Video game stokes debate over skill vs. chance
Jul. 20--In bars and taverns across Nebraska, players are pumping money into a video game that looks like a slot machine, sounds like a slot machine and promises thousand-dollar jackpots like a slot machine.
But the flashy game known as Bank Shot is not a slot machine.
Upon that everyone can agree.
Beyond that lie confusion and consternation.
Opponents of the machine say it violates the spirit of Nebraska's gambling laws and unfairly competes with existing games, such as pickle cards and keno.
Law enforcement officials say an investigation into the machines proved inconclusive, as two experts disagreed about their legality.
The makers of the machine counter that it is a game of skill that is no different from a game of Trivial Pursuit or a dart tournament sponsored by a bar or tavern. They also argue that the video game was carefully constructed to comply with Nebraska law.
"It's a puzzle game. It's not a relaxing, hit a button and wait for something to happen game," said John Fox, president of the game developer, American Amusements Inc. in Bellevue.
Players are allowed to wager up to $4 a game, which can be played in seconds. The game offers a progressive jackpot. (All the games are tied together, and the jackpot is based upon how many games are played statewide.) As of Friday, the game's biggest jackpot was $17,000.
At issue is state law. Games of skill that are played for money in Nebraska are OK. But games of chance are prohibited unless expressly approved by the Nebraska Constitution.
The difficulty for law enforcement is in determining when a game requires more chance than skill, or more skill than chance.
Two different testing companies came to two different conclusions about Bank Shot after being asked to evaluate the game by the Nebraska State Patrol.
"We even have a debate among some of our people who have been working this for a long time," said Maj. Mark Funkhouser, head of the State Patrol's investigative services.
Funkhouser and others hope a legislative resolution to study the matter this fall will provide clarity. "We're looking for some direction from the Legislature in how they want the current statutes to be interpreted and enforced," said Funkhouser.
Nebraska has long resisted casino-style gambling. Voters and state lawmakers have repeatedly rejected efforts to bring slot machines and video poker machines into the state.
Only a few forms of gambling are legal, including keno, horse racing, bingo and pickle cards.
Funkhouser said Bank Shot is not the only video gambling device on the market that bills itself as a game of skill. There are others, but Bank Shot has attracted the most attention in recent months.
The game has grown considerably in the past year. There are currently 390 machines deployed across the state.
Jim Ritzman of the nonprofit Sowers Club thinks the game is biting into the club's pickle card sales. The club is a business organization that sells pickle cards to boost its charitable contributions in the community.
Ritzman has complained about the machines to the Nebraska Lottery and Charitable Gaming Division. He has asked the division to rule on the legality of the machines, but a state official said they are waiting for the conclusion of the legislative study.
In the meantime, Ritzman said, he must compete with a game that pays no gambling tax.
"They're letting these games proliferate throughout Nebraska. In the last two weeks, there have been probably 20 machines come into Lincoln," said Ritzman. "We're afraid that if these machines take off, it will decimate the pickle cards and the nonprofits." The game centers on nine pool balls arranged in a grid formation. The player pushes a button that starts the balls flashing quickly in various formations. The player then pushes "stop" on a particular pattern, which helps to determine whether or not a player wins.
There are 30,000 patterns of pool balls built into the game. About 27 patterns flash in a given minute.
Fox maintains that players become more skillful at spotting the winning patterns after playing the game for a period of time. Then, after players select a puzzle, they are then asked to use a "wild" ball to obtain one or more tic-tac-toe patterns within the puzzle.
Players can wager from 25 cents to $4 on a single game.
"A player can quickly develop skills to discern which puzzle to choose to win," Fox said, He argued that this was a game of skill similar to the "claw and grab" games that can be found in many arcades.
Fox also said American Amusements had the game tested in 2007 by an independent testing company before putting it on the market. Eclipse Compliance Testing determined that the game was based upon a player's skill, Fox said.
Eclipse Compliance Testing was one of the companies used by the State Patrol when it conducted its tests this spring.
Fox said he has agreed to cooperate with any additional tests requested by the state. He said he simply wants all questions about the machine to be resolved.
"This game has had more tests, more scrutiny by third parties than all other coin-operated machines in this state together," said Fox.