City ban: Prosecutor boots Queen of Virginia gaming machines

Representatives for Queen of Virginia argue that the skill-based aspect of the game is what makes it legal under Virginia law. (Photo: Eze Amos) Representatives for Queen of Virginia argue that the skill-based aspect of the game is what makes it legal under Virginia law. (Photo: Eze Amos)

The lights flash and a series of images roll across the screen. A row of matching pictures are lined up around the board and the word “WINNER” greets players, accompanied by a cha-ching sound if they secure the top prize. No, this isn’t a slot machine. In fact, according to the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, it’s not even gambling.

“Queen of Virginia,” which the company calls a “skill-based entertainment machine,” debuted in the summer of 2017, after it was deemed legal by the Virginia ABC. In early June, however, Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joseph Platania became the first elected prosecutor in the state to order local retailers to remove these devices from their premises, arguing that they did indeed qualify as gambling.

“The machines are cash-operated and generate combinations of symbols on a screen with the user winning or losing money depending on the combinations that appear,” Platania said in a statement. “Citizens have addressed City Council regarding these machines and have expressed concern about their presence and usage in the City of Charlottesville.”

Players are presented with a tic-tac-toe-esque board that has an image in each square. They make a wager and either flip a card to get three in a row or refresh the board for a new set of images. If the player makes the wrong choice or hits the time limit, they have the chance to make their money back with a memory game.

This element of skill, coupled with the lack of random chance determining the outcome, is what Kevin Anderson, director of compliance with Queen of Virginia Skill and Entertainment and a former ABC special agent, believes are the deciding factors that allow the machines to comply with Virginia’s gambling laws.

“People would say that poker, Texas hold ’em, blackjack [have] elements of skill but they’re not predominant skill because you can’t affect the outcome of how the cards are laid out,” Anderson says. “The difference in our game is you can actually win every single time. You can win more money than you played every single time … based on your skill.”

There are several businesses hosting the machine in Charlottesville, including SunShine Mini Mart on Cherry Street and Lucky 7 on Market Street. Management at SunShine couldn’t be reached prior to publication and Lucky 7 declined to comment.

Given the state’s already strict gambling guidelines, Queen of Virginia’s compliance team has taken the initiative to self-police the businesses that are licensed to own the devices. According to Anderson, that’s included removing machines from businesses that allow forms of illegal gambling on their premises.

Businesses that want the games, Anderson says, must sign a contract that includes stipulations on how they advertise the machines. “We don’t want someone to say, ‘Look, we have slot machines’ because it’s not a slot machine.”

Platania’s ban comes as Virginia’s General Assembly is in the midst of conducting a study on the effects of gambling in several economically challenged cities across the state. The legislative body will vote on whether to legalize regulated gambling in those select locations next year.

This is a decision in which Queen of Virginia has had a strong interest, donating $157,000 so far in 2019 alone to various state politicians on both sides of the aisle.

According to Anderson, representatives from the company have been invited to speak in front of the Joint Legislative and Review Commission later this month about the difference between illegal gambling and their game.

The legal team for Queen of Virginia Skill and Entertainment has reached out to Platania’s office in hopes of starting a dialogue about lifting the ban in Charlottesville. Although no meeting has happened yet, spokesman Joel Rubin is optimistic one will take place soon.

Platania declined to comment beyond his press release about the ban.

His office has given retailers 30 days to remove these devices from their businesses before being subject to maximum sentences of 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine. If the businesses remove the machines before the 30 days are up, they won’t face any charges.