I read a nice story on Monday by Bill Toland and about Tic Tac Fruit machines, which are prevalent along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border and are considered legal by their owners. The cops think otherwise, because the pseudo-poker machines pay off in cash.
But what got me was the cursory reference to poker machines in Pennsylvania:
So is Tic Tac Fruit legal or not?
Police face dueling legal rulings, and one result of the confusion is that in urban centers, the machines are being confiscated and bar owners are facing charges while in outlying rural areas, where police departments and district attorneys offices are undermanned, the games are staying put. (Unlike back-room poker machines in Pennsylvania, Tic Tac Fruit machines aren't hidden away).
I think Bill is an excellent reporter and the P-G is a great paper, but the omission in the last line of the above excerpted text speaks volumes. Many, many poker machines in western Pennsylvania are in plain sight of local cops, county cops, you name the cops, they know of these machines. I challenge Bill to go to establishments in many of the city’s neighborhoods and not find the machines. I’ve seen poker machines around Pittsburgh in Ma-Pa markets, I’ve seen them in auto repair shop waiting rooms, and I’ve seen them in small pizza joints. Of course I’ve seen the vast majority of poker machines in bars/restaurants in the area.
In fact, the county (or is it the city?) licenses the machines yearly for “entertainment” purposes. The machines aren’t supposed to pay off. They all do, unless the machine is unplugged. But you may not get your winnings if the employees don’t know you, or if they think you’re an LCB cop.
It reminds me of a piece I wrote a few years back for Pulp, which talked about gambling and some of its consequences. Here it is:
One-Armers and The Players
It was a typical Saturday night at Bumstead’s, with Jimmy and Esther playing the machines, longhaired Dave complaining about the music and Sam bitching about his drink.
“John, a drink? Can I get a drink, huh?” he said, shaking his empty glass at me. Sam was in his sixties, swarthy and rough, with that Pittsburgh-meets-New York accent you find among some locals. Rumor had it he was mobbed up and that the missing digit on his left hand wasn’t from a work accident but was the result of a bad debt. I thought it was bullshit, because he was always flush with cash and he tipped heavy. But getting those tips was a balancing act. Esther, his girlfriend, tipped better than he did and I had to watch for her cues on when to start watering Sam’s drinks in order to avoid having him fall asleep at the bar.
I’d just given Sam a fresh drink when Jimmy hit big on the poker machine. As he sprung over to my end of the bar I knew he’d hit. “John, check this out,” he said, leading me over to the machine. I checked and sure enough, he’d hit, for twelve grand.
Being the bartender on Saturdays, I had to make the payout on the hit, but we only kept a few grand in cash for payouts. So I called the boss and he told me when to arrange to get the rest of the cash to Jimmy. After paying him part of the cash, Jimmy immediately tipped me $150. He left after tipping me.
The place was abuzz and everybody was talking about the big score. A few more regulars came in and ordered drinks. Esther switched to Jimmy’s winning poker machine.
Jimmy was a nice guy who was self-contained while sipping Cokes for hours at the poker machine. Sometimes the others would talk about him when he wasn’t around and it was never a good thing when the other players discussed another’s gambling habit.
“I feel bad for him, he’s such a great guy. But he’s got a real problem,” Sally opined the week after Jimmy hit. “On payday he’s down here or somewhere else playing his check away. He makes really good money, but he gambles so much that he’s been having a lot of problems with his wife. He’s got two kids.” She shook her head.
I am reminded of all this, which happened years ago, because of the recent effort of bar owners in the state to have video poker machines legalized. Wilkins Democrat Rep. Paul Costa wants to allow up to three video poker machines at every bar or restaurant in the state and the tavern owners are right behind him. Costa thinks the machines could generate $2 billion a year in revenues and the bar owners believe they shouldn’t be left out of the loop when it comes to legalized gambling in the state. They say all of the money shouldn’t go to a few gambling parlors.
But the truth is, the bar owners already are in the loop. It’s well known by some people that every video poker machine in Allegheny County that is plugged in and in working order pays off. It’s our town’s dirty little secret. Those signs on the machines that read “For entertainment only” are a ruse to keep out the uninitiated. If the watchers of those machines know you, someone can vouch for you or they trust you, they will pay you when you hit. And there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of these machines here, in bars and restaurants, pizza shops and Ma-Pa markets, even auto shops and other unlikely places.
These machines are benefiting no one but their owners and possibly some corrupt officials. While we don’t want a Jimmy at every bar in every town, the fact is we already have him there. And with lose-win ratios heavily stacked in the machine owner’s favor, the players are being gypped out of a half-decent chance to win.
We can continue to turn our heads to the facts while simultaneously brokering licenses for these poker machines. Or we can come up with a way to profit from and sensibly regulate this underground reality, while giving people like Jimmy an even chance to get help with their addictions.