In My Opinion

A roulette wheel that pretends it isn’t

Players hover around the table, regarding a small metal ball as it dances around the circumference of a spinning roulette wheel that isn’t a roulette wheel. Not in Florida. Because, well, roulette’s illegal here, isn’t it?

“It’s roulette, but better,” insisted Louis Ruiz, as the ball’s momentum faltered and it fell into one of the little numbered slots. “No one to cheat you. This is just gravity.”

Indeed, the roulette wheels that South Florida’s racinos and Indian casinos added to their gambling menu this summer are hermetically sealed under a plastic dome. Untouched by human hands. No croupier stands watch.

Gravity, on this particular turn, was kind to Ruiz, 43, of Pembroke Pines, with a card identifying him as an “elite” regular gambler at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood. “I won $210.”

His winnings were recorded on one of the 12 burping terminals around the un-roulette wheel that represents yet another peculiarity in Florida’s ever expanding gambling regime. Clearly, the betting around this table has to do with an actual ball rolling around an actual tangible wheel, not some digital on-screen apparition. But last winter, Miami’s Magic City Casino convinced an administrative judge that these gadgets were an incarnation of legal, electronic slot machines.

Another new machine features a robotic arm that tosses actual dice. But don’t call it craps.

“Takes your money just the same,” observed Anthony Gray, another regular at the Hard Rock. Yet Florida pretends there’s a moral distinction between the old fashioned roulette or craps and these semi-electronic hybrids. Though the electronic versions are much more efficient at relieving gamblers of their money.

Leaders in the state Legislature, as they snuffed out bills that would have created so-called “destination casinos” last session, explained that they’re determined to staunch the “expansion of gambling.”

Truth is, they’ve had about as much luck slowing down the gambling industry in Florida as they’ve had keeping Burmese pythons out of the Everglades. In November, voters in both Palm Beach and Lee counties will be voting whether to legalize slot machines at their local racinos. Not that local voters have any such authority. But the track operators know a “yes” vote will up the pressure in Tallahassee. Up in Gadsden County, 63 percent of the voters approved a slot referendum in January, as the local track operator replaced quarter-horse racing with a novel new form of pari-mutuel gambling: rodeo style barrel racing.

Gaming operators are talking about opening jai-alai frontons in Florida City and Sunrise, no matter that jai-alai has about as much cachet in modern Florida as shuffleboard. It’s all about slots, slots and more slots.

Meanwhile, gambling conglomerates, looking for destination casinos, are pouring money into Florida politics.

And on the other end of the gambling spectrum, Internet cafes have contributed more than $700,000 to state campaigns this year, looking to preserve the fiction that no gambling occurs in their storefront gambling dens.

It might work. In Florida, home of the un-roulette, we cling to an illusion about holding the line on gambling. But the line keeps moving.

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