When is a slot machine not a slot machine?
When politicians and engineers come together to define a video gambling device that looks a lot like a slot and plays a lot like a slot but is in fact labeled a super-fast version of the existing California Lottery's scratch-off games.
On Thursday, this new type of machine was unveiled at the Jackson Rancheria Indian Casino, in the gold hills 45 miles east of Sacramento. And state officials, who have sanctioned the prototype devices while declaring most existing video gaming machines illegal in California, are hoping that the overall reaction is similar to that of gambler Ann Richardson.
"I'll probably just keeping playing these slots," said Richardson, a Jackson regular, who had just put $10 in the machine and won $50 in return.
Other gamblers had similar successes--and turned right around and lost their money in the same machine. Some customers lost quickly and cursed the new machine--but reached into their wallets and pulled out more bills and kept playing.
The machines' popularity is important because they are the new generation of gambling devices that Gov. Pete Wilson will allow for use in Indian casinos. Eleven tribes in the state have agreed to use the new machines, but most of the state's tribes--including those that operate some of California's largest gambling halls--are opposed to the devices, partly out of fear that they will not be as popular among gamblers as machines now in use.
Those tribes are supporting Proposition 5 on the Nov. 3 ballot, an Indian-driven initiative that asks voters to approve their casinos, which currently operate without the state's blessing.
Proposition 5 would allow, among other things, continued use of video gambling machines that state and federal officials say are illegal because they have characteristics of Nevada-style slot machines, which are banned in California.
Tribes that oppose signing gambling compacts with the state not only want to continue using their own, existing machines, but also oppose the governor's conditions that limit any one casino to 975 machines and allow only 19,900 machines statewide. Some reservation casinos now have more than 1,000 gambling machines and aim to grow dramatically in coming years.
A Swifter Scratch-Off
The new machines, designed to be legal in California, accept bills from $1 to $100, fed through a slot. There is no arm to pull; the gambler presses a spin button and any winnings are spit out in the form of a paper receipt that is redeemed by a cashier.
State officials say what makes the machines different from those already in Indian casinos is that they do not individually generate random winning numbers.
Instead, they say, players on the new machines are--whether they realize it or not--actually playing the equivalent of the Lottery's scratch-offs.
A player does not actually activate the machine--as does a slot player in Nevada--but technically buys one of several million chances in the computer.
The computer spits out numbers at the rate of four a second, and among them are a predetermined number of winners. If the player presses the spin button at exactly the moment the computer spits out one of the winners, the icons on the screen line up, a la Las Vegas.
The machines do not emit the sounds of bells and whistles--that classic slot machine feature is also banned in California--but speakers above the machines on Thursday blared electronic renditions of a cavalry charge and "The Stars and Stripes Forever" every 10 minutes.
On a wall above the machines, a constantly updated video display board shows the ongoing payoffs of the 40 most recent games. Every 10 seconds, the board displays new game results.
Computer software determines which combinations of numbers pay out as winners, but over time, the machines are calibrated to return 94.8% of the wagers as winnings, said Robert Luciano, owner of the company that designed and manufactured them to the state's specifications.
Tribes can ask that their machines pay out winnings at different rates. By California law, the prize money comes from the pool of players' bets as they accumulate.
Among those applauding the new machines was Stan McGarr, secretary of the Pala Indians in San Diego County, which was the first tribe in California to agree with Wilson on how tribal casinos should be governed. The Palas currently do not have a gambling hall.
"They're flashy, they're exciting, they're all the entertainment you'd want," said McGarr. "I think they're going to work."
Similarity to Classic Machines
Dean Konecny, assistant manager of the Jackson Casino, said the new machines appeared more slot-like than the 367 machines now used at the gambling hall.
"These look most like the classic, spinning-reel machines," he said. "We're real excited."
Most of the machines now used at the casino show video displays of randomly generated icons in tick-tack-toe fashion, with a gambler being able to play from one to eight different pay lines.
A spokesman for the Yes on 5 campaign, who attended Thursday's casino showing to see firsthand what the new machines are like, said it was too early to tell whether the machines would win customer acceptance.
"But they look like the machines you'd find in Nevada," said Dan Pellissier.
While the new machines are ushering in a new era of gambling in California, the very agreements that authorize their use may be in jeopardy.
The state Legislature earlier this year ratified the compacts with 11 tribes, but the Agua Caliente tribe in Palm Springs, which supports Proposition 5, is attempting to unravel the agreements.
The tribe has submitted the signatures of more than 750,000 people, hoping to qualify a referendum vote in 2000 to nullify the agreements. If the petition drive qualifies, the 11 compacts will not be enacted until the 2000 election.
If Proposition 5 wins voter approval, its implementation also will probably be stalled, because its constitutionality is expected to be swiftly challenged in court.
That prospect was addressed Thursday by Wilson, who told reporters in Washington that the tribes supporting Proposition 5 will ultimately lose in court if they win at the polls.
Whoever is advising the tribes on legal issues "ought to lose his scalp," Wilson said.
Campaign finance reports filed Thursday show that the two sides on Proposition 5 have raised $85.9 million to bankroll their campaigns--virtually ensuring that this will become the most expensive political battle ever waged in California.
The Yes on 5 side, reflecting mostly the generosity of a handful of wealthy tribes, had raised $59.7 million through Oct. 17, while the No on 5 side, receiving almost totally money from Las Vegas gambling companies, has raised $26.2 million through the same period.