Skilled gaming machines

Gene’s Orange Market just outside of the Riverdale area of South Boston has these skilled gaming machines for customers’ use. While the popularity of skilled gaming machines is on the rise in Virginia, the General Assembly will vote on a bill later this month proposing to define skilled gaming machines played for cash prizes as illegal gambling devices.

Like the luck of a player placing a coin into a slot with the hopes of winning a cash prize, the fate of “skilled” gaming machines in Virginia is up in the air.

A House of Delegates subcommittee voted unanimously on Tuesday to advance a bill outlawing the machines. 

Senate Bill 908 classifies the playing of “skill games” as “illegal gambling” and includes “skill games” within the definition of “gambling devices.” 

The bill does exempt “family entertainment centers” from the prohibition of offering skill games, as long as the prize offered to the player is a “non-cash, merchandise prize,” or a voucher for such a prize.

But the popularity of gaming machines is on the rise in the state and locally, with machines popping up at convenience stores and bars, and new requests from business owners in South Boston to install the machines.

Gene’s Orange Market, located just outside the Riverdale area of South Boston, has video game terminals by Queen of Virginia Skill & Entertainment — one of the most widely known “skilled” gaming companies in Virginia.

The company’s machines feature “spinning reels and a tic-tac-toe-style grid that requires players to complete patterns in a set period of time. If the player loses their money, they can continue by completing a secondary game based on memory that requires them to mimic a complex sequence of lights,” according to a Jan. 28 Virginia Mercury article “Outlook for skill games darkens as Va. House panel votes for ban.”

The town of South Boston continues to receive requests from business owners for special permits to install gaming machines.

Town manager Tom Raab advised town council in a Monday evening work session to wait until the General Assembly’s decision on gaming machines before voting on the requests.

Councilman Bill Snead opposes the “skilled” gaming machines and said he believes the gambling lobby uses the term “skilled” to “get around the idea that people are actually gambling.” 

He also commented that the majority of people who use gaming machines and play the lottery are low-income.

“With that in mind, it is my belief that the impact of these gaming machines hurts families economically and hurts our local economy because some household members are spending a lot of their income by putting their money ‘down a rat hole,’” Snead said. 

“This is income that could be spent locally on groceries and clothing. I’m sure there are some individuals that are spending enough money on the lottery and gaming machines each month that could be used to make a car payment on a decent automobile,” he added. 

Other town council members had not responded to requests for comment on “skilled” gaming machines as of press time Thursday.

The topic of gaming machines previously was brought to the council’s attention in February 2019 when Hani Elmawri, owner of J&M Store located at 1716 N. Main St., told council he recently found out electronic games he had in his business were illegal and that he had to remove them. Elmawri’s business is located in a B-1 Neighborhood Commercial District, and electronic gaming machines are only allowed in a B-2 or B-3 Business District in South Boston with a special use permit.

In the neighboring city of Danville, skilled gaming machines have stirred controversy. In order for convenience stores and other business to operate these gaming machines, the City Council must approve it. Approval is granted via a special use permit.

Vendors have paraded before Danville’s planning commission seeking permission to operate the seemingly popular skilled games. However, many decisions are on hold as the city grapples to define indoor recreation.

Danville also is hoping the General Assembly grants it permission to put forth a voter referendum to allow a casino to set up shop in the River City. 

In another measure last year, Danville voters approved a pari-mutuel betting referendum in November. That would allow Rosie’s Gaming Emporium to open an operation in Danville.

Miranda Baines is a staff writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at mbaines@gazettevirginian.com.

Miranda Baines is a staff writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at mbaines@gazettevirginian.com.