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Electronic 'Pull-Tab' Machine--Slot or Not?

THE INDIANS' GAMBLE. Tribal Economies Are Banking on a Billion-Dollar Betting Industry. Fourth in a five-part series.

October 09, 1991|PAUL LIEBERMAN

Without knowing it, a part-time Los Angeles County commission may have opened the door to use of slot machine-type gambling devices in California.

The head of the Business License Commission was not even aware that Indian tribes seized on the panel's March 6 hearing in Los Angeles--which has no reservations--to help justify introduction of the lucrative devices throughout the state.

Had he realized his board faced "an issue of that magnitude," President Stanley Rothman said, "I'd say 'Wait a minute.' "

Under federal law, Indians can offer any gambling that is legal anywhere in their state. So tribes were elated when the commission licensed a firm named Auto Tab Distributors to sell bingo supplies after a Los Angeles County sheriff's sergeant endorsed its main product--a "pull-tab" machine.

Pull-tabs are paper games, resembling Lottery tickets, sold at bingo halls. In this case, Sgt. Richard Smith told commissioners, the firm sells "a video machine computerized type of pull-tab."

"The Sheriff's Department has no legal basis for objecting," Smith said, adding "we're very pleased with what we saw."

Rothman says now that he misunderstood the product.

"There were no photographs or anything," he said, and he envisioned merely a "computer or software" to help charity bingo games keep track of pull-tabs they sell. He didn't dream it was a large, stand-up machine in which players insert their money, he added, remarking: "That's a slot machine!"

And it's the rage of Indian gambling.

Gambling promoters acknowledge that their goal is to find machines that play like slots, but that they can defend in states that ban slots. California bans all mechanical gambling devices in which "money or (any) valuable thing is staked."

Many tribes have been lobbying the fledgling National Indian Gaming Commission to permit them to use the pull-tab machines without state approval. But even if that panel turns them down, a Sheriff's Department opinion that the machines are OK would mean "a good argument can be raised that . . . Indians can use it," noted gambling law expert I. Nelson Rose.

Sheriff's officials, however, are now having second thoughts. Organized crime unit Sgt. Greg Chapin, who monitors charity bingo, said Tuesday that the endorsement may have been "a mistake" and the issue may be brought back before the commission.

Even so, he anticipates that tribes will still cite transcripts of the March meeting to support "electronic enhancement" of pull-tabs.

From Paper to Machine: A Gambling Controversy

For years, employees of bingo halls have roamed the aisles-like cigarette vendors of yore-hawking trays of "pull-tabs," a paper instant-win game. Now gambling promoters have seized on the game in a device that plays like a slot machine-but which they argue is legal even in states, such as California, that ban slots. Although their legality is in question, the new "pull-tab machines" are being installed on reservations from coast to coast.

Paper Pull-Tabs

* Player pays 50 cents of $1 for game cards resembling scratch-off lottery tickets.

* Player pulls off a tab, uncovering series of symbols. Three matching symbols in a row produce a win.

Pull-Tab Machines

* Player slides from $1 to $20 into machine with video screen.

* Player pushes button to uncover rows of symbols on screen. A winning combination sets off music of bells, and the machine asks if player wants to play again.

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