In the last year alone, Missouri regulators have fielded just under 100 calls about illegal slot machines within the state. The stat suggests regulators could be losing control of Missouri’s ever-growing illegal gaming industry.
Illegal slot machines are gaining momentum in Missouri. One particular provider, Torch Electronics, aims to fan those flames.
Illegal slot machines catch fire in Missouri
According to state law, the only legal Missouri casinos with slot machines exist within the state’s 13 approved riverboat casinos. However, what exactly constitutes an illegal slot machine remains up for debate.
Although the Missouri Gaming Commission (MGC) runs a hotline for reporting illegal machines, its efforts have somewhat backfired recently. The increased prevalence of these questionable (yet profitable) slot machines has led stores to begin inquiring about how to get their own machines. Players themselves have also been dialing in. Though, instead of calling to report an illegal machine, they call with complaints about a store shorting them on their winnings.
The Missouri Gaming Commission’s response has simply been to turn these misguided callers away. The state’s lackluster handling of the illegal gaming industry thus far is ultimately what led to Missouri’s current situation.
Torch Electronics aims to set industry ablaze
Missouri gaming officials estimated that more than 14,000 illegal slot machines operated within the state last year. A small handful of providers are then responsible for distributing those thousands of machines. One certain provider, Torch Electronics, recently defied authorities by suing the state for confiscating their machines.
Torch argued that the machines are “amusement devices” rather than slot machines. This claim, they said, is based on the machines’ prize windows. Players can see what they will win on the next spin. This prize window, they argue, makes them a “skill” or “amusement” game and not a “chance” game because the player knows the odds going into the interaction.
Torch Electronics has donated heavily to political action committees (PACs) aimed at legalizing gambling in Missouri. The company has gone further by employing Missouri House Speaker-turned-lobbyist Steve Tilley.
In May, Torch donated $240,000 to a series of Legislature committee members in hopes of changing the law or killing further legislation criminalizing their machines.
Meanwhile, Missouri legislators have held hearings over a Senate bill (SB 632) intended to outlaw the machines. Despite most legislators not buying the lobby’s argument of the machines being “amusement devices,” the bill has yet to pass.
Machines have history of being unwelcome
In 2020, a Platte County Circuit Court judge found Integrity Vending LLC guilty of promoting illegal gambling after using the same type of devices Torch Electronics currently operates. Integrity Vending argued that the prize window exempted their machines from being slot machines. Judge Thomas Fincham, on the other hand, disagreed, charging the brand with a Class E felony that carried a $10,000 fine.
Aside from that particular ruling, county prosecutors have not gone after illegal slot machine operators or vendors with much fervor. Sen. Dan Hegeman, sponsor of SB 632, told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that he was “disappointed in the lack of action that we’ve seen — or haven’t seen — out of some of the prosecutors in the state of Missouri. It’s always frustrating when it takes a second law to deem something illegal.”
The machines in question are ultimately detrimental to Missouri for multiple reasons. Whereas legal gaming machines have certain requirements for operation, these illegal machines do not.
Moreover, legal Missouri gambling supplements statewide education initiatives as well as problem gambling awareness and research efforts. Illegal gaming machines, again, do no such thing.
Multiple Missouri groups champion for a solution
Missouri organizations like the MGC and state Highway Patrol are not alone in urging for a crackdown. The Missouri Lottery as well as the state’s casinos have all voiced concerns about illegal machines eating into their profits.
The longer Missouri allows vendors to flood the state with these machines, the harder it will be to get rid of them.
With no concrete legislation in place to ban illegal slot machines, companies like Torch Entertainment continue gaining traction in the iffy gray space of not-so-legal Missouri gambling. The state of Missouri, in the meantime, continues losing out on millions of dollars in potential gaming tax revenue.