Washington Gambling Commission reconsiders new 'skill' games

Pat Tompkins, of Sound Amusements, demonstrates Thursday how an amusement game machine works inside the bar of Burs Restaurant in Lakewood.
Pat Tompkins, of Sound Amusements, demonstrates Thursday how an amusement game machine works inside the bar of Burs Restaurant in Lakewood. dmontesino@thenewstribune.com

Insert $2 into the slot and watch the fruits spin: lime, orange, cherries. There’s no match, so add money and start a new game, where playing cards form patterns. Swap out a card, and now the kings and queens make a full house.

This time the machine spits out credits that can be used to knock 20 cents off a tab for food or drink at Palace Casino in Lakewood.

“It’s a great way to turn $4 into 20 cents worth of merchandise,” joked Ezra Eickmeyer, a lobbyist for the industry surrounding the games.

“But you were entertained in the meantime,” said Jay Gerow, whose company, ZDI Gaming, is one of the distributors of this kind of machine.

Table games with live dealers are the usual fare at card rooms such as Palace Casino. Bartenders all over the state hand over pull tabs along with a Bud Light.

But slot machines? Tribal casinos have a monopoly on those. So what are these machines that are proliferating at card rooms and bars?

There’s a clue in the name at the top of this particular machine: Olympic Skill. It’s in the name of a similar machine in the bar at Lakewood’s Burs Restaurant — United Skill of America.

These are games of skill, not chance, proponents say. Not gambling.

Players “nudge” icons up or down to make matches. That takes hardly any thought in some games, but others require noticing patterns.

Some games let players win bonus levels, said Lisa Daniels, general manager of Burs.

“It’s just exactly like a video game to me,” she said.

One of Daniels’ regular customers, Bill Burke, likes playing the two machines at Burs because he can feel like he’s at a casino without leaving his favorite watering hole, where he can relax with good food and good people.

“It’s all chance,” Burke said. “There’s no skill involved.”

OK, maybe it’s not entirely chance, he allows after groans from the proponents of the games who were demonstrating them to a reporter. But the machine gives players another chance if they hit the wrong button, he said.

At Burs, customers who win money — occasionally hundreds but typically around $10 or $20 — can use the money to pay for food, drinks or pull tabs, which are a bigger moneymaker for the bar than the machines.

“Whatever’s left over, if they want the cash, they get the cash,” Daniels said.

The games sometimes are known as “nudge” games. Legally speaking, they are Group 12 amusement games. Groups 1 through 11 include ski ball and prize-grabbing electronic claws.

The state Gambling Commission gave permission for the new group last July. But after hundreds of machines appeared, regulators on the commission are rethinking their decision.

At a meeting Thursday in Olympia, they could restrict or forbid the games.

That could prompt a lawsuit. The Amusement Device Operators of Washington, which includes ZDI Gaming, has filed a $15 million claim against the state.

State lawmakers are applying pressure for changes.

“We ask that you repeal your Group 12 authorizing rules and carefully consider whether this is a path the commission should pursue,” House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, and House Minority Floor Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, wrote in a letter to the commission Monday.

The original House and Senate budgets were silent on the games, but a directive to reconsider the rules showed up on Page 292 of the final compromise between the two chambers.

“While it was too late in session to consider offering legislation to ban these games and we were forced to ask for reconsideration through the budget, we will introduce legislation during the next session should these games continue forward on their current trajectory,” Wilcox and Sullivan wrote.

“We are committed to taking whatever legislative action necessary to pull back this expansion of gambling.”

The letter states there were more than 400 of the machines by February.

“Washington has established a system where we have pretty strong controls about where gaming is taking place, and this tears down the system that we have,” Wilcox said.

“Let’s call them what they are, plain and simple,” said Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw. “They are not games of skill. They are slot machines.”

Hurst cites what’s happened in Georgia, where tens of thousands of the machines can be played at convenience stores.

In Washington, the Gambling Commission has limited the machines to 21-and-older establishments.

Now the commission is considering banning the use of winnings to replay the machines, play pull tabs or buy gift cards.

The industry has responded with less sweeping suggestions that would sharply limit the cash that can be paid back when gift cards are used.

If an appearance similar to slot machines is what matters, then just look at arcade games geared toward kids, said Joan Mell, attorney for the Amusement Device Operators.

“People love to push buttons and to hear bells and whistles and to see flashing lights,” she said.

Proponents such as Mell point to a unique feature of Group 12 games: An option to reveal whether the next spin or hand will be a winner. A player who doesn’t mind spoilers can see what will happen before staking money on the outcome.

“The brilliance of it is, they finally figured out how to capture the entertainment value and eliminate the risk of addiction,” Mell said.

She said it’s inappropriate for the Legislature to order the independent commission to take action.

Mell and Eickmeyer, who represents the Washington Amusement and Music Operators Association, say Indian tribes are behind the opposition.

“The tribes ... have a competitive advantage and are maintaining it by pouring money into these legislative races and then demanding whatever they want,” Mell said.

Tribes contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to legislative campaigns.

The Washington Indian Gaming Association didn’t return phone messages seeking comment about the games.

Hurst said the push isn’t about tribes, but about an expansion of gambling that voters have opposed.


Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826, @Jordan_Schrader