Never mind Internet cafes, phone-card slot machines are here
There's that great scene in "Casablanca" when Capt. Renaud blows his whistle and shouts, "This cafe is closed immediately!"
"I'm shocked — shocked to find out gambling is going on in here!"
Just then, a croupier gives Renaud a wad of cash.
"Your winnings, sir," says the croupier.
"Oh, thank you very much," says Renaud.
I felt a little like that this week after reading all the hubbub about the opening of so-called Internet sweepstakes cafes in New Bedford and Fairhaven.
Reporter Curt Brown has done a great job chronicling the sudden sprawl of the local mini-gambling parlors. The cafes have certainly upped the ante for loophole gambling in Massachusetts. But for anyone who's been paying attention, mom-and-pop-type gambling has been going on in New Bedford and its environs, and growing, for quite some time now. The rest of the state, too.
Take, for instance, Dusty's Store, or the Magazine Store, as it's also known, in downtown New Bedford at the corner of Purchase and Union streets.
Dusty's, for well on a year now, has done a brisk business on its combination phone card/slot machines.
So good was the business that now Dusty's has two machines. The folks at Dusty's were originally going to explain how all the happy action works, but they got cold feet.
Anyway, you can buy a phone card at Dusty's (it's really just a cash register receipt) from the machines, and as a "complimentary" benefit you also get to play the video slots "sweepstakes" game on the same machine you purchased the phone card.
You play for a limited amount of times, can win even more times on the machine, and can also win cash — up to $500 — all redeemable right there at Dusty's.
You just get in line for the cash, right behind the little old ladies with their handfuls of winning state Lottery scratch tickets or the little old men with their handfuls of scrawled-out Numbers Game sheets.
At one point Tuesday afternoon, I counted eight people at Dusty's tiny corner store, none of whom were buying candy, cigarettes or magazines. And I'll say this about six of the eight kind souls — they were more than a decade away from living on the sunny side of 65 years old.
The city downtown is a slots outfit's dream location with all the senior housing, but Dusty's is not the only local spot doing a brisk business on the phone card/slot machines.
A New Bedford company named Nutel Communications has also installed machines at Cross's Mini-Mart in the North End, Supreme Donut in the South End, Gas Express on Tarkiln Hill Road and the Bayside Lounge in Fairhaven. It's got even more in Cape Cod veterans' clubs.
There's no rental cost for the machines, and the location owners split the profits equally with the machine owner.
The machines themselves are owned by an upbeat former New Bedford cop named Stan Webb and, as we speak, he points out that the phone cards also get you news, weather and sports reports on your phone. He's planning on coming out with new vending-machine products for downloading music and other goodies from the Internet.
Stan's already been all the way to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in 2007, successfully defending his slots operations, and he feels confident he's well within the letter of state law.
"We were checked out by the top courts of Massachusetts and found to be legal," he said.
Mayor Scott Lang and City Solicitor Irene Schall say they intend to shut down the phone-card machines, along with the Internet sweepstakes cafes, but Webb says his operation is no different than McDonald's providing its customers with a Monopoly sweepstakes ticket with their hamburgers or The Boston Herald at one time giving subscribers a shot to win the "Wingo" game when purchasing a newspaper.
"Are they also going to shut down the mail and Publisher's Clearinghouse?" he asked. "Are they going to shut down the Internet gambling at home?"
The courts found his operation is not gambling because Webb also offers his slots-for-money games for free if you don't want to buy a phone card. He said lots of folks ignore the money slots for the $1, $5, $10, $20 and $50 phone cards, although I have to admit I had to ask one of the plus-65ers at Dusty's to show me how to play without paying.
It takes a little time to do it, and I'm not sure how many folks would have the stamina to keep going through the logistics necessary for the free games. Much easier to put in a twenty and play without being nagged for your name, address and phone.
The SJC upheld an appellate court ruling that said since you could win the cash prizes while playing the Nutel machines for free, it was not gambling.
New Bedford's chief lawyer, however, believes there were flaws in the way the police documented the evidence for the Fall River case.
Irene Schall says that when she finishes writing a gambling ordinance for New Bedford next week, she hopes it will cover both the Internet sweepstakes cafes and the phone-card machines. If not, she'll do separate ordinances.
Schall said she's also planning to develop the ordinances in conjunction with Fairhaven and Dartmouth so the city won't end up with all of the mom-and-pop slots operations.
Webb says his phone cards are competitively priced with Verizon and AT&T, he pays lots of state taxes on them, and that they're used by people who don't have long-distance service on their land or cell phone plans.
"It's a real product and it's a good price in comparison with AT&T, Verizon and Comcast," he said.
Schall said the target audience appears to be the same as the Internet cafes — people who can't afford computers or phones with long-distance service.
The city is concerned about an unregulated gaming environment and is also discussing the issue with Attorney General Martha Coakley's office, she said.
"The more gambling we have, the more opportunities people have to get hooked," she said.
Unlike Capt. Renaud, the phone-card machines look, sound and smell like gambling to me.
But one thing that also seemed clear to me from a couple of afternoons at Dusty's this week: Those old folks really enjoy their card-scratching and numbers filling, never mind their complimentary whirls on the slot machines.
And while I got the strong impression they didn't have a clear picture of the long odds they face to win big, I got an even stronger feeling that if you didn't let them play the slots at Dusty's, they'd be playing them somewhere else.
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