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Poker Or Slots? Games Of Skill And Chance Have Legal Distinctions In Pennsylvania

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A slot machine-type game in a Pittsburgh bar.

Pennsylvania State Police seized 414 illegal gaming machines in southwestern Pennsylvania in 2018.

Currently, people can gamble at state-regulated casinos, through the Pennsylvania Lottery, for horse races and, after the expansion of the law last year, online and at some truck stops. But the changes didn’t include gaming machines in bars and restaurants. In those venues, if a game is mostly chance, like a slot machine, it’s illegal. But if it requires skill, like poker, it’s legal.

Frank DiGiacomo, partner with the Duane Morris law firm, said the distinction comes from a 2014 court case out of Beaver County. That decision, he said, required the state, which had seized a Pace-O-Matic game machine, to show burden of proof for their actions. Using expert witnesses and tests of skill versus chance, the court determined the Pace-O-Matic required more skill than chance, and was therefore not gambling.

“If the game is predominately skill, it’s therefore not a gambling device and arguably legal,” he said.

DiGiacomo said the recent changes to state gambling law likely won’t impact the number of seized illegal games, unless casinos decide to pursue them.

“Whether or not there comes a point in time when the regulated casino industry tries to get law enforcement to be more aggressive in challenging the legality of these games remains to be seen,” DiGiacomo said.

He said under state law, grant money from Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board is doled out each year to local law enforcement agencies to help curb illegal gambling.

“The purpose of that money is for local law enforcement to seek out these gray market games, or illegal games, and seize them and have them not being operated,” DiGiacomo said. Nine such grants were awarded, according to the PGCB’s 2017-18 annual report.