Round and round in the slot machine three blurred rows of apples, oranges and strawberries spun. The woman in the Pier Arcade squinted at the whirling wheels until she thought she could line up a three-way match. The squinting did not help. The machine won again.
"My eyes are pretty good, actually, but I've lost about $10," said Meridell Cook of Camp Springs. "I wonder whether it takes skill or just plain luck."
Worcester County State's Attorney Joseph E. Moore wonders the same thing.
In a probe that has become the talk of the summer along the Ocean City boardwalk, Moore is trying to determine whether 104 different kinds of slot-type gaming devices here are legal under Maryland law.
The controversy here centers on five boardwalk arcades licensed by the town government which have to total of 104 coin-operated "money pushers" and whirling-wheel slot and poker games. Each spinning wheel of symbols or playing cards can be stopped by its own control button. The games pay off in tokens or coupons which can be exchanged for prizes such as radios, electric blenders and stuffed animals.
Since 1968 slot machines and other games of chance that rewarded customers in tokens or coupons have been illegal in the state. At issue in Moore's investigation is whether the machines require skill or chance.
Owners contend that the machines actually are games of skill, that the whirling wheels are not faster than the eye. John Wiessner, art owner of Dealer's choice Arcade, lined up a row of four 10s on a whirling poker game the other day.
"If you have enough money and can play them long enough your eye becomes accustomed to the motion," he said. "One of the workers here regularly gets royal flushes. When people come to resorts they expect to see games like this.
"If they're outlawed," he added, "they're just going to go to Wildwood or somewhere else."
Prosecutor Moore visited Wiessner's arcade last week and said he was impressed by a demonstration of the gaming devices conducted by one arcade employee. "I'm leaning toward giving the okay on the poker games as long as there's no time limit involved," Moore said. "I'd hate to have to go to court and have that guy [the Wiessner employee] appear before a jury."
Moore said he would reach a decision on the slot machines "in a couple of days." He said he does not expect any large-scale indictments to result from the investigation.
"I've just got to figure out a definition for skill in legal terms," he said. "When that's done I can decide what's legal and what's not."
Richard Marchant, owner of the Pier Arcade, said he would lose nearly $32,000 that he invested earlier this year in 18 "Super-Skier" slot machines if they are outlawed.
Super Skier players have only 10 seconds to attempt to line up a match. Moore said he was concerned primarily with those machines and "Money Pusher" games. Money Pusher players deposit quarters or dimes into bins filled with other coins hoping to knock the coins free.
"There's no question in my mind that my games are legal. They require skill, that's all," Marchant said. But he added that if Moore disagreed, he would comply with an order to remove the games.
One outcome of the dispute, which Wiessner said "has caused a lot of anxiety over our livelihood here," is that some regular arcade players are turning in the coupon tokens that they have accumulated. "People are coming in asking when we're going to shut down," Wiessner said. "Some have turned their winnings in because they don't think we're going to be around much longer."
Still, the games - legal or not - continue to attract thousands of tourists every day in Ocean City, a town that prides itself on its beaches and summer amusements.
"I don't really care whether it's skill or chance that makes these things go," said Meridell Cook as her eyes followed a set of whirling wheels. "It's a wonderful way to relax." CAPTION: Picture 1, John Wiessner awaits a decision on the legality of his Ocean City arcade. By James A. Parcell - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Worcester County State's Attorney Joseph E. Moore is looking into legality of slot machines such as these at Ocean City. By James A. Parcell - The Washington Post