Indian casino trick hits the right slot

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WHEN IS a slot machine not a slot machine? It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke but for California's Indian tribes trying to make a living from casinos, it is a serious question.

In theory, a box with flashing lights and spinning wheels that the punter feeds with money in the hope of extracting a profit - what any unsuspecting person would recognise as a slot machine - is illegal in California. Or it has been up to now.

For it would seem the box with flashing lights and spinning wheels developed by the Pala tribe of north San Diego county is not a slot machine: its official name is an Indian Video Lottery Match Game and, although it looks like a slot machine, operates like one and sounds one, it succeeds, for official definitions, in being something different. Something entirely legal.

The loophole lies in a trick made possible by computers. The principle of a slot machine is that each customer tries his luck individually. But the Video Lottery Match Game gives each customer a number and picks a winner. The punter does not notice the difference, because the result is signalled by three cherries or strawberries appearing in sequence. But the difference, legally, is that customers are competing against each other rather than the house. If the machinery sounds complicated, it pales next to the complexities of the politics behind the wheeze.

Until recently, gambling was considered the domain of Nevada, to the east. Californian Indians have been allowed to run casinos on their reservations since 1988 but were restricted in what they could offer. What prompted the Pala to develop their machine was negotiations with California's Governor, Pete Wilson, to secure as much leeway as possible with a state leader nominally opposed to the spread of casinos. The Pala signed a compact in September, and 10 other Californian tribes followed suit.

But a different group of tribes lobbied to put a proposition legalising all forms of reservation gambling on to next month's electoral ballot. Supporters of Proposition 5 say Indians have the right to economic self- reliance and casinos are as good a way of achieving that as any.

However, there is one set of arguments on the surface and another underneath. Proposition 5 is not about the best interests of the Indians or the state but about different means of generating revenue and buying political influence. The Pala and others in the No camp are betting on the Video Lottery Match Game.

The Yes camp, meanwhile, wants to compete with Nevada head-on, betting that the financial muscle its gambling facilities will acquire will enable them to keep the politicians sweet and preserve their current tax advantages.