Video Gaming Coming To Pennsylvania Truck Stops. And Only Truck Stops.

One of the most bizarre components of gambling policy in the United States is on display now in Pennsylvania. The Keystone State has made video poker legal. Well, not quite. It’s not legal legal. Nor is it legal everywhere. Nor is it really video poker.

First, some context–Pennsylvania’s gaming industry has been an unabashed financial success. Sure, it has been implemented and expanded with the old ‘more revenues for the state budget canard’ which gives politicians the ability to support it without having an actual backbone. That’s a good description of state governor Tom Wolf who likes to pretend he’s wringing his hands over expanding gambling but ultimately does–but only for the ‘fiscal good of the state’:

Wolf, a Democrat, had not been enthusiastic about expanding gambling, but he entertained the idea in dealings with a Republican-controlled Legislature that saw it as a better option to balance the state’s persistent deficits than a tax increase.

HOW TO EXPAND THE STATE’S GAMING INDUSTRY WITHOUT REALLY EXPANDING IT

Before you give him credit for doing something that his constituents want make sure to check yourself. He wants to expand the market but not at the expense of current gambling entities that employ lobbyists and make hefty campaign contributions of the current revenue streams. The expansion was designed to protect industry incumbents and prevent any real competition prevent the cannibalization of the state’s existing gaming industry.

One plus is the addition of online play. Pennsylvania will be the fourth state to permit online play joining Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware. This leaves the US only a decade behind the rest of the world and a couple of decades from where online gaming should be given consumer demand and the available technology. Wolf acts like this puts Pennsylvania ‘ahead of the curve’ when in actuality it just means that they’re a little bit less behind the times than other states.

With this exception, the gaming expansion carves up the market like a Thanksgiving turkey for the benefit of industry incumbents. First, there’s the insipidly named ‘mini-casino’. These will be smaller gaming locations limited to 750 slot machines and 30 table games. And guess who will run these? Yep–the state’s existing casinos. It would have been interesting to see the market dynamism that would have resulted from allowing new companies into the market but you can forget that. Got to protect those special interests.

Pennsylvania has also expanded gaming to include airports joining Nevada and Puerto Rico. There will be what are described as ‘interactive gambling parlors’ (eg: a bunch of slot machines) in the state’s eight airports including Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley. Take a guess at who well operate these ‘interactive gambling parlors’. Surprise! It’s the same casino corporations who run the state’s major casinos and now presumably the state’s mini casinos.

DIESEL EXHAUST FUMES MEAN GAMING EXCITEMENT!

And then there’s video poker. Well, it’s not really video poker–it’s a video gaming terminal (VLT). That means that the payouts are predetermined. If you play video poker in Las Vegas you’re randomly dealt five cards (or whatever). You then hold the cards you want and draw the rest–also at random. With a video lottery terminal the result of the hand is determine before it is dealt. The cards and for that matter player interaction is just for show. The opponents of video gaming terminals made the stupid argument that they’ll spread across the state like kudzu in the South until they’re in schools, nursing homes, and (gasp!) churches. But instead of making a cogent argument against this lunacy, the state limited video gaming terminals to…..TRUCK STOPS!

To be fair, they’re not the only state with this bizarre view of a truck stop as a prime gaming destination. In fact, Louisiana pioneered the ‘video poker in truck stops’ thing well over a decade ago. A few counties opted out of video gaming in their truck stops. Well, a few counties had the option to opt out but only if they were home to (drumroll please) ONE OF THE MAJOR LAND BASED CASINOS! Got to protect those special interests! So unless you live in a county with a large casino you can play VGTs at the local truck strop provided that they meet certain highly arbitrary criteria: the must sell an average of 50,000 gallons of diesel fuel per month, have a property size of at least three acres and have at least 20 dedicated parking spots. Obviously a truck stop that only pumps 35,000 gallons of diesel fuel is unfit to run a gaming business inside.

Here’s where it gets even more ridiculous. ONLY truck stops can host VGTs. Original plans were to allow ‘locations with shower or laundry facilities’ (like a laundromat or…uh…a bathhouse?) and places with a liquor license (bars and liquor stores) but presumably some lobby group that purports to uphold the high moral standards of the state’s coin laundries scratched out a big check to someone.

Enjoy your VGT’s, Pennsylvania….and don’t believe the old wives’ tale about truck stops having good food.

About the Author: Jim Murphy

For more than 25 years, Jim Murphy has written extensively on gambling theory and practice. Jim Murphy has been quoted in media from the Wall Street Journal to REASON Magazine. Murphy worked as a radio and podcasting host broadcasting to an international audience that depended on his expertise and advice.