ever going to stop."
But he believes the crackdown on video poker machines has been "way, way blown out of proportion."
What everyone needs to realize, he said, is that the video poker machines that offer the equivalent of poker, "21" or solitaire are all computerized.
"You can make them do anything you want."
Anderson agrees. "There may be some video games out there that do not fit the gaming device definition, and we're not going to tamper with these."
And while Anderson says money lost to gaming machines is money lost to Utah's economy, bartender Marlowe wonders if it's the state's job to tell people how to spend their money.
"If you need the quarter so bad, don't take it out of your pocket and put it in the machine."