COLUMBIA, Mo. — For Albert Newsome, the short drive to play the slots at the Fast Lane gas station near his house is more appealing than making a 20-mile trip to the nearest casino in Boonville.
“Twenty miles is a long way to drive just to play a machine,” he said on a recent afternoon. “This is easy and convenient.”
Newsome’s experience illustrates the draw of these flashy devices, popping up at gas stations, bars and clubs across the state.
But the machines have spread under the radar, meaning there are no addiction resources available, and no rules to ensure a fair experience for gamblers. What’s more, researchers who study gambling addiction consider slot machines one of the riskiest forms of gambling.
According to the Missouri Gaming Commission, slot machines are only legal — and regulated — inside the state’s 13 licensed casinos.
For machines outside of casinos, there are no gambler exclusion lists, no anti-addiction programs and no rules that govern acceptable payouts.
Newsome, 68, of Columbia, said he didn’t realize the games were unregulated, and that there was no law ensuring he had the same chance of winning big at the gas station as he does at the riverboat.
“Oh really?” he asked. “I learned something today.”
Rachel Volberg, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a leading gambling researcher, said all slot machines have the same basic function.
“You put some money in; you don’t know how much is going to come out,” she said. “So it’s a stake that you make for an outcome of unknown certainty with the opportunity to make another bet very quickly.”
The “very quickly” part is one of the reasons slot machines are concerning, Volberg said. The lights, the bells and pace of the game “becomes very mesmerizing for people.”
“If people are not developing an addiction or a gambling disorder associated with those machines, they definitely are finding it very easy to overspend their money and overspend time spent on the machines,” Volberg said of slot machines in general.
May Scheve, executive director of the Missouri Lottery, said there is nothing stopping gamblers who have excluded themselves from the lottery or casinos from entering a gas station and placing a bet.
“If they’ve gone through the effort to be excluded from casinos and lottery products, they’re gonna see these products as possibly their best alternative,” she said.
Illinois legalized video gambling in 2009, where games similar to Missouri’s are located in more than 6,800 locations, according to a February investigation by ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ Chicago.
The investigation found the state hadn’t taken steps to meaningfully address addiction after legalizing the games, including adequately funding addiction prevention programs, instituting a self-exclusion list or putting in place tough measures to prevent underage gambling.
ProPublica reported in June that the state would conduct a comprehensive study on gambling addiction as well as devote more money toward gambling addiction treatment.
Missouri lawmakers return to Jefferson City on Jan. 8, where legalizing some version of the video machines is on the agenda.
Game operators in Missouri contend their machines are legal amusement devices because there is no element of “chance” associated with them.
Before moving forward with a bet, a player is given the opportunity to press an icon that allows him or her to see the outcome of a wager. You don’t have to click the icon in order to place a bet.
Machines at gas stations across the state are plastered with disclaimers.
“This amusement device is designed to provide no contest and no chance in the games offered to its players,” reads one sticker on a game at the Phillips 66 gas station in Kingdom City, a popular stop for motorists traveling on Interstate 70.
The assertion hasn’t stopped the Gaming Commission from declaring the games illegal. It hasn’t stopped the Missouri Highway Patrol from issuing criminal referrals to county prosecutors.
Many prosecutors are awaiting the outcome of an illegal gambling case in Platte County before moving forward with their own charges.
Polk County Prosecuting Attorney Ken Ashlock is one of a handful of prosecutors who have brought illegal gambling charges this year against out-of-casino slot machine operators.
“Why would you sit there and put money in it at all” if it wasn’t an illegal gambling machine, Ashlock asked. “If you lose, you put another quarter in, or another dime or 50 cents, or a dollar or whatever it is, so that you can get a chance to win the next prize. So it kind of keeps you going, entices you to keep going.
“It’s gambling,” he said.
Scheve said one possibility for the Legislature is legalizing video lottery terminals, which would connect to a central computer system that the state lottery manages.
It is unclear whether those machines would compete alongside current machines that are considered illegal.
“I do believe that those illegal games that are in existence today are not regulated and they’re not taxed, and so public education is not gaining any advantage for them to be out there,” Scheve said. “It’s actually a disadvantage. They’re draining money out of the lottery.”
Casino slot machines in Missouri are required to offer payouts of at least 80% — meaning that four-fifths of all money inserted into a slot machine must be returned to players.
The Gaming Commission publishes monthly payout data for all 13 regulated casinos. The Missouri Lottery also keeps track of scratcher, pull-tab and draw game odds.
For example, a player has about a 1-in-4 chance of winning some sort of prize while playing the “Bankroll Tripler” game or the “20X Lucky“ game.
“If they’re not regulated, the consumer is not protected,“ Scheve said.
The Post-Dispatch asked Torch Electronics, the gaming company that donated $20,000 to Gov. Mike Parson, what the company’s payout levels were, whether it sponsors an exclusion list, and whether any revenues are devoted to gambling addiction awareness or treatment programs.
Gregg Keller, spokesman for the company, did not return a request for comment.