State seeks to regulate skilled game rooms

Game rooms popping up in Springfield, some replacing Internet cafes.

Less than a year after lawmakers effectively shut down Internet cafes, more skill-based game rooms are opening in Springfield, although new legislation in the Ohio House could regulate these operations.

Roc-In-Skill Games, 1214 N. Bechtle Ave., opened last year, while Players Club Internet Cafe, 1881 S. Limestone St., re-opened last month as a skill-based game room.

A third skill-based game room, Joker’s Wild, 2794 Derr Road, is expected to open in two to three weeks. The city’s board of zoning appeals approved a conditional use permit for the business last month.

The new game room provides a leisure activity to customers, said Clark Wideman, lawyer for Joker’s Wild.

“We do it legally and above board and hope that all of the competition does,” he said.

The skill-based game rooms may be an alternative to Internet sweepstakes cafes, which were effectively banned by the state last year and closed about 800 businesses.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office has received anecdotal reports of former Internet cafes re-opening as skilled game rooms, according to spokesman Dan Tierney.

“I don’t know if we can assume they’re the next step in attempts to work around the restrictions of Ohio’s gaming laws,” said Jerry Strozdas, the city’s law director. “If they are, we’ll learn that and we’ll act accordingly.”

Skilled game rooms are regulated by the Ohio Casino Control Commission and had been in effect prior to Internet cafe laws. Under current law, skill-based games are prohibited from giving cash prizes, Tierney said.

The Ohio Revised Code defines skill-based amusement machines as mechanical, video, digital or electronic devices. Players are rewarded only with merchandise prizes or vouchers redeemable for merchandise prizes that don’t exceed $10 and must be distributed on site at the time of play. Examples of skilled games include pop-a-shot basketball games, Skee-Ball, Tic Tac Fruit or any other type of game that requires athletic or physical skill.

The new game rooms are a form of adult entertainment, said Chris Howlett, a district manager with Joker’s Wild LLC. It’s unfair to put down the game rooms until “you know what we’re about,” she said.

The business is currently in the process of hiring one full-time and two part-time employees for the skilled game room.

“We’re not an Internet cafe,” Howlett said. “We’re strictly a game of skill. We don’t pay out cash.”

The state legislature has proposed a new bill, House Bill 491, that would regulate the skill-based game rooms. The bill was introduced on March 18 by state Reps. Jim Buchy, R-Greenville, and Bill Blessing, R-Colerain Twp., and has been assigned to the Policy and Legislative Oversight committee.

In 2010, the Casino Control Law gave the Ohio Casino Control Commission the authority to oversee skill-based amusement machines, but no other further guidance was provided, according to Executive Director Matthew Schuler. House Bill 491 would provide the administrative tools to regulate them, he said.

The commission has done investigations, received complaints and read media reports of operations calling themselves skill-based businesses that are running games of chance and providing cash payouts that violate Ohio laws, according to Schuler.

“Our goal is to eliminate doubt in people’s minds,” he said. “We’ll be able to validate those that are following the law, then have the tools we need to address those that are not.”

Wideman, lawyer for Joker’s Wild, said his clients operate legally and are open to additional state oversight. But they would concerned if the result is to regulate them out of business like Internet cafes.

The current form of HB 491 seems good overall to Wideman, but he pointed out that it could change during the legislative process.

“Some reasonable degree of regulation would keep the people in the business honest,” Wideman said.

If passed, the legislation would require skill-based game room operators to receive a license from the state, as well as increase the penalties for operating a gambling house. It would also require the commission to create compliance standards involving equipment, financial records, auditing and computations and recording of compensation and winnings.

“It’s timely, now that we’re seeing this shift,” Schuler said. “Clearly, we’ve seen that there’s some confusion among the operators as to what they can and can’t do. That’s why we believe that consistent, uniform statewide regulation will make sure that any business that’s running skill games is going to follow the law.”

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