THE siren song of gambling has emerged in yet another form in the US: video machines that mimic the playing of one form of poker. They've been appearing in the last few years in bars and private clubs in many areas of the US. What turns them into gambling machines is that, in many cases, when a patron ''wins'' against the machine, the operator of the bar or club surreptitiously gives him a money payment. In most parts of the US this payoff is illegal. It is the prospect of winning money - gambling - rather than the ''game'' itself which lures customers.
Defenders of the video poker machines note that since there is no payoff in some places, it therefore is improper use of the machines that brings on the gambling, rather than the machines themselves.
However, others - including some law enforcement officials - point out that no skill is involved, unlike other video machines like Pac-Man. Players can put several dollars in coins into a video poker machine in an effort to get a winning hand. At the least this has all the appearances of gambling and indicates to the impressionable young who play the machines that society approves of gambling.
In addition, investigations are beginning to show that in one way or another a considerable amount of money is changing hands, illegally, in connection with these so-called games.
Last week 13 present and former police officers in Philadelphia were charged with having extorted $300,000 from operators of video poker machines who illegally were making payoffs. In Massachusetts the illegal payoff is believed to total several million dollars a year, according to recent reports.
Concern exists that, given the amount of money at stake, organized crime ultimately will try to move into this field.
The video-game industry is divided on this relatively new device. Some want it outlawed, on grounds it taints the whole industry. Others do not, looking to video poker as one way to halt the considerable slide in revenues from video games over the past year as their popularity has waned.
No reliable nationwide figures are yet available of the amount of money that changes hands in payoffs, or the number of video poker machines.
Yet it seems apparent that there are two principal forms of ''reward'' from the game: the simulation of gambling, if no payoff is involved; and gambling itself, if a payoff is provided. Neither is a good reason for the machines to exist; there is enormous potential, already realized, for misuse. Thus their existence and use should be barred except in those municipalities where gambling is legal.