All eyes on Connecticut in Internet gaming dispute - Friday 12th of August 2005

A first-of-its-kind computer program has state regulators and one of the worlds largest casinos locked in an Internet gambling dispute that is being watched around the country.

At issue is the Foxwoods Resort Casino promotion PlayAway, an Internet-based game that allows gamblers to buy keno tickets at the casino, check their status from home, then play a simulated slot machine or a hand of blackjack or poker that wins or loses depending on the keno results.

Foxwoods officials, who launched the game then quickly shut it down because of state protest last week, say its just a different way of displaying traditional keno results, which are already available online. But state officials believe it is Internet gambling and have threatened a federal lawsuit if Foxwoods puts the game back online.

Foxwoods on Friday agreed to suspend the game until Aug. 15, 13 days later than the original Aug. 2 restart date. A spokesman for the casino said the tribe will use the extra time to provide detailed information to the state.

Foxwoods, which is owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, is the first casino in the country to try such a venture. If it succeeds, members of the National Indian Gaming Association expect the idea will attract other interested tribes.

Casino regulators in New Jersey are also watching. The Casino Control Commission is considering allowing Atlantic City casinos to use such software and spokesman Dan Heneghan said regulators will monitor the Connecticut dispute.

Foxwoods believes the issue is a matter of appearance. The PlayAway Web site never explained that the fancy blackjack and slot machine graphics were just a facade, a way to heighten the experience of checking for a winning keno ticket.

"Clearly the impression when you first went onto the Web site was that this was online gambling," said George Henningsen, chairman of the tribes gaming commission. "It looks like youre playing. I know youre not, but I cant argue that it looks like it."

From a gambling standpoint, Henningsen said, its the same game theyve been running for years in which players try to guess series of random numbers. Visitors can buy keno tickets for future games, go home, miss the drawings, check the winning numbers and return to Foxwoods to cash in.

Henningsen said the tribe is tweaking its software to tell people that, despite the animations, they arent actually playing games. They also plan to add a button to skip the graphics and just check the keno numbers.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal says the software crosses the line into Internet gambling, which is illegal. If this promotion is approved, he said theres nothing to stop the tribe from coming back for another slight change later.

"The slope is so slippery," Blumenthal said. "Once Internet gambling is allowed, almost any form of Web site gaming will occur."

The Internet gambling market is expected to generate nearly $17 billion in yearly revenue by 2009, according to the American Gaming Association. But Foxwoods officials say thats not their market. They dont want people sitting at home. They want players driving to the casino, which is what a winning PlayAway game forces them to do.

Internet marketing is big in every industry, Henningsen said, and casinos must keep up with the times.

"Youre crazy not to be using the Internet," he said. "Its a personal link to someone who you know already has an inclination to gamble."

Steve Kane, CEO of GameLogic, the Massachusetts-based company that wrote the software, wouldnt discuss where else hes pitching his product but said it would be a good fit in any market. He said Connecticuts concerns are "imminently solvable."

Blumenthal said the tribe hasnt formally proposed any software changes but he said he cant foresee anything that would make the game acceptable as long as people are playing casino games online with a profit attached.

While the Mashantucket Pequots said theyre eager to reach a compromise, they said they expect the game to be online soon.

"At this moment," Henningsen said, "I cant see any way this will be withdrawn."

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