Brown's crackdown on bingo machines could hurt charities

Chris Amico May 13, 2008, 8:33pm

Jerry Brown

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline)-California charities that have used electronic bingo machines for fundraising may see lean times ahead, they told Legal Newsline.

Attorney General Jerry Brown's office sent letters out late last week giving operators 30 days to ditch the popular machines.

"We will be in financial trouble, and so will a number of great charities in Northern California," said Doug Pringle, whose charity, Disabled Sports USA, operates 100 of the machines at the North Watt Bingo Center in Sacramento. "It's going to be a struggle for survival for some of them."

Electronic bingo brought in about $400,000 last year for Disabled Sports, Pringle told Legal Newsline. That accounts for roughly half his organization's budget.

The group sponsors outdoor recreation and sports instruction for people with disabilities. It was founded 40 years ago by disabled veterans returning from the Vietnam War.

In all, Pringle estimates there are 1,600 charity bingo halls in the state.

The state has issued warnings before. Indian tribes, who run lucrative casinos on reservation lands, have long complained that the bingo machines were encroaching on their territory. California's compacts allowing gambling on tribal land also guarantee exclusivity for the tribes.

State officials visited 10 bingo parlors last fall, issuing citations and warning operators to get rid of the electronic bingo machines. Official cease-and-desist letters went out last week.

So far, what exactly is outlawed remains a matter of some debate. Paper is a key part of bingo, says the attorney general's office.

"Bingo's a paper game in the state of California," Justice Dept. spokesman Abraham Arredond said. "The law says that and they have to comply with that."

Pringle gave a slightly different definition. Bingo, he said, means a game has:

- two or more players, and those players are competing against each other, not a machine;

- a predetermined pattern of numbers (i.e. a bingo card) that determines who wins;

- a random number call.

Traditional bingo uses paper, blotters and a human caller, and games are drawn out. The game's more recent electronic incarnation does all this instantaneously. And some machines look very much like slots, with animated spinning wheels lining up before a payout.

"The slot machine lookalike part is for entertainment only. It's a graphic representation of what happens on the bingo card," Pringle said.

He admits that making bingo look like slots has done much to draw in players looking for a gambling experience. It has made the line between bingo and slots much thinner.

"They certainly look like them. There is a very fine line, and the fine line is the paper issue," Pringle said. "In my opinion, the question is, can the player actually play the game with a piece of paper?"

Bingo was declining in California before it went high tech, Pringle notes. It was a senior citizens' game, and that audience was diminishing.

"They get old and die," Pringle said. And Indian casinos were cutting in.

"When this electronic stuff came along, it really helped. It attracted younger players that were raised on computers," he said. "It's actually proliferated across the state."

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