It whirls and flashes like a carnival ride, a blur of spinning cherries and bars and 7s that come to rest across a 20-inch video screen. If you're lucky, the reels will align just right, lights will blink and you'll win the big money.
The look, the sound and the feel all strongly suggest a slot machine: Feed it cash, hope you get more in return. But the law says it is not, largely because players compete against each other, not a machine.
This new generation of arcadelike games, carefully designed to meet the legal definition of bingo, is the latest front in the state's gambling wars.
As the Maryland legislature is poised yet again to debate whether to legalize slots, Anne Arundel County -- one of only two counties in the state that permit commercial bingo -- is considering a request to approve so-called video bingo.
Anti-gambling forces, which have successfully thwarted attempts by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to bring slots to Maryland for the past two years, say video bingo is the gaming industry's bid to introduce slots by another name. The result, they fear, is that once-small, sleepy bingo halls could soon exhibit all the social ills of casinos.
"This is a fallback strategy for the gambling industry," said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), one of the General Assembly's most outspoken critics of slots. "It's a backdoor campaign to legalize slot machines using technological changes. . . . But you have the same end result: addiction, bankruptcy, crime."
The Maryland Bingo Coalition, the group of commercial parlor operators petitioning Anne Arundel, says the machines are just a jazzier way to play the same harmless game that has been a staple of fire stations and American Legion halls for decades. Electronic screens eliminate the need for paper cards and a marker to blot out the numbers. But the premise behind the game is the same, said Michael Leahy, a lawyer representing the bingo parlors.
"It uses new technology that people find more entertaining," he said. "But it's still the same game."
In video bingo, cards and numbers are drawn, just as in the traditional game. If enough numbers match those on the card, the player wins. In video bingo, however, a computer selects the numbers and instantly declares the winners.
Here's the twist: Although the inner workings of the machine follow the rules of bingo, that's not necessarily what players see. Instead of a bingo card, players can watch a spinning reel. And a winning card could be translated by the computer into a row of three cherries, for example.
James Goodwyn, a member of the Anne Arundel County Amusement License Commission, a citizen advisory panel, said he was torn when he saw a demonstration of the machine. The game adhered to the rules of bingo, "but in my opinion it was probably too close to a slot machine in appearance," he said.
Ultimately, though, the commission recommended approval, and the county is now considering the proposal. If approved by the county, the machines will join a growing number of slotslike games that have been deemed legal.
In 2001, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the "instant bingo" machines used at the Rod 'n' Reel restaurant in Calvert County -- the other Maryland jurisdiction where commercial bingo is legal -- were not slots and therefore permissible. Instant bingo machines have spinning reels like slots but are really just a dispenser of paper tickets that can have winning combinations on them.
Courts have continually said that video bingo machines meet the legal definition of bingo, said Frank Legato, senior editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. Originally created for Indian tribes, they are especially popular in states that allow bingo but not slots, he said.
With the recent court rulings, Legato said, "the floodgates are open for these slotslike bingo games."
Leahy said that in an age of ever-evolving computers and video games, bingo parlors need to come up with something flashier to hold customers' attention.
"The bingo industry has been under duress for some time," he said. "The research done has demonstrated that people in a graphic age want more graphic entertainment in their bingo game."
In addition to seeking approval for video bingo, Anne Arundel parlor operators are hoping the county will allow them to increase the maximum cash prizes from $50,000 to $300,000 -- or more.
They say that commercial halls have been hurt by competition from charity-sponsored bingo games, not as strictly regulated by the county, that can offer bigger prizes.
Operators also want to be able to "link" bingo games so that people at different parlors can play the same game, leading to more players and larger pots.
And the more people play, Leahy said, the more the county will get in amusement taxes.
Opponents say that governments should not be dependent on bingo revenue. Approving the machines "would open up a whole can of worms," said Barbara Knicklebein of NoCasiNo Maryland. "The gambling interests are very clever. They are going to try to get in any which way they can."
But Cecelia Minor, a regular at Wayson's bingo hall in Lothian, said she hopes video bingo is approved in Anne Arundel.
"I love gaming," she said during a recent game there. "It's fun, especially if you win."