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Wisconsin Video Poker Court Decision May Complicate California Debate

A recent reversal in an ongoing legal battle over a Wisconsin tribe’s efforts to offer video poker may have legal and political implications stretching far beyond the Badger State’s borders.

In particular, the battle over the Ho-Chunk tribal nation’s desire to offer video-based poker games and declare them as allowed “Class II” gaming under the United States’ 1988 IGRA (Indian Gaming Regulatory Act) is being closely watched 2,000 miles away in California.  California, in turn, is the heated legislative battleground where the short-lived effort by the state’s Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel to offer real-money online bingo (and, eventually, online poker as well) looms as a statutory stumbling block for any and all legislation being considered.

ho-chunk-logoThe battle in Wisconsin involving the Ho-Chunk’s is somewhat different than the California Iipay Nation, though most of the stories reporting on it don’t understand the subtle differences.  The Ho-Chunks operate six tribal casinos scattered across central and southern Wisconsin, and the legal battle involving “video poker” as offered by the tribe has been the basis of a federal case against the Ho-Chunks that now spans several years.

We visited the US District Court scuffle involving the Ho-Chunk’s Madison casino in a story last July, and that’s where the tale resumes.  Due to county-level restrictions (Dane County is the home of Madison, Wisconsin’s state capital), Ho-Chunk Madison is the only one of the tribe’s six casino operations that does not feature live table games of any sort — you can’t find a printed playing card in the place… and I’ve looked several times.

That doesn’t mean that the facility hasn’t offered “poker,” however.  Not only does the giant, converted De Jope bingo hall have several banks of traditional slots-style video-poker machines — Deuces Wild, Jacks or Better, Joker Poker and other progressive-jackpot games — it also has a small poker room featuring eight electronic “PokerPro” tables.

Both the video-poker banks (poker slots, if you ask me) and the e-poker tables were squeezed in by the tribe and claimed as Class II games, and were challenged as such by the state since first introduced back in 2010.  Last year, US District Judge Barbara Crabb again ruled that the various games had become Class III gaming through the enactment of the very same, hotly-contested “electronic facsimile” and “reproduction” definitions found in IGRA, but a couple of weeks ago, a federal appeals court reversed that finding, saying that unless the state (Wisconsin) bans all such gaming, the Ho-Chunks can offer it.

Not only is it good news for the Ho-Chunks — who’ve kept their various video-poker offerings running uninterrupted in the meantime, in expectation of such a reversal — it’s also good news for the Iipay Nation out in California.  If federal-court precedent allows the Ho-Chunks to keep their video-poker offerings as Class II Gaming, which is currently the only type of gambling allowed in Dane County, then that argument will be quickly transferred over to the ongoing Iipay Nation case in California.

If you’ve never seen how many tribes currently get around the Class II v. Class III statutory requirements when it comes to offering slots, you’re in for a treat.  The Ho-Chunk Madison facility is one of many tribal gaming operations scattered around the US that is actually located in a jurisdiction where such slot-machine operations shouldn’t be allowed.

The answer, of course, is that the slots aren’t called slots at all.  Instead, they’re deemed as “electronic bingo games” and thus designated as Class II gaming under IGRA.

It took a bit of searching, but I found a YouTube video of a patron who secretly taped his or her playing of a Class II slots bingo in a California tribal casino, where similar Class II restrictions apply.  Watch the following video, and ask yourself if the patron is playing a bingo card or a slot machine?  Yes, those are bingo balls and supposed winning lines displayed at upper right, but the pay tables and bonuses are all according to slot-machine rules.  And that’s how all of these faux Class II “bingo” video slot machines actually work.

Anyhow, enjoy:

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