Originally created 06/20/03

Officials pore over gambling decision



North Augusta city leaders are worried that the electronic gaming industry is attempting to use a recent court development to sidestep the video poker laws that banned games of chance three years ago and bring similar machines back to their town.

Lee Wetherington, the chief of the North Augusta Department of Public Safety, said three local merchants have asked whether they can install machines in their businesses that could pay out tickets, tokens or vouchers redeemable for merchandise rather than cash.

City Attorney Kelly Zier said the merchants are basing their inquiries on a temporary, narrowly tailored consent agreement between South Carolina's attorney general and game distributor Castle King LLC that addresses one type of machine.

The state has agreed to a moratorium on seizing Chess Challenge I-brand machines that have been in operation since December 2002. The moratorium lasts until September and applies only to the Chess Challenge machine.

City officials say merchants aren't getting the full story from the gaming industry on what is legal.

"We believe that the information being provided is misleading," Mr. Zier wrote in a June 4 memo that Chief Wetherington distributed to merchants. "We certainly believe that this very limited moratorium is being misrepresented to merchants and such misrepresentation could ultimately lead to criminal prosecution."

The central point of contention in the Chess Challenge case, which originated in Charleston, is whether the game requires skill to play or is purely based on chance. "Chance" video games, including those based on poker, blackjack, keno and craps, are illegal in South Carolina. It is also illegal for any gaming machine to make cash payouts.

"The question that seems to be most prevalent over the last year is not the payout, it's the skill versus chance," said Ray Walker, a spokesman for the attorney general. "That seems to be the line these days. Many times that means video game makers will get right up to line, and sometimes cross it."

Chief Wetherington said the city is still seeking the counsel of the attorney general and the governor on how they will respond to merchant inquiries.

The chief said he views the payment of tickets or vouchers as dubious.

"I would think if someone's going to put $30 or $40 into a machine, they're not expecting to get $30 or $40 worth of vienna sausage," the chief said.

Mr. Zier and Chief Wetherington, while awaiting word from state officials, are maintaining a hard-line stance on video machines and the industry that profits from them.

"We know what they're trying to do, and we don't think what they're trying to do is legal," Mr. Zier said. "The city's going to enforce the law. If there is a machine used for gambling, then our position is it's a violation of the law."

Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1394.