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‘Games of skill’ popping up, but are they legal?

January 23, 2019

HAZLETON, Pa. (AP) — Games of skills are popping up in convenience stores, gas stations and malls throughout the Hazleton area.

Players feed the machines cash, place bets on the selected game and win — and lose — money, but it’s not considered gambling. The courts ruled that these adult games have an element of skill, rather than chance, with the player controlling the outcome. Chance is one of three elements needed to be considered gambling.

Pennsylvania State Police, and its Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, which investigates unlawful gambling in the state, don’t agree and hope other cases pending in the courts will provide more clarity, said Ryan Tarkowski, PSP spokesman.

“In PSP’s view, the devices are illegal,” he said. “Illegal gambling devices are prevalent in the commonwealth despite enforcement efforts. Illegal gambling is far from a victimless crime. It diverts proceeds from legal gambling, that among things, allows seniors to age in their homes and reduces the burden of property taxes on our citizens.”

Tarkowski could not comment on the bureau’s ongoing investigations into the devices.

Gary Lagana, owner of Got Skillz gaming room in the 22nd Street Plaza in Hazleton, said you would think police would pull the machines if they consider them illegal, and the games are everywhere.

He has a letter saying the Pennsylvania Skills games are legal, because they are predominately skill and not chance, which is in line with the 2014 Beaver County court ruling.

“As long as they’re legal, we’ll continue to operate,” Lagana said.

The games are pretty popular in the area, he said.

Another game room, PA Skills Games, opened in the Dunham’s wing of Laurel Mall in November. Ellen Staruch, who serves as mall customer service, monitored the six machines, which were all Pennsylvania Skills Game machines, and paid cash to winners on a recent day.

The machines only take paper money, she said, and bets can range from 40 cents to $4. Players then receive a ticket for credits on the machines and receive cash from the customer service personnel, she said.

“They get a ticket and then I pay them,” Staruch said.

One woman, who didn’t want to be identified, said she put $5 in the machine and was cashing out $6.

“You could win money, but I don’t,” she said, adding that she knows people who have won $3,500 on these machines.

Staruch agreed. People do win, she said.

“It’s just like going to the casino,” Staruch said. “You win. You lose.”

Rocco Arruzzo, the mall’s business operations manager, said a vendor who has rides in the mall placed the machines in the small storefront and the mall put its customer service in as an attendant.

The shop is across the hall from several Pennsylvania Lottery machines. Arruzzo said the skills games don’t detract from the lottery because they’re “completely different animals.”

Back in Hazleton at Got Skillz, Lagana said many people play the games as a pastime or something to do, especially now in winter, and they don’t have to go far to play.

“They’re penny machines,” he said.

Some take bets from 8 cents up to several dollars, he said, and some take bets as high as $4. Lagana, like the mall, has floor machines as well as computer games, in which money is placed on a card that can be swiped at the terminal, giving the player credits. When a player is done, they cash out the card.

“The points go back on the card,” Lagana said. “It’s a good system.”

Winning and payouts depend on a person’s skill at the game and the amount bet, he said.

“They don’t automatically win,” Lagana said.

Christina Covey said she recently won $1,000 and then $800 after that. She plays three or four times a week, but how long she plays depends on how much money she has, she said with a smile.

“It’s something to do,” Covey said. “It’s a lot closer and I think the odds are better than the casino.”

She found that the more you play, the better you get at the games.

“It’s a fun place. It’s not the hustle and bustle of the casino,” Covey said. “You can unwind with some adult time.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2R7Mw3W

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Information from: Standard-Speaker, http://www.standardspeaker.com

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