Virginia ponders casinos

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The July issue goes live Friday. In the cover story, Michael O’Connor examines what a new era of gambling could look like in Virginia as the state ponders if it should legalize casinos. A glimpse of the article is below. Read the rest in Friday's newsletter; by downloading the Virginia Business app or subscribing to the print edition of the magazine. 

It’s a sunny May afternoon in New Kent County, but dozens of patrons are gathered indoors amid an arcadelike chorus of chirping touch screens displaying bright red cherries, neon lemons and ostensibly lucky numbers.

Players at Rosie’s Gaming Emporium at Colonial Downs withdraw cash from one machine and deposit it in another. They tap buttons at electronic games with titles like “Super Vegas Royale” and “Slush Funds.” Cartoon horses flash at the top of each screen. Security guards quietly stand watch as people make bet after bet. Bright signs display recent jackpots and encourage people to test their chances: “The next big win could be yours.”

“I can’t believe they got away with it in Virginia,” a patron exclaims inside what is the bleeding edge of legal gambling in the state.

The slot machinelike games at Rosie’s are technically not slot machines. Rather than random outcomes, Rosie’s machines are based on actual, albeit anonymous, historic horse races and have been legal in Virginia only since last year. The race being wagered on is identified onscreen after players make their bets.

Such distinctions can get lost amid the glow of the gaming room floor, however important the technological differences might — or might not — be to state lawmakers.

“I’m not the moral police,” says state Sen. Mamie E. Locke, a Democrat who represents part of Portsmouth, when asked about her position on casinos. “We have many infrastructure needs. We have transportation needs. We have education needs. And this could be a source of revenue that could meet those needs.”

The uncertain outcomes being bet on at Rosie’s mirror the current hopes for casinos in Virginia, where legal gambling, for now, is limited to the kinds of games Rosie’s offers (historic horse racing, also known as instant racing), as well as horse betting, online fantasy sports, the Virginia Lottery and charitable games like bingo.

The push to open Virginia’s first full-fledged casino with table games such as blackjack and roulette has no shortage of players, but whether they’ll be able to get in on the action is an open question.


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