by Max Brantley
They've been a persistent opponent of legalized gambling in Arkansas and they've said from the first that the "electronic games of skill" authorized by the legislature for the duopoly casinos at Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs and Southland Park in West Memphis are nothing but casino-style games. Poker, blackjack and slot machines (euphemistically known as "reel games") are on offer. Operators of the gambling parlors have insisted an element of skill is present in every game, sufficient to defeat the constitutional prohibition on games of chance in Arkansas.
Now the Family Council notes another step toward the real thing.
This week, however, we learned Oaklawn and Southland have reversed that game. Now blackjack is played with real cards, but the poker chips are electronic.
One has to ask how in the world a card game played with live cards can qualify as an “electronic game of skill.” The trick is each card is scanned by an “electronic eye” (i.e. a video camera) as it is dealt.
Of course this means all bets are off on the other games Oaklawn and Southland can offer. They could probably let people roll live dice, and use a camera to “read” whether the player’s roll wins or loses. They could probably do something similar with a roulette wheel. All they have to demonstrate is that the game involves electronics and some degree of skill on the part of the player—and if blackjack qualifies, these other games, arguably, do as well.
The bottom line: Oaklawn and Southland have done exactly what many suspected they would. They have used the “electronic games of skill” legislation from 2005 to slowly turn their racetracks into casinos.
A few points:
1) Blackjack is indeed a skill game. That's why professional card counters get the bum's rush in casinos.
2) Of course these are casinos.
3) Southland has used real cards — electronically in the manner the Family Council described — for several years, said General Manager Troy Keeping. He thinks Oaklawn has more recently adopted the feature. I haven't heard back from Eric Jackson at Oaklawn on a request for comment. So far, a similar electronic scanner isn't possible for poker, still dealt "electronically."
The chance of winning at blackjack doesn't change because the game is played electronically. But here's the important distinction: It's electronic. The legislature approved electronic gaming and electronic gaming only where parimutuel gambling exists. For now, that's just two places — Oaklawn and Southland. If somebody wanted to go through the legislative process and local voter approval necessary to start another parimutuel racetrack — a big if — that operator presumably could also add electronic games.
4) Southland already offers electronic roulette and craps by video terminal.
Keeping said every game, Wheel of Fortune slot machine or otherwise, contains at least some element of gambler discretion that affects the outcome. On the slots, for example, the size of the wager can affect the odds on the payout. That may seem like a minor distinction, but it's sufficient to comply with Arkansas law and Racing Commission approval.
Why not go all the way to pure casino operation — with real cards, dice, a roulette wheel with bouncing ball and all the rest? Keeping said, "I don't think the people of Arkansas are looking for that." He said that the existing gambling outlets have stopped an outflow of dollars to neighboring states and attracted an influx of money that produces, at Southland, $20 million in tax revenue to the state each year.
"At some point, if people decided they wanted something more, it would make sense to pursue. At this point, I don't sense that," Keeping said.
PS — Keeping said studies have been done. It costs money for croupiers, dealers and other human operators of games already being offered by machine. The return might not be that much greater than from a machine.