By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
Skill-based games are age-restricted in Wyoming, and are something the industry itself has told state lawmakers should be limited to adult locations — truck stops, bars and smoke shops.
Senate File 41 would accomplish that, and was advanced by the Legislature’s Senate Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee last week.
The bill spells out acceptable locations for skill games, which industry lobbyist Katharine Wilkinson told Cowboy State Daily are meant to supplement an existing business, like a bar or restaurant, rather than be the end destination themselves.
“We have advocated from the beginning that there’s certain places in Wyoming that we don’t want these,” she said. “We don’t want Wyoming to look like Montana, with, you know, these games in every corner.”
What Are Skill Games
In some states these types of electronic wagering games are referred to as “grey” games.
Some have criticized a 2020 decision to allow them in Wyoming, fearing an appearance that gambling is expanding in the Cowboy State.
But Cowboy Skill games are not really games of chance, Wilkinson said.
“If you are skillful enough, you can actually win every single time, 105% of your money back,” she said.
The jackpots are limited to $3,000, and players can place as little as eight cents on each play, steps meant to minimize any chance the games might become addictive, she said.
The games are also restricted to those 21 and over.
State Already Has Hundreds Of Skill Games
Wyoming now has about 830 skill-based amusement games in operation across the state, lawmakers were told during a Thursday committee meeting. That’s 34 fewer than when the state began allowing them in 2020.
Mike Moser of the Wyoming Liquor Association is among proponents of the bill.
“Gaming, like liquor licenses, you can get too many, and if you have too many, it has a negative impact on the community,” he told lawmakers. “So that’s part of the reason we support this.”
He expects more businesses to add skill-based games, and believes SF 41 includes necessary sideboards for that eventuality.
“I have a lot of retailers, including clubs and places like that, looking forward to it,” he said. “Not as many as one would think. I would say maybe 200, at this point, more locations. So, a 50-75% increase.”
Many businesses that wanted skill-based games didn’t know about them before the cut-off date, Moser said.
“In fact, I was talking to an Elks Club not long ago up in the north part of the state who is waiting on pins and needles, because for many businesses this was a lifeline for their survival, especially during COVID,” he said.
Some Heartburn Continues
There was criticism when lawmakers decided to allow skill games in 2020. Among the concerns was the appearance that gambling itself is expanding in the Cowboy State.
Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, echoed those concerns during the committee’s deliberations.
“What I’m seeing in my community are a lot of HHR machines coming online a lot, and I hear a lot about it,” she said, referring to historic horse racing, which are different than skill games. “So, my concern is that these establishments will also become mini-casinos within Cheyenne.”
Limits Are Good for Skill Games
Limiting locations helps protect the industry from pushback, by underscoring that the product is meant for an entirely different market than straight gambling, like horse racing.
“HHR is end destination,” Wilkinson said. “Skill is supplemental entertainment — not the reason you are going to a place.”
It’s also logical to tie locations to age-restricted establishments like bars and smoke shops, Moser suggested.
Wyoming has widespread training opportunities across the state, teaching people in the hospitality industry how to check for age-related identification.
Lessening The Heartburn
“Sen. Ellis rightly pointed out that there’s been some heartburn about the expansion of gaming in Wyoming,” Moser said.
He believes, however, that with machines inside locations like restaurants, which won’t be likely to have big signs proclaiming “play your skill games here,” any expansion of such games isn’t likely to be all that noticeable.
“As long as we have the sideboards, nobody’s going to really notice that they’re there,” he said. “It’s a part of the business you probably won’t even notice until you walk clear in the back.”
Without sideboards limiting locations, however, he could foresee many of the machines everywhere.
“For example, in a downtown like this, you got an antique shop, that is without sideboards, that puts in four skill games,” he said. “Well, the convenience store down the street’s going, ‘Hey, Joe’s doing pretty good with those games.’ Pretty soon you’ve got 20, 30 locations down the main thoroughfare with these locations.”
That would create enforcement issues, Moser said, and he believes the businesses can start “cannibalizing off of each other.”
“This way, we have some control,” he said.
Senate file 41 has a unanimous “do-pass” resolution with two amendments out of the Senate Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee.
The first amendment redefines truck stop as a business premise equipped with diesel islands used for fueling commercial motor vehicles, with a convenient store that maintains parking spaces dedicated to commercial motor vehicle use.
The second amendment adds “smoke shops” to the list of approved locations, defined per state statue as a place with 50% or more of its gross annual revenue from nicotine products.