A game with some of the worst odds in the house is a key to an administration plan to privatize management of the Pennsylvania lottery
March 17, 2013 4:00 AM
A man fills out a Keno ticket at a bar in West Virginia.
Denis Poroy/Associated Press
Playing a video keno machine in Palm Springs, Calif.
By Timothy McNulty Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
WEIRTON -- Sometimes five minutes is too long to wait.
West Virginia's traditional keno game issues winning numbers every five minutes, every day, from 5 a.m. to 3:45 a.m. But the lure to bet the number game draws players a few feet away to terminals that allow for instant results.
"That's all I play. The keno," said Alison Rosohac, 83, gesturing to a row of video lottery machines that offer keno and other casino-type games at the People's Choice Cafe. "I feel more in control because I'm putting in the numbers."
Keno -- a game in which players pick up to 10 numbers, with hopes of matching them to 20 numbers between 1 and 80 chosen randomly by a computer -- has among the worst odds for players of any form of gambling, and the best for the house. That is why it is a key to a Corbett administration plan to adopt it as part of a privatized management of the Pennsylvania lottery, which it says could generate an extra $34.6 billion for the state's seniors over 20 years.
The proposed contract with British firm Camelot Gaming is still in limbo, as the governor's office is looking to restructure it after rejection last month by Attorney General Kathleen Kane.
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Early plans suggested the state would adopt the slower form of the game, where results are displayed on TV-type screens every five minutes at bars, restaurants and convenience stores, and run through a statewide database. But critics suspect that Pennsylvania's lottery managers will inevitably be drawn to the faster, casino-type terminals just as players in West Virginia are. Some worry about the impacts on the state's existing casino industry and others about problem gamblers.
West Virginia introduced a keno game similar to what the Corbett administration is proposing in 1994 but as of last year it generated less than 1 percent of the state's legalized gambling revenue. Video lottery machines that include the faster keno were introduced in 2001 and within four years accounted for 70 percent of the state's lottery proceeds. The newer machines also account for two-thirds of the calls to the Problem Gamblers Help Network of West Virginia.
Where problem gamblers had once been largely clustered around the cities hosting the state's four casinos, they are now found statewide. And the type of gambler has changed too: instead of attracting active gamers concentrating on the strategy of picking cards or racehorses, the machines offering keno and similar games offer a relatively mindless escape.
"Our callers often say they're trying to forget about something negative in life. They're in a zone when they play," said the Help Network's Sheila Moran.
That is the kind of thing that worries critics of the Corbett administration plans, such as Brandon McGinley, field director for the Pennsylvania Family Institute, especially because the games would be mixed with alcohol at Pennsylvania restaurants and bars.
"What we're talking about is putting these facilities precisely in the places, and in order to attract, the most vulnerable, the elderly on fixed incomes and the working classes," he said. "Who's going to hope for the quick payday in the local TGI Friday's or the corner bar? Not the CEO or the middle manager, but somebody who may not cover the rent."
In West Virginia, licensed bars and restaurants are allowed five of the video lottery machines and fraternal organizations (such as the Elks) 10 of them. While there are just 305 of the traditional keno locations, the state has licensed about 6,000 video terminals.
The Corbett administration has repeatedly said its proposed contract with the British firm Camelot to take over the state lottery "does not contemplate" video lottery terminals such as those in West Virginia, but critics from Democratic Treasurer Rob McCord to the Republican leaders of the state Senate have not been convinced.
The proposed Pennsylvania contract envisions up to 3,000 keno locations by 2018, so the critics wonder exactly what that means: Mr. McCord argues the machines should be overseen by the Gaming Control Board, not the administration or a private manager, and the Republicans worry that if there is expansion into video terminals it would hurt the bottom line of Pennsylvania casinos that have ponied up $65 million each to host similar games.
"There is concern that the contract would allow Camelot Gaming or its subcontractors to expand the lottery from what is generally considered to be 'keno' and provide unlimited types of Internet and monitor-based interactive games," Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi and other GOP leaders wrote to the governor in January. "Not only is this a broader expansion of gambling than has been described, but these games will directly compete against our highly regulated casinos."
Another signer, State Sen. Robert Tomlinson, R-Bucks, intends to introduce legislation narrowly defining keno as a lottery game that could not simulate casino-type games.
When Ms. Kane -- a Corbett critic and Democrat -- rejected the Camelot contract Feb. 14 she too argued that adopting monitor or electronic type keno games is not authorized by state lottery law and would usurp powers granted to the Legislature and gaming board.
Mr. Corbett is expected to resubmit the contract with Camelot soon, perhaps with new language barring keno from competing with casino offerings.
Even if the state adopts only the more traditional, lottery-style keno game offered by 14 states (including Delaware, which adopted it in January), it will introduce fundamental changes to Pennsylvania bars and other places hosting the game. Besides the screens posting new numbers every five minutes, in West Virginia most places have scanners where players can check old tickets to see if they've hit; players routinely pay for multiple drawings so they can repeatedly play while hanging out at the bar; bars with the biggest keno scenes lure players with cheap beer, and bartenders are rewarded with extra tips when players cash.
It's no wonder bars and restaurants all over Weirton feature the game.
"They're everywhere. Everywhere you look, they're there," said Debbie Kalinowski, a cashier at Mario's Italian Restaurant and Lounge.
In keno, the more numbers you pay to gamble on that the computer picks too, the more you win. As it is random, players are more likely to lose money playing it than in almost every other form of gambling: Statistics kept by University of Nevada odds expert Michael Shackelford show keno favors the house 10 times more than slot machines and 100 times more than blackjack.
State-run keno games are "about equally as bad as lottery tickets, which is as bad as it generally gets in gambling," he said.
Even those who work at keno parlors have second thoughts about the game. "It's a tough business to be in," said Joe Noga, 48, who has worked at the People's Choice Cafe for six years.
"It's the addiction part ... . People will do anything, thinking they're going to hit."