Casinos revamp gambling machines; Governors office says theyre still illegal - Wednesday 9th of December 2009

Alabamas largest gambling venues are reconfiguring their bingo machines to meet standards recently set by the state Supreme Court, but the changes dont go far enough, according to Gov. Bob Rileys office, and more raids could result.

Country Crossing near Dothan, Victoryland in Shorter and the White Hall Gaming Center have all started to change their machines to meet a six-point test for bingo games that the high court established last month.

To qualify as bingo under the ruling, games must announce drawn balls one-by-one, require players to pay attention to the drawn balls and mark their cards correctly, deny wins to players who dont pay attention, and have players compete against each other, not against the machine.

The ruling followed nearly a year of controversy about the machines, which look and act much like slots -- barred by Alabama law -- but display small electronic bingo cards and internally play rapid games of bingo, which is legal in some parts of the state.

What differences might players notice on some of the reconfigured machines?

Instead of having to press a button once to start and finish a game, players will have to press it two or three times, according to Country Crossing officials and observations by a Press-Register reporter who visited White Hall and Victoryland last week. If players dont press the button quickly enough, theyll probably lose. Also, games may take a little longer to play from start to finish than they did before.

The spinning reels, flashing lights and other slots-like elements remain.

"It just seems so ridiculous to me that theyre still arguing that this is bingo," said Todd Stacy, Rileys press secretary. "It doesnt pass the smell test."

Asked Friday if the governors office has any casino raids planned in coming days, Deputy Legal Advisor Sonny Reagan said, "Well wait and see."

Chuck Taylor, chief financial officer of Ronnie Gilley Properties, which operates Country Crossing, strongly disagreed with the Riley camps views. He said that the bingo games "clearly require a great deal more interaction than they did."

Representatives of Country Crossing and Victoryland said that the games at both venues have been tested and approved under the Supreme Courts standard by Gaming Laboratories International, a New Jersey-based company that tests electronic gambling equipment.

"The governor certainly hasnt been down here and he certainly hasnt performed any tests," Taylor said.

Taylor added that machines at Country Crossing have been modified so that:

• Players who dont pay attention can lose.

• The game takes longer to play.

• The bingo balls are displayed one at a time.

At the casino in White Hall, a town about 30 miles west of Montgomery, bingo machine patrons had to press the button multiple times to play, and risked losing a win if they took too long between presses.

Some games finished in as little as two or three seconds. Some also displayed groups of several bingo balls at once, even though the Supreme Court required that they be "announced one by one."

Joe Espy, a Montgomery lawyer for the company that supplies White Halls machines, said that he was not familiar enough with the machines to answer detailed questions about how they work. He added that he is confident they are legal.

Representatives from Victoryland also would not answer questions about their machines, instead issuing a statement that said Victoryland is taking actions similar to those of Country Crossing.

In a letter to Macon County District Attorney Paul Jones, dated Wednesday, Victoryland President Milton McGregor said that all his machines are legal under the new standard. McGregor also offered to demonstrate the machines for Jones.

But officials in Rileys office said that the machines fall short of the Supreme Courts definition of bingo in several ways. While the court wrote that rules allowing bingo should be "narrowly construed," casino owners are trying to interpret them broadly, administration officials contend.

Rileys office argues that even if the machines are programmed to meet the high courts standard, they still may violate the law. Machines that accept and eject money based on a game fall under the states definition of slots, the office maintains.

"I dont care if youre playing tic-tac-toe," Stacy said, "if youre playing it on a slot machine in Alabama, its illegal."

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