A slot machine showdown in Chesterfield parking lot highlights legal uncertainty

By: - October 30, 2019 12:18 am

Tom Marino, legal counsel to Queen of Virginia Skill and Entertainment, denounces a Chesterfield County business as an illegal mini casino as a man who works at the business (right) watches. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A middle finger, sharp words, some auto mechanics threatening to call the cops.

The gritty, confusing debate over so-called “skill games” in Virginia reached new heights Tuesday outside a strip mall in Chesterfield, where the purveyor of one slot-machine-style game staged a press conference in front of a rival operation to call for it to be shut down.

“The location right behind me is simply a mini casino,” said Tom Marino, a former congressman from Pennsylvania who serves as legal counsel to Queen of Virginia Skill and Entertainment, which says it’s put between 4,500 and 5,000 of its own games in businesses around the state. “They’re masquerading as a coffee shop. But if you go inside, you’ll find rows and rows of illegal gambling machines. … It doesn’t resemble any coffee shop I’ve ever been in.”

The man behind the counter of the alleged strip-mall coffee shop casino was, perhaps predictably, not pleased to see what was going on in his parking lot.

The stunt sparked a slow-moving confrontation that ended with all parties accusing their competitors of breaking state gambling laws in a vivid illustration of the legal uncertainty that surrounds the games in the absence of any state-level guidance or action.

WTF is a skill game?

As far as players are concerned, all the games look and function like slot machines. Bills go in, reels spin, jackpots sometimes come out. But manufacturers insist their games don’t violate the state law because they incorporate at least some element of skill, which typically consists of requiring a player to press a second button to complete a simple pattern: A player presses play, sees two cherries next to each other and presses a button to place the third cherry next to it and – bam – a win. If the spin serves up a cherry and a horseshoe, there’s no pattern to complete and – womp womp – the player loses.

Queen of Virginia is the brand-name face of the burgeoning industry here. They were the first to enter the market in Virginia two years ago. They publicize charitable donations, give lots of cash to lawmakers and hire lobbyists to look out for their interests in the General Assembly.

And the company insists that it’s the only one in the state that’s operating legally because its proprietary software also includes a secondary game that in theory allows a player to win a few cents on every spin if they take the time to complete it and have the mental wherewithal to remember a Simon Says-style 20-beat pattern. Users can easily skip over it in favor of a faster-paced, slot-machine style of play, but the company says its existence means that a player can win on every try based on skill alone.

No state guidance

Confused? So are local police and prosecutors.

State lawmakers haven’t passed any legislation to address the new games. A bill proposing a blanket ban was filed but quietly withdrawn earlier this year. And Attorney General Mark Herring’s office has declined to weigh in, saying it’s up to local prosecutors to decide whether the games are legal or not.

That makes any potential enforcement a slog. There are thousands of the games in the state made by an array of manufacturers. To bring criminal charges, local police would have to individually evaluate the peculiarities of whatever terminals they might find in a store.

So far, only the commonwealth’s attorney in Charlottesville has challenged the legality of the games. In turn, Queen of Virginia sued the commonwealth’s attorney in an effort to overturn the local opinion and the case is still pending.

While the industry has so far avoided much in the way of legal scrutiny, they are facing growing political pressure after state lottery officials told lawmakers in September that they’re on track to lose $140 million this year to the games – unwelcome news given the state’s reliance on scratch-ticket profits to fund public education.

A parking lot showdown

Which brings us back to the parking lot in Chesterfield.

Queen of Virginia, facing a potential crackdown when lawmakers return to Richmond next year, wanted to make clear that they’re not the problem.

They stressed their corporate responsibility – that they try to keep kids from playing by only putting the games in places with ABC licenses and only put a few of their machines in any given location. And they say lottery profits only started to dip once other companies started moving in.

They’re calling for the state to adopt regulations that keep them in business but shut down the “mini casinos.” Mini casinos like the one in Chesterfield. In the parking lot. Where the press conference was. It’s named Lava Java and all the signage on the outside suggests it’s a coffee shop. And while they do seem to sell coffee, the shop is dominated by dozens and dozens of flashing casino-looking games, which are clearly the primary attraction.

Queen of Virginia announced it reported the business to police earlier in the day. Chesterfield police didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The man behind the counter, who gave his name only as Keith and kicked a reporter out after a few minutes, did not take kindly to Queen of Virginia holding a press conference in his parking lot.

He locked his shop door, coming out once to take a picture and flip off Marino and a second time to debate Marino. “What’s the difference between our games and your games?” he said. “We’re 100 percent compliant. I’m the only gaming place from here to Petersburg that has 100 percent skill.” Marino refused to acknowledge him.

Then the mechanics got involved. Three from the shop next door eventually came out and said they were calling the police.

Keith hung around and talked to reporters for a few minutes. He said he’s legit, and maybe Queen of Virginia is, too. But those other guys – the other mini casinos he’s seen around – not so much.

“(The lottery) came and messed with Queen of Virginia, now Queen of Virginia is coming to hit the smaller man is all it really boils down to. … We’re the same,” he said. “But you can’t say that about other places.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.