Montgomery County police, spurred by angry callers who complained that their spouses were habitually losing money, seized what they said were illegal video poker machines at a Veterans of Foreign Wars club in Wheaton Tuesday in an unusual move against small-time gambling.
"Normally we don't do this sort of thing, unless we get complaints," said Detective Robert Seek, one of five officers who carted three machines out of VFW Post 2562.
But in the last month, he said, "We got calls from three or four members complaining that their husbands or wives kept losing all the grocery money."
While many video poker games are legal, some machines are altered to allow cash payouts, and possession of such machines is a misdemeanor, Seek said. Police made no arrests Tuesday, he said, because they were unsure who was responsible for the machines.
The VFW post is controlled by a board of directors. Seek said police have left the decision on whether to file criminal charges to the state's attorney's office, which had no comment.
No officials of the VFW post could be reached for comment yesterday, but members of similar organizations said small-stakes gambling is not uncommon in Montgomery social clubs. Seek said officers occasionally have warned clubs about the practice, but have never cracked down because of more pressing demands on their time.
At American Legion Post 41 in Silver Spring, for instance, member Bob Hewitt said that several years ago, barroom patrons at the club could buy small gaming cards that paid off the same way as today's instant lottery tickets .
"We got caught," he said. "Somebody turned us in. Same as the VFW. Somebody went home and the wife said, 'Where's the money?' And he said, 'Lost it at the club.' So she called the police."
If police happen to notice an illegal machine, Seek said, they usually warn management to remove it, then check later to make certain it is gone. But if police get several complaints, he said, they remove it on their own, and possibly make arrests.
He said plainclothes officers visited the VFW post several times in recent weeks and saw members collect money from bartenders after playing the machines and getting winning poker hands.
Like possessing an illegal machine, using one is a misdemeanor, Seek said. But none of the players whom police saw collecting money at the bar will be charged with a crime, he said.
"To us, that would be the equivalent of arresting people who place bets with bookmakers," he said. "We'd have to lock everybody up."
Seek said the machines worked this way:
Each accepted up to $5, giving the player one point for each quarter. A five-card poker hand then appeared on the screen. If the player drew at least a pair of jacks, the player won an additional point. Better hands won more points.
Unlike legal games, the illegal version is equipped with a "knock-off" switch, which allows the player to stop at any time without finishing the game and to collect 25 cents from the club for each point that had been racked up.
Similar poker machines without "knock-off" switches are legal, Seek said. Players do so only for points, as they would with a pinball machine.
Seek said the vending machine company and the club split the proceeds from the machines.
At American Legion Post 268 in Wheaton, members decided illegal machines are "too risky" to install, but they clearly recognize their financial advantage over legal ones, said Dick Miller, a member.
"You put money in, you want something in return," Miller said. "People don't want to play for points. What good is that? Points you can't put in your pocket and buy beer with."