Skill or chance?

by Peter J. Teagle - Posted on Apr 10, 2019 - 02:15 PM

Photo: Queen of Virginia machines, resembling slot machines and offering cash payouts for winners, have been popping up at locations across the area, including these machines at Hyco Market in Mathews. Photo by Peter J. Teagle

Queen of Virginia machines, resembling slot machines and offering cash payouts for winners, have been popping up at locations across the area, including these machines at Hyco Market in Mathews. Photo by Peter J. Teagle

 If you’ve entered a bar, restaurant or convenience store over the past few months, you may have seen one of the bright blue cases of a Queen of Virginia machine.

The terminals may resemble something out of a casino but their game mechanics are, presently in the eyes of the law, not considered gambling. And these machines have been finding their way into increasingly more locations in Gloucester and Mathews counties, as well as the rest of the commonwealth.

The machines are the product of Queen of Virginia Skill and Entertainment and feature games by Pace-O-Matic, a Georgia company that designs amusement software. Though the games differ slightly, the general premise is that players make a “consideration” (bet) and receive a screen with rows of images that differ based on the theme of each game. The machines have two big buttons—“Play” and “Ticket”—that let the player either spin or cash out.

One such Pace-O-Matic game, Cocktail Cove, presents players with three digital reels that spin after a bet is placed. It is then up to the player to create a row of three matching symbols before time runs out by selecting one symbol to make “wild.” A wild symbol is akin to the free space at the center of a bingo card and it is aspects like this that the company points to as the differentiating factor between their games and a slot machine.

“Players can affect the outcome of the game every time they play,” said Kevin Anderson, a compliance officer with QVS and former agent with the state department of Alcohol Beverage Control. Anderson and the rest of the compliance team inspect their company’s equipment and monitor for breaches of self-imposed policy.

For example, Anderson said, QVS does not allow their machines to appear next to illegal equipment such as slots or virtual poker that business owners may already have in place and do not let advertisements by businesses with the machines to use terms like “gambling” or “slot machine.”

To be considered illegal gambling in Virginia, Anderson said, an activity must have three elements—a consideration, an event where chance is the predominant factor, and a prize. If a game lacks one of these three items, it is not considered illegal gambling.

Players having the option to see the next puzzle before playing it, break even on every puzzle through user input, have an effect on the outcome of each game, and do so inside a predetermined time limit was enough for the ABC to rule in 2017 that these machines were games of skill. So, while players are still making a bet with the hopes of winning a prize or jackpot, the state has deemed the input of the player to have enough effect on outcomes for Queen machines to be labeled “games of skill.”

Despite the increased scrutiny the machines have incurred in the last two years, restaurant owners often see them as a way to remain competitive in the hospitality market. Juan Carrillo, owner of Juan’s Mexican Café and Cantina, said he put Queen machines in his business to remain competitive with breweries.

In Virginia, “mixed beverage businesses” are required to have at least 45 percent of total gross sales come from food and non-alcoholic beverages, something breweries that serve only beer or cider are not bound to do, Carrillo said.

“What I like about them is that they bring people back in the door,” Carrillo said of the machines. The restaurateur was of the opinion that, since a restaurant with a bar has to play by different rules than a brewery, Queen machines help his businesses compete with the “brewery experience” by offering something different. “They’re definitely a plus,” he concluded.

QVS has attempted to mitigate the image of the product through charitable campaigns that are similar to those employed by the Virginia Lottery, sharing a portion of proceeds with the communities in which they operate. In recent years the company has donated upwards of $200,000 to state nonprofits, including $60,000 to the Virginia Health Care Foundation.

“We have a particular focus on free clinics and have provided a grant to more than 20, including the Gloucester-Mathews Care Clinic” said Joel Rubin, President of Rubin Communications Group, which handles much of QVS’s public relations. As of April 1, QVS direct contributions to the Care Clinic totaled $1,000, with Rubin assuring “they will be getting more.”

While the ABC did write a letter in 2017 laying out its findings as it relates to the game of skill determination, the state government has left further regulation of the machines up to localities.

At the local level, there is currently nothing on the books related to these machines. “There are no ordinance modifications related to this activity being contemplated by the Gloucester County Board of Supervisors,” according to County Administrator Brent Fedors, who added that Sec. 13.5.4 of the county ordinance “prohibits games of chance in public parks and recreational facilities.”

However, with the ABC’s game of skill decision as it relates to Queen machines, this may be a moot point.