The Odds Are Against You With Video Gambling in Bars

Friday Night At BarTGIF! It’s Friday night and, if you’re going out to a bar this weekend, remember three things:

(1) don’t drink and drive; (2) don’t buy anyone’s lines; and (3) if you play the video poker machines, know that the odds are against you.


Poker is in the news this week (for those of us obsessed with celebrity gossip) because Ben Affleck supposedly just got banned for life from playing blackjack at the Hard Rock Casino (he’s that good at counting cards).  And there’s often a connection between lawyers and poker, although I’m so bad at all forms of gambling I’ve never understood that link.

Slot MachineBut there are other links between gambling and lawyers, usually when someone needs legal advice.  Like when a drinking buddy of a friend tells me about his video poker dispute with the local bar.  He won more than $500 playing on the machines but the bar wasn’t paying up and he was wondering if there was anything he could do.

The problem, at least in the great state of Wisconsin, is that those video poker (and slot) machines are illegal in bars.  See WI Stat. Sec. 945.035.  But it’s a weird kind of illegal: if bars have five or less machines it’s only a misdemeanor and apparently there’s no prosecution for that misdemeanor.  If a bar has more than five machines, it’s a felony and it can be prosecuted (if it’s done the right way, with the right officials).

PoliceBadgeThat means a lot of Wisconsin bars have these machines even though they’re technically illegal.  And that’s bad news for everyone involved.  If somebody uses the machines to scam the bars, the bars don’t have much of a legal remedy.  That’s also true if somebody plays the machines and “wins” but the bar refuses to pay up.  Prosecutors and the police aren’t going to spend a lot of time helping people, or businesses, who got screwed over.

Sometimes the cops will help, but there isn’t a lot prosecutors can or will do to help people and businesses who are doing something illegal.  Just ask Boy George – sometimes you can end up in trouble when you call for help if you’re doing something illegal!  And sometimes the cops will seize a bar’s machines as contraband because they’re illegal machines, even if the bars never intended to pay out on their customers’ wins anyway (that’s karma!).  See In re Return of Prop., 2002 WI App 79, 252 Wis. 2d 604, 611 (holding that the police did not need to return video slot machines because they were illegal, even though the bar never paid out any money).

So if you’re in a bar and looking for a way to pass the time, go ahead and play on those machines but don’t expect to win anything.  It’s just another way to spend some money and pass the time while you check out that cutie across the bar!

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Jessica has been litigating business and IP disputes for the past decade. During that time, she’s dealt with clients, lawyers, and judges who have varying degrees of appreciation for the challenges of managing discovery in an electronic age. Until the fall of 2011, she was an attorney at a large, Texas-based law firm, where she represented clients in state and federal court nationwide. That fall, she made a long-desired move back to the Midwest and is now a partner at Hansen Reynolds Dickinson Crueger LLC, a litigation boutique based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she continues to litigate while also consulting with business and law firms on e-discovery issues (before, during, and after litigation arises).