Slot machines hit jackpot in stores around Va.

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 7/12/2019, 6 a.m. | Updated on 7/12/2019, 7:37 p.m.
Andrea R. Hill is a self-confessed “slot machine grinder,” but she still hasn’t visited the new Rosie’s Richmond Gaming Emporium …
Dr. Joann Henry plays at a bank of slot machines at the Quick N Easy convenience store in the 4100 block of West Broad Street. Jerermy Lazarus/Richmond Free Press

Andrea R. Hill is a self-confessed “slot machine grinder,” but she still hasn’t visited the new Rosie’s Richmond Gaming Emporium in South Side to try her luck on the array of slot-style machines.

Instead, the Richmond resident prefers to get her daily “gambling fix” at a convenience store near her job, the Quick N Easy in the 4100 block of West Broad Street.

Inside, past the chips and snacks and close to the coolers of beer and sodas, Ms. Hill has her choice of seven cash-operated, computer-controlled machines that mimic the push-button slots of Atlantic City and Las Vegas. The symbols revolve on the screen like slot machines.

Every now and then when the symbols line up right, a player can hit for a jackpot of $2,000.

The store has an arrangement that allows players to get their winnings almost immediately from a clerk.

“It’s fun and I win occasionally. Just the other day, I got a $120 jackpot, but it looks like I’ll be giving that back to the store,” said the 39-year-old pharmacy technician.

“Virginia has come a long way. When I was younger, I used to have to drive out of state to play. Now, these machines are everywhere.”

The convenience store, near Thomas Jefferson High School, is just one of the locations in which these machines have popped up in the past two years. Across the Richmond area and around the state, more than 4,000 similar machines can be found in gas stations, bars and mostly locally owned convenience stores eager for a new stream of revenue.

In a state that has long frowned on gambling, the Virginia Is for Gamblers movement is clearly moving beyond the state-run lottery and parimutuel betting on horse races.

The movement got a big boost two years ago when the General Assembly, seeking to revive horseracing, cleared the way for a $1 billion-plus operation involving machines like the ones at Rosie’s. Instead of random numbers, equipment at Rosie’s with slot-machine faces rely on the results of old races to fuel their results instead of random numbers that typical slots use, according to the regulatory Virginia Racing Commission.

But even before that action, ambitious private companies began exploiting a loophole in the anti-gambling laws in various states, most notably Duluth, Ga.-based Pace-O-Matic and its Richmond-based subsidiary, Queen of Virginia Skill and Entertainment, and Coleman Music and Entertainment of Jacksonville, Fla.

Those companies have been closely reading state laws on gambling to find a way to bypass them. In Virginia, they noticed the law only bans slot machines with three factors — a wager, the offer of a prize or cash and a win based solely on chance. Knock out one, and a machine can be legal.

And that’s what these companies say they are doing — creating machines that require “skill.”

For example, many of these machines do not generate wins for the player simply by the press of the play button. Instead, when two symbols of the same kind are visible, the player must touch the screen over a third symbol, usually a “wild card,” to get the third symbol in line to create a win.

It’s pretty simple, said Ms. Hill, but that small action is enough to allow the manufacturers to claim that skill is involved. Players must recognize the situation and act within a short time, 10 seconds or so, to win.

Others require players to use memory. For example, in one game, circles light up in a pattern that the player has to mimic to have a chance to win.

Courts in Ohio and Pennsylvania have ruled in favor of the manufacturers, and in Virginia, the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board has cleared the Pace-O-Matic machines as meeting the “skill” test.

“A lot of times when people look at these machines, they say, ‘It looks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, so it must be a duck.’ But that’s not always the case. And certainly not when it comes to this equipment,” said Brent Jackson, a Richmond attorney who represents Gracies Technologies, a New York-based company that also distributes machines in Virginia.

The Virginia ABC decision is the main reason virtually all the machines are located in restaurants and stores that have licenses to sell beer and/or wine on and off premises.

In Virginia’s January General Assembly session, the state Senate rejected a proposal that would have created a new regulatory division to monitor the machines in the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Still, despite the ABC’s decision, the legality of the machines is questioned. To date, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring has not issued a legal opinion, and so far no charges have been brought against businesses that have allowed companies to place machines in their stores.

In Richmond, former Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring regularly received information from police and residents about these machines since they began appearing, but declined to take any action.

Assistant Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Joshua Boyles, whom Mr. Herring assigned to investigate, stated in response to a Free Press query that “our office hasn’t given a green light to any slot-style machines in the city,” except those now at Rosie’s.

However, he declined to suggest that any machines now operating in stores are illegal.

“Whether use of a given machine amounts to illegal gambling or a permissible game of chance is a very fact-specific inquiry,” he stated.

Mr. Boyles previously told the Virginia Mercury that the legal status of the machines “is uncharted territory.”

The first real test of that legality could come in Charlottesville, where Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania on June 7 deemed them illegal and ordered businesses in that city to remove them within 30 days or face criminal charges.

He has yet to follow through on charges for noncompliant businesses. Pace-O-Matic indicated to a Charlottesville newspaper that it believes its machines meet requirements of the law and that it stands ready to defend its interests.

Still, despite the spread of the machines, they have not generated the kind of buzz that Rosie’s sparked when it opened last week on Richmond’s Midlothian Turnpike. By contrast, empty chairs at the machines are a common sight in convenience stores and lines rarely, if ever, develop with players waiting to play.

The amount of money being wagered in stores also is a far cry from the Rosie’s gusher. With the opening of outlets in Richmond and Hampton, Rosie’s is on track to rake in from players $100 million or more per month before jackpot and tax outlays.

Pace-O-Matic and other companies are not required to report their earnings or the amount of wagering being done on their machines in Virginia.

Based on information Pace-O-Matic released on its website, the company’s machines in Virginia generated about $9 million between October 2018 and June 2019, before the payout of jackpots and taxes.

The split from machine’s revenues is advantageous to stores. Queen of Virginia reports its games return about 92 percent to players in terms of jackpots, which is typical for a slots operation. The remaining 8 percent of the revenue is split three ways: 40 percent to the location and the remainder evenly split between Queen and its parent, Pace-O-Matic.