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Electronic games turn slots casinos into 'Vegas lite'

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 15, 2009; A01

When Maryland legalized slot machines last year, the state stopped short of welcoming blackjack, roulette and other table games because of qualms about building full-scale casinos.

But Marylanders are likely to get something a bit closer to Caesar's Palace than the simple slots parlor many voters and lawmakers imagined when they authorized five venues: State officials say they probably will allow electronic versions of the banned games when casinos start opening next year.

"I fully expect them to be included," said Buddy W. Roogow, director of the Maryland Lottery, the agency responsible for procuring machines for the slots sites. "We in Maryland have to be competitive."

The games do not use actual cards, chips or dice but in most other ways mimic the real thing. Players who gather around electronic blackjack tables, for instance, can double down or buy insurance with the press of a button as they try to beat the hand of a computerized dealer, sometimes wagering hundreds of dollars.

The virtual table games are classified as slots in most states largely because the chances of winning are determined and monitored by a computer with no direct human interaction.

Allowing live table games was never seriously discussed during the years of acrimonious legislative debate over bringing slots to Maryland, given lawmakers' skittishness about expanding gambling. Slots were considered more palatable, in part, because the games are less susceptible to fraud. And little was said about electronic versions of the games, which have become popular only in recent years.

"It's no surprise this industry would stretch the definition as far as it will go, but I don't think that was the understanding of voters or the General Assembly," said Del. Tom Hucker (D-Montgomery), who said he voted to put the slots measure on the ballot last year because he feared school budget cuts loomed as an alternative. He later campaigned against the ballot proposal.

During the campaign, supporters played up the hundreds of millions of dollars that could be generated for education, and opponents warned of gambling addiction and other social ills. Neither side focused on the kinds of games that would be allowed, but there was nothing secret either, some lawmakers said.

"People should have done their homework if they thought this was some quaint little industry coming to Maryland," said Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Prince George's), a slots opponent. "As far as I can tell, these machines are perfectly legal. It's getting close to the line for sure, but it's on this side of the line."

Rick Abbruzzese -- a spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who championed the slots proposal -- said electronic table games were "fully anticipated when the law was being crafted and the referendum went to voters." He emphasized that Maryland needs to be competitive in its games choices with surrounding states that have slot machines.

At a Pennsylvania slots casino run by the same firm that Maryland recently awarded a license to open a 1,500-machine slots parlor in Cecil County, the nearly life-size image of a woman in a tight blue dress appears on the video screens of virtual blackjack tables. "Want to play blackjack?" she asks playfully, before appearing to deal cards that show up on monitors in front of the players.

At an Indiana casino operated by the same firm that has proposed a 4,750-machine casino at a mall in Anne Arundel County, real-life employees often greet players at the virtual blackjack tables. They serve beer and offer high-fives when a player beats the computerized dealer.

Gamblers at Indiana Live!, about 25 miles southeast of Indianapolis, also play an electronic version of roulette and compete at electronic poker tables. Next month, the casino plans to unveil its latest offering: electronic craps. Players will wager on virtual dice that they pretend to throw onto a large screen.

On a recent weeknight, the dozen six-seat blackjack tables were nearly full, and the roulette game was humming.

Shannon Ridenour, an unemployed home builder, was among those parked at touch-screen terminals ringing the roulette wheel. As the automated wheel spun and bets were placed, Ridenour and others watched the ball settle via a live feed transmitted to their screens by an overhead camera.

"I like it better than the regular table roulette, where everyone's crossing their arms over each other," said Ridenour, 38. "This is much quicker."

Ridenour, a casino regular, characterized the atmosphere at Indiana Live!, which has 2,000 slot machines, as "Vegas lite."

Other patrons of electronic table games in Indiana and Pennsylvania spoke less favorably of the experience, although their dissatisfaction did not seem to deter them from playing, some for hours at a time.

"I like a live dealer, and I like a real deck of cards," said E.A. Turner Sr., 77, a "semi-retired private investigator." He was hanging out in a room for high rollers where complimentary salmon, shrimp and dessert were being served.

Gambling experts said experienced players have better odds of winning at live games, because their chances are not restricted by a computer. Payouts at slot machines are typically set and regulated by states.

"It's not like the player is battling against a dealer or against a deck of cards that could run hot or cold," said Jeffrey Hooke, a Bethesda-based gambling consultant.

Casino representatives said electronic table games are not as profitable for them as some of the more popular slot machines. But in an industry that is constantly trying to offer new games and bigger promotions, the availability of the games is heavily advertised.

At Indiana Live!, blackjack and roulette tended to attract younger players. A large percentage of players of the more traditional slots were seniors, even at night.

Joe Weinberg, a principal with Cordish Cos., which operates the Indiana casino, said his company would certainly like to put electronic table games in its planned casino at Arundel Mills mall.

That decision will ultimately fall to Maryland officials. Under Maryland law, the state is responsible for buying or leasing the slot machines that will fill the privately run casinos. Roogow and other state officials have said repeatedly that they will work with companies to make sure what they have is profitable. Because the state gets a large cut of the proceeds, that is in its best interest, Roogow said.

"Since this is about competing with neighboring states, we would hope they're included in the mix," said Eric Schippers, a spokesman for Penn National Gaming, which will operate the Cecil County venue. "In other jurisdictions, electronic table games have been found to be slot machines, because they are."

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