A Token Dispute | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

A Token Dispute

Standing in the center of a howling nightmare of blinking lights, screaming sirens, roaring animals, revving engines, blaring calliopes, and piercing whistles, the two middle-aged men looked a little out of place in their conservative business suits and power ties.

They felt that way, too. Neither Hollywood City Attorney Jamie Cole nor Hollywood City Commissioner John Coleman would normally admit to spending a weekday afternoon parked in front of a slot machine at The Game Room amusement arcade at Oceanwalk Mall. But this was different. This was business. City business.

"We walked in. We looked around. We bought about $5 worth of tokens, and we started playing," Coleman recalls. By the time their pool of mad money was halfway gone, they'd won a jackpot -- $10 or so worth of tokens they could use to play other arcade games or trade in for prizes. "I let Jamie keep it." Coleman says. "He walked out of there with his pockets full."

That's not all that Cole walked out of there with. Because of his hour of playing the slots at Oceanwalk, Cole now is of the opinion that "there's a very good chance" the machines are illegal. And, in fact, Coleman goes even further: "I don't see how anyone can possibly argue that those machines are not illegal."

It isn't that the arcade -- which came under new management in March, at which time the slot machines were installed -- has turned itself into a state-of-the-art casino. If anything, in fact, its slot machines appear to be a couple generations out of date -- scratched-up veterans of the gambling world, with old-style buttons and handles and see-through plastic windows instead of the touch-screen technology found in most casinos nowadays.

According to Florida Assistant Attorney General Charles Fahlbusch, there are two significant questions in assessing the legality of an arcade slot machine: whether the machine requires an "application of skill" by the user and whether its payoff exceeds the legal limits per game.

As Cole and Coleman discovered on their trip to The Game Room, the machines there don't require any skill at all -- merely an ability to pull the handle on the side of the machine. Although each machine features a row of buttons underneath the spinning wheels, the buttons don't appear to serve any function. To operate the machines, all you do is drop in your token (a dollar gets you four) and pull the handle. The wheels will spin, the wheels will stop, and either you'll hear the sound of tokens clinking into the metal bottom tray or you won't.

"That's how Jamie won his jackpot," Coleman says. "He just pulled the handle and boom, out came this shower of gold." Cole confirms Coleman's memory.

Although Coleman is passionately convinced that these machines are flatly illegal, Maj. Ron Pagano of the Hollywood Police Department disagrees. On August 3, Pagano deployed two detectives to Oceanwalk Mall to investigate Coleman's complaints that the arcade was indeed operating illegal slot machines.

In a memo he sent to Hollywood City Manager Samuel A. Finz the next day, Pagano wrote that "the machines in question do not violate any gambling law or regulation. The machine 'pay-off' is with tokens which cannot be exchanged for money." Pagano also attached a copy of a 1996 legal opinion dealing with a similar issue that had come up with alleged gambling machines in other amusement arcades.

In that memo police legal advisor Joel D. Cantor had written that because an arcade gaming machine "offers tickets or coupons as winnings which may be exchanged for merchandise only," such a machine was "clearly omitted from the definition of a gambling machine or device and not in violation of any criminal statute."

In an interview last week, however, Cantor said he wouldn't feel comfortable applying his 1996 memo to the token-using slot machines in The Game Room. In that memo, he now says, "I was talking about a different type of machine and dealing with different issues." (Pagano was busy dealing with hurricane-related issues last week and was unavailable for comment.)

In any case it doesn't appear that members of the Hollywood Police Department are likely to arrest anyone or seize machines anytime soon. As Cantor explained, "This seems to be a gray area of the law." And in fact Cole agrees, explaining that he would like to sound out his city commission before doing anything rash. "I'd also like to get an advisory opinion from the attorney general's office," he says.

Fahlbusch isn't sure what that would accomplish. "Why don't they just make some arrests and seize some machines?" he asks. But Cole and Cantor both say they intend to proceed with caution. For one thing The Game Room is by no means the only arcade in Florida -- or even the only local arcade -- to use such machines. The Grand Prix Golf-O-Rama arcade in Dania, for instance, features a roomful of old slot machines that appear to be carbon copies of the machines found in Oceanwalk Mall.

Cole also says he wants to wait until another local court case is resolved. That case, which has been winding its way through the courts for four years now, stemmed from a raid in which agents from the Florida Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms seized a number of gambling machines from an array of Broward County bars and nightclubs. In that case the legal issue in question is whether the gaming machines required any skill on a player's part or operated purely on chance.

Although state law prohibits many types of gaming devices, it does provide an exemption for machines "which operate by means of the insertion of a coin and which by application of skill may entitle the person playing or operating the game or machine to receive points or coupons which may be exchanged for merchandise only, excluding cash and alcoholic beverages, provided the cost value of the merchandise or prize awarded in exchange for such points or coupons does not exceed 75 cents on any game played."

In March The Game Room was sold to a group of local partners who got rid of "a bunch of rides and games that no one ever seemed to play" and brought in the slot machines that are now causing controversy, says Thomas Kornitzer, president of Coastal Network, the company that manages the mall. Officials of the new corporate owner of The Game Room, Northport Sports Group Inc., didn't respond to repeated requests for interviews. But Stuart Hersh, regional operations manager for Festival Fun Parks LLC, the new owner of the Grand Prix arcade, maintains that the Grand Prix machines do require skill and therefore are perfectly legal.

"The idea is there's buttons on them which provide the ability to control the wheel. We have technicians here on site to make sure they're always working." Like the slot machines in The Game Room, the Grand Prix machines did, in fact, have buttons on them. But when a New Times reporter tried them out last week, the machines played and paid off without requiring the player to touch the buttons.

Whatever happens next, the concern shown by Coleman and Cole is deeply satisfying to Nelly Kerins, a retired grandmother who lives with her husband, Robert, in a Hollywood condominium on the Intracoastal. For years Kerins has been bringing her grandchildren to the arcade at Oceanwalk in order to keep them entertained when they visit. This year was no different.

"In June when my grandkids came after they got out of school, I took them down to the arcade," she says. "I was amazed." Gone were the "horsy rides -- you know, the stuff for toddlers and for the younger kids." Kerins was appalled. "I saw young kids -- young kids! -- just begging on the street because they'd lost all their money in the gambling machines."

It was, in fact, Kerins who originally contacted Coleman and got him interested in the issue, and now the consequences of her complaints are rippling outward. Facing scrutiny from Hollywood police and city officials, Kornitzer now says he is "shocked" at the allegations of illegal gambling occurring within his mall, and he promises swift action if they prove accurate.

"We wouldn't want to be associated with anything that is deemed to be illegal use," Kornitzer says. "We want to run a clean family establishment here. If these machines are illegal, I'll talk to my tenants immediately, and we'll get rid of them." In which case Kerins says she'll be happy to bring her grandkids back. But not before then.