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What are skill games, and why are they at the center of a multimillion-dollar fight

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Skill games have the look and feel of a slot machine, but their makers say that unlike slots in casinos, these games do not rely purely on chance.
Skill games have the look and feel of a slot machine, but their makers say that unlike slots in casinos, these games do not rely purely on chance.
Keith Srakocic / AP

HARRISBURG — Skill games have the look and feel of a slot machine, but their makers say that unlike slots in casinos, these games do not rely purely on chance. Rather, they require a level of human skill or ability for players to win and earn a payout.

Skill games — which are now common in restaurants, taverns, convenience stores, and other establishments in Pennsylvania — are unique in another way, too: Unlike casino slot machines, they aren’t regulated under the state’s gambling law or subject to the same high taxes.

That status has made them a prime target. The casino industry has complained that skill games operate with little to no financial or social accountability, and the State Police view them as tantamount to illegal gambling. Troopers have seized machines from bars and other venues over the past few years, leading to extensive litigation. There is a case now before Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court to determine whether skill games are legal.

Skill games proponents counter that a series of court rulings has settled the question of their legality. They say they are open to legislation to formally legalize and regulate the machines.

But the court battle over skill games is still unresolved. And in the Capitol, where lobbying from both pro- and anti-skill game forces has been fierce, legislators for years have been split over the best way to deal with the machines. The result has been legislative paralysis that has allowed the skill games industry to operate in regulatory limbo.

A Beaver County court in 2014 ruled that developer Pace-O-Matic’s “Pennsylvania Skill” machines indeed require skill and are not illegal gambling devices under the state’s crimes code. In 2019, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court ruled in a separate case that the state’s Gaming Control Board cannot regulate the machines because the law only gives it jurisdiction over slots in state-licensed gambling facilities.

But the appellate court, in a separate case, has yet to weigh in on whether skill games amount to illegal gambling devices.

Meanwhile, legislators in the Capitol have been unable to find a compromise on skill games, in part because of pushback from lobbyists on both sides of the issue. A solution seems unlikely in this two-year legislative session, which ends in November.

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