Towns clamp down on video-poker machines to prevent illegal gambling

It's a quiet weekday afternoon at Marte-L's, a country-and-western night spot north of town. Inside, a large red-rimmed, bule electronic eye peers from a corner of the bar. A quarter slipped into the machine settles with a clank.

Five cards flip up on the screen one by one: a poker hand of two queens and some "throwaway" cards. Beneath the screen, discard lights pulse until three are pressed. All but the two queens disappear. Three new cards are drawn and suddenly "Game Over" flashes silently. The player has not won any "skill points." The bartender glances in the player's direction, then turns back to her TV.

Two years ago, in this same bar, a video-poker machine was seized following a state police undercover investigation. Why? Players were being paid off at the bar, a violation of state gaming statutes. A $200 fine was levied. "A slap on the wrist was all they got," sighs Salisbury Police chief Edwin Oliveira.

The "Joker Poker" video game and others like it are the source of growing concern to many towns in Massachusetts. Technicaly, it is simply an arcade amusement device. There is no payout slot. But, in practice, the game can and has been used for gambling.

Just over a week ago, Metropolitan District police raided five Revere cocktail lounges and confiscated 14 unlicenseed video-poker machines. Four people were arrested and police have warrants for five more in connection with alleged gaming-machine payoffs. the raide was the culmination of a month-long undercover operation.

But smaller towns, such as Salisbury, don't have the resources to kep these machines under surveillance. If there is no ordinance prohibiting the machines, police can act only if a pay off is observed. And machine owners aremore cautious: "They're getting so they won't hand you money unless they know you," Chief Oliveira says.

So, serveral towns are taking steps to ban the machines.

* Last month, the Worcester License Commission banned coin-operated video-poker machines from liquor establishments. Subsequently, machines were voluntarily removed from two restaurants and a private club.

* Also last month, the Revere Licensing Commission sent affidavits to each establishment with a licensed video-poker machine, asking them to sign a statement agreeing they would not use the machines to gamble. When the Revere Amusement Company failed to sign, its 24 video-poker licenses were revoked, says Daniel Ferrera of the licensing commission. On Feb 6, three days after the police rade, gamed operators holding the remaining 14 video-poker licenses in Revere were told to pull the plug on their machines. A public hearing to yank the 14 remaining licenses permanently will be held this evening.

* Hanover selectman were prompted by a recent "60 Minutes" episode on video-poker machines to review licenses in their town. Later, they were tipped off to a machine in their area. They have notificed all amusement-machine operators that the video-poker machines are no covered by the license. This week, Hanover police are checking licensees' premises for the machines.

Unlike Marshfield, which has banned all arcade mahcines, Hanover is "not interested in abolishing video games," says Selectmen Chairman Fredick L. Briggs. but video poker "is not an amusement game.

"The time span for a game is about 10 seconds -- compared with as much as 10 minutes for Pac Man. I just can't envision anyone putting down $10 in quarters to collect points, unless they were wagering or there was a payoff," Mr. Briggs syas.

The response to his problem "varies from twon to town, from police chief to police chief," says Rep. William F. Galvin (D) of Boston, chairman of the state Committee on Government Regulations and we need a statewide standard," he adds.

Representative Galvin has filed a bill to remedy the problem. "We ought not to be licensing games of chance under the guise of amusement devices," he says. "Massachusetts has already decided to exclude slot machines and casino gambling. It is inconsistent to let these gambling machines in through the back door."

While police agree the laws need to be consistent, one officer wondered if the state lottery didn't set a double standard: "what's the difference between these machines and the lottery machines in every corner store in town?"

A hearing on Galvin's bill is expected in mid-march.

Natinoally, electronic poker machines have been a concern to federal officials for a least five years. William L. Holmes, an agent in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has exampined 1,700 variations of the machines. He has testified as an expert witness in 60 cases.

Many times he has heard the argument that any mahcine can be used to gamble and these are merely misused amusement games.

Mr. Holmes disagrees: "They are based primarily on chance. No matter what, you cannot change the outcome of the [initial] draw. And when you discard [and are dealt new cards], your decision is based on a knowledge of the laws of probability, but you have no control over the outcome." Skill has little to do with it, he says.

Several state supreme courts have reached a similar conclusion; Ohio Montana, and Pennsylvania have declared the games illegal. California's attorney general shares that opinion.

The attempt to disguise the purpose of the games is simply an electronic twist to an old ruse, Holmes says. "In 1904, slot-machine manufacturers attached music boxes to the machine and argued that you put money in it just to hear the music."

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