Making a Full Casino Out of Video Games

#140 ©Copyright 1999, all rights reserved worldwide. Gambling and the Law® is a registered trademark of Professor I. Nelson Rose, Whittier Law School, Costa Mesa, CA.

Technology has made it possible to create a full casino, with table games, using only video screens and computer chips. The games feel and play like the real thing, even though patrons are actually gambling against a machine. Games like blackjack and craps can be duplicated using film or holographic images of dealers, stickmen and other players. Roulette wheels now come in a self-operating variety – no human croupiers required. Players insert their money into a slot and play by pressing buttons or touching their individual monitors.

Are these facsimiles still slot machines, in the eyes of the law? And, does it make any difference?

In the strange world of gaming law, the answer may determine whether or not the games are legal. In some states, casinos are limited to slot machines; in others, casinos are prohibited from having them. In Iowa the situation is more bizarre, with different standards for casinos at tracks, on riverboats and on Indian reservations.

I recently took part in a conference on gambling put on by the College of Continuing Education at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. Omaha’s interest in gambling is not merely theoretical. Across the river, in Council Bluffs, Iowa, there are two riverboats with full casinos and a dog track with a casino without table games. Tribal gaming halls lie to the east. When the first riverboat casinos in the nation were launched in Iowa on April 1, 1991, the law limited a “gambling game” to “twenty-one, dice, slot machine, video game of chance or roulette wheel.” In 1992, riverboat casinos won the right to operate “any game of chance authorized by the state racing and gaming commission.” It is not surprising that Iowa’s race tracks found themselves in deep trouble, with competition from riverboat and tribal casinos within the state, not to mention new gaming boats being launched in nearby Illinois and Missouri. The Legislature came to the rescue, by allowing tracks to have gaming, if local voters approved. Law-makers probably had a vision of a track with a few three-reelers.

That is not exactly how things have worked out. During a late-night visit to Bluffs Run, it took me 20 minutes to find the dog track itself, hidden at the far end of a large and thriving casino. It felt so much like a Nevada casino that I kept looking for the table games. Tracks are not allowed to have table games. But can they circumvent the law by bringing in slot machines that simulate the casino games they are forbidden to offer?

The Meskwaki Casino in central Iowa has a cluster of these unusual gaming devices. The feeling is of a casino within a casino. The tribe is operating slots and traditional and modern table games with live dealers. But, among the hundreds of more conventional video poker machines and three reelers are a few devices which allow patrons to play table games, such as blackjack, roulette and craps, without cards, wheels or dice. Video blackjack has been around for years. But the game almost always consisted of a gambler playing one-on-one against the house, standing alone in front of a machine. The machine’s monitor showed little more than the player’s hand and the dealer’s hand. When the player pressed a button labeled “Draw,” the image of the face of a card appeared from out of nowhere. There was no attempt to give the illusion that a deck of cards had been shuffled and the top card was being slid across the table.

Much more sophisticated machines, which more closely simulate a real-life blackjack table, exist, but are almost never found in land-based casinos, although they are becoming more common on ships. These devices have a holographic dealer, seats for players and the recorded sounds of actual cards being shuffled and dealt. By using the image of a dealer, rather than the real thing, a ship not only saves space in its always cramped casino, but avoids having to find a place to bunk a live human being.

But why stop with blackjack? The Meskwaki Casino has state-of-the-art video simulations of roulette and craps. The crap table, for example, is shaped like a conventional crap table. But, where the felt layout would normally be, there are two large video screens. After players have placed their bets on their individual monitors, the shooter rolls a large ball built into the top of the wall. The ball acts like a computer’s mouse, causing the image of oversized dice to bounce around the monitors.

The legal questions raised by this casino’s mini-casino, composed of gaming machines, go to the heart of what forms of gambling are allowed under the law. May the tribe offer these games? This can be answered by a quick look at the tribal-state compact.

The more interesting and obvious question for a gaming lawyer is whether these gaming devices are not classified as “table games of chance” and therefore are allowed to be operated at tracks. A court faced with this difficult question could probably dodge it, at least in Iowa. The Iowa Legislature, probably thinking about video poker, included an extra prohibition while it was making up definitions: Tracks may operate “gambling games,” but for tracks and tracks alone, “gambling game” is defined as not including “table games of chance or video machines.” Maybe someday the Legislature will change the definition of “gambling game.” Or, someone will invent a way a player can “see” a game without a screen, perhaps through direct stimulation of the brain’s visual cortex. Until then, Iowa’s tracks will be the only casinos in the state where you can play every type of gambling game, except those where you actually play a game.

[Professor Rose can be reached at]