“No! No! No! Arrrrgh,” cried out Barbara Sciandra in a strangled tone, hands clutching the sides of her head in anguish as the numbskull newbie in front of the video slot machine — that is, me — botched yet another game, another 8 cents frittered away to rookie incomprehension.
“Sorry,” she continued a moment later, in a calmer tone. “But you had three ‘cross fever’ symbols in the corners. You should have held them and raised your bet. If you get four, a jackpot is almost inevitable.”
Actually, the jackpot would have been entirely theoretical, as were those 8 cents I lost. We were playing the machine secretly and for free, in a South Florida arcade closed last month when the Florida Legislature passed a harsh new video gambling law.
The owner opened it up, reinstalled the computer motherboards in several of the machines, and invited a few of the arcade’s regular customers back for an afternoon so I could test one of the frequent criticisms of the slots: that they’re pure games of chance in which skill plays no part.
The no-skill allegation came up again during the legislative debate this spring over a bill, which eventually passed, to ban video gambling in senior arcades, gas stations and mom-and-pop cafes. “They are not games of skill,” lobbyist Ron Book — who represents pari-mutuel racetracks, which wanted to stamp out competition for their casinos — told the Florida House. “They are clearly games of gambling and chance.”
Nobody denies the machines involve gambling; you play them for pennies in hopes of winning a much more valuable prize. And they certainly involve an element of chance, like all games, even chess. (Many statistical studies have shown that the player who gets the white pieces and the first move, which is typically decided with a coin flip or something similar, wins between 52 and 56 percent of the time.)
But if skill plays a part in the video games, even a small one, then they aren’t gambling devices under Florida law. And if my afternoon at the arcade means anything, skill matters a lot.