Games of skill

Janet Delgado, of Strasburg, plays a "Pennsylvania Skill" machine at Sunoco 280 N. Decatur St. in Strasburg on Monday, June 10, 2019. Pennsylvania lawmakers are currently considering legislation that would ban "games of skill."

While getting gas at a Sunoco on Decatur Street in Strasburg, Chuck Blessing ran in the store to pay in cash.

He had an extra couple dollars, so he put them into one of the store’s four “Pennsylvania Skill” machines. Blessing, 44, of Narvon, plopped down at a barstool, in hopes of winning cash, like the time he won $4,500 off four dollars on the same machine at a different location.

“I used to play scratch-offs, then I switched to these,” he said, after losing his few bucks he’d stuck in the machine.

Blessing was playing one of the 12,000 court-adjudicated “games of skill” machines throughout Lancaster County and the state, which are unregulated by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.

What’s more is that he was playing these machines right across the intersection from a Rutter’s that is one of five proposed locations for controversial video gaming terminals (known as VGTs).

The “Pennsylvania Skill” game Blessing was playing is not a video gaming terminal, nor a slot machine, although all the functionalities are almost exactly alike. These machines are available in bars, convenience stores and fraternal organizations like an American Legion.

These games require a level of skill, which current gambling regulations do not include, a Pennsylvania court in Beaver County found in 2014.

Some legislators in the General Assembly are trying to ban these machines. Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, R-Bucks County, would amend the Pennsylvania crimes code in a bill he introduced last week. Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Mount Joy, and Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, are both signed on as co-sponsors for Tomlinson’s bill. Similar legislation was introduced in the House.

“It seems like they’re spreading like wildfire,” Martin said.

Constituents first ask Martin about the video gaming terminals. “The second question is always, ‘What about these skill things?’” Martin said.

Miele Amusements -- the Williamsport-based manufacturer of “Pennsylvania Skill” -- is asking for oversight and regulation on their industry, but opposes bills that would ban them or subject them to the high tax rates paid by video terminals and casinos.

The House Gaming Oversight Committee took up the issue of games of skill during a hearing yesterday.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, who now works as a vice president of government affairs for games of skill operator Pace-O-Matic, said during the hearing that there are two-to-three times as many illegal copy-cat machines that need to be regulated.

“We’re trying to make sure that the market is made up of legal games, because now we see ourselves looped in with illegal games and it behooves us to clean up the market,” said Mike Barley, spokesperson for Miele Amusements.

The games require a person to change a character to match three-in-a-row or recall the order circles are highlighted, among other mini-games. This is what sets these machines apart from traditional slot machines or video gaming terminals, Barley said.

Janet Delgado, 69, just recently discovered the “Pennsylvania Skill” machines in her local Sunoco, instead of making the trek to the casino to play slots. She won for the first time -- $14 -- on Monday.

“[Spending] a couple dollars here is a lot better than spending hundreds at the casino and coming home with nothing,” the Strasburg resident said.

Aside from their legal ambiguity, the Pennsylvania Lottery estimates it lost $138 million in sales this year to these machines, because they are often available at locations where the Pennsylvania Lottery is sold.

The Pennsylvania State Police support legislation in the House and Senate that would ban the machines, a police spokesperson wrote in an email.

Martin said he’s unsure that a ban on the machines will pass the Senate, because lawmakers want to protect Pennsylvania jobs.

Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, represents Williamsport. He said he visited Miele Amusements two years ago when they had only 12 employees. Now, the company has more than 100 employees, he said.

Banning the devices would be “really foolish,” Yaw said, because the Pennsylvania Lottery had a record year in 2018 so it isn’t losing any money to these games. Instead, Pennsylvania should capitalize on their popularity and regulate and tax them, he said.

“You can only sit somewhere scratching tickets for so long. It probably can get kind of boring after awhile,” he added. “That’s what’s attractive about the ‘games of skill.’ It’s interactive.”