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The Slot Machine That Isn’t

Largely ignored last week was the unveiling of the Pala tribe’s new slot machine. Take my word for it, this doozy has the flashing lights, the chirpy sounds, everything you need for a real humding. . . .

Whoa, excuse me. I misspoke. That was not a slot machine that got introduced. As we all know, slots are illegal in California. What the tribe unveiled was an Indian Video Lottery Match Game.

An easy mistake to make, because this machine looks like a slot machine and acts like a slot machine. You put your money in a slot, watch the cylinders roll and see if three bars come up.

You might even say it quacks like a slot machine. Between plays, the machine twitters flirtatiously, and colored lights wink at you. When the cylinders do hit three of a kind, it sings out in celebration.

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In effect, it’s a non-slot machine. And it could turn into a big deal. The machine may render moot one of the central disputes between the Indian tribes and Gov. Pete Wilson on the bitter gambling issue. That issue, of course, is use of slot machines at tribal casinos.

Even more important, it could guarantee that the era of genuine casino-type gambling is coming to California, no matter what the outcome of this fall’s Proposition 5.

Although the state has not yet certified the new machine as legal, its chances look good. That’s because the Pala tribe and its development company paid excruciatingly close attention to the state’s rules for building gaming devices and discovered a way to construct a slot machine that, in fact, isn’t.

The hilarious part is how the Wilson administration, in seeking to eliminate slot machines at Indian casinos, appears to have accomplished the opposite. The administration’s elaborate and restrictive rules for constructing gambling devices seem to have served as a blueprint for the developers.

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“I don’t think the Wilson administration will have much choice about approving the machine,” said Howard Dickstein, attorney for the Pala tribe. “We attended every session where the rules were negotiated. We are certain that our device conforms.”

The slot machine issue has formed the core of the dispute between Wilson and the tribes because of the device’s dominance in casino operations. The tribes estimate that slots generate 75% to 80% of their casino revenue. Statewide that revenue hit $632 million last year.

So, by my arithmetic, that means slots last year yielded somewhere between $475 million and $500 million, all by themselves. Both Wilson and the tribes understand that the survival of the Indian casinos rides on the slot machine issue. Kill the slot machines and you kill the casinos. Allow them to survive and the casinos will thrive.

So how did Wilson, who picked out the slots as his special target, end up aiding and abetting--excuse the pun--their survival? The story is full of ironies, and it originates with the “compacts” that Wilson tried to force on the gambling tribes.

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Thus far, 11 have signed the compacts, while others have held out. Among other things, the compacts attempted to define exactly how gambling could be operated on the reservations.

Take, for example, the fateful description of the system dubbed the Indian Video Lottery Match Game.

In this scheme, a computer terminal takes the customer’s money and enters him into a lottery by picking a random number. A separate computer then selects the winner and sends the results to all the terminals.

So it’s a lottery, right? Right. The players are competing against each other rather than the house, and the prizes come from the pool created by the bettors. In fact, the compacts specifically forbid the Indian casinos from “banking” the games, as is the common practice with slot machines in Nevada.

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In addition, the compacts prohibit the terminals from employing some of the slot machine’s favorite tricks. They cannot disgorge coins, and they cannot make the sounds of bells or whistles to lure you into their spell.

And, oh yeah, the machines can’t have handles to pull.

Actually, if I were Gov. Wilson, I would think the compact rules had blocked any possibility of turning the video lottery into a slot machine. Couldn’t be done. No how, no way.

Oh yes it can.

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The Pala tribe promptly commissioned a Nevada company called Sierra Design Group to build a gambling device that met all the requirements and still, as they say, quacked like a slot machine.

Six months and several million dollars later, Sierra Design rolled out the result.

It has the soul of a lottery but the look and feel of a slot machine. The new system actually conducts a lottery as described in the compact. It’s just that the gambler is hardly aware of it.

When the gambler slips his coins into the slot, he sees the cylinders start to spin rather than numbers being picked by a computer. If his number happens to win, he sees the cylinders stop on three bars or three cherries or three whatever. Then he gets his prize.

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The computers, in effect, are conducting one kind of game, the lottery, and then converting it into the appearance of another, the slot machine.

Robert Luciano, the president of Sierra Design, says this illusion was made possible only by the advent of network computers and large-scale number crunching.

“We had to think of the slot machine in a whole new way,” Luciano said. “Many a night I would wake up with an idea that made it just a little better.”

In some ways, the machine seems to skirt the compact’s prohibitions by the smallest margins. Remember, for example, the chirping sounds the new machine makes? They may not be the “bells and whistles” forbidden in the regulations, but they come very close.

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Most likely, Wilson would have relished a fight over its certification if the non-slot machine had been developed by one of the tribes that refused to sign the compacts. But the Pala tribe was the first to sign a compact with the state and has led the Indian opposition to Proposition 5. A rejection of its machine would be highly awkward.

Some caveats are in order. The machine has not been field-tested, and the other tribes are naturally suspicious. To qualify as an acceptable machine, they say, the Pala device must operate as quickly as a traditional slot machine. And it must be fun to use.

“All we’ve seen so far is their claims,” says one tribal leader. “Frankly, most of us did not believe this kind of machine was possible. Some of us still don’t believe it.”

The suspense will end soon. The Pala machines are scheduled to arrive at several Southern California casinos by the middle of this month. Once installed, they will be available for trial use.

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Let’s let Stan McGarr have the last word. He’s the tribal secretary for the Pala who, last week, introduced the new machine this way: “I believe that today’s demonstration will assure the people of California that Indian tribes do not need Proposition 5 to continue to offer the thrill of going to a casino.”

He may be right. And depending on your point of view, that could be the best news or the worst news you’ve heard in a while.


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