Slot-like gaming machines generate legal debate in Va.

Slot-like gaming machines generate legal debate in Virginia

LYNCHBURG, Va. (WDBJ7/GRAY TV) - At The Clubhouse Bar & Billiards in Campbell County, the primary attractions are games like pool, cornhole, and consoles that have the appearance of a slot machine.

"If you like to gamble and like playing slot machines, it's something you would enjoy," said Michelle Booth, a customer who enjoys playing the games.

"You can win money," Booth said. "I haven't won very much, but I've won a little."

Despite how they look, the company that owns the machines, Queen of Virginia Skill & Entertainment, emphasizes that they are not games of chance.

"They are games of skill," explained Kevin Anderson, director of compliance for Queen of Virginia Skill & Entertainment.

In the past two years, thousands of the company's gaming consoles have been installed in around 1,800 locations across the Commonwealth.

"A lot of times, people think that because you put money in and it pays out money, that it must be illegal and it must be a slot machine. but that's not the way the Virginia law reads," Anderson said.

Queen of Virginia is a Richmond-based subsidiary of a Georgia company called Pace-O-Matic. They came to the Commonwealth after a deputy chief of the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control issued a letter in 2017, saying the agency “will not consider these machines, in their current configuration and intended use, to be gambling devices.”

“We wanted to make sure our game was legal in the state, before we placed it in,” Anderson said.

In his letter the ABC deputy chief warned his decision was “not binding” on other agencies or elected officials who might have jurisdiction. Since then, neither the General Assembly or Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has weighed in on the matter.

A spokesperson for Herring’s office said “the best people to talk to would be Commonwealth’s attorneys,” saying they’re the ones responsible for determining whether a machine might constitute illegal gambling.

“I haven’t made that determination yet,” said Bedford County Commonwealth’s Attorney Wes Nance, one of several prosecutors contacted for this story.

Nance said he’s aware gaming machines operate in his jurisdiction, but like most of his colleagues in Virginia he is not taking action; at least not yet.

"There really has to be an investigation," said Nance. "Although I may have seen these types of machines in our area, I haven't been approached by law enforcement yet. As far as I know, they haven't received any complaints."

Nance and other prosecutors we contacted said they could evaluate the legality of the machines, if formal complaints were brought to law enforcement.

"Once a complaint is received or an investigation ensues, then we would make that type of determination," Nance said.

One prosecutor who has investigated the machines and made a legal decision is Joe Platania, the Commonwealth's Attorney in Charlottesville. On June 7 he issued a statement, saying "Queen of Virginia machines are gambling devices and therefore violate Virginia Law."

Platania gave Charlottesville businesses 30 days to remove the machines or face a Class 1 Misdemeanor, punishable with a $2,500 fine and up to a year in jail. Queen of Virginia responded by filing a lawsuit against Platania.

"There's a thin line between legal and illegal gambling, and it does get down to the details," Nance said.

Anderson said Queen of Virginia’s games differ from gambling, because the company can’t regulate how much money its machines pay out.

"Some games could be upside down where they've actually paid out more than they've taken in, because it depends on how good the player is," said Anderson.

The gameplay on Queen of Virginia's machines is comparable to Tic-Tac-Toe. Pictures appear on the screen and users have a limited amount of time to figure out which button they need to push to line up three in a row.

If the images can't be lined up, the user can hit a button that says "follow me," which takes them to a memory game.

If a player is good enough, Anderson said they can win every time they play.

"With a slot machine, you press a button and you win or lose. You can't control the outcome," Anderson explained. "It's different with our games, where (users) can control their own destiny."

Queen of Virginia isn’t the only company operating slot-like gaming machines in the Commonwealth. The growth may prompt Virginia lawmakers to address the trend with regulations, something Queen of Virginia says it would welcome in limited form.

"If you regulate this industry properly, you keep the bad actors out," Anderson said.

Until then, it’s game on at The Clubhouse and hundreds of other businesses around the state.

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