CASPER, Wyo. (AP) – Every morning, D.R. “Doc” Carson makes his way to this city’s newest Internet cafe and pulls up a chair in front of a terminal. He skips the keyboard, choosing instead to use the touch-screen monitor. He usually stays until around 5 p.m., when his wife gets home.
That’s a long time on the Internet for a man who describes himself as computer illiterate. But Carson isn’t surfing – he’s playing the sweepstakes.
Carson and a dozens of others here have bought long-distance phone cards that are loaded with sweepstakes points they can use to play casino-type games – and win cash – on the Internet cafe’s computers.
The state attorney general says it’s illegal gambling, and the local prosecutor is investigating. But the operators say it’s a legitimate business promotion plan, no different from instant-win twist-off caps on a soda pop bottle, aimed at boosting sales of their legitimate products: phone cards and Internet time.
Wyoming is one of eight states where these sweepstakes are played; the others are Alabama, California, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Texas. Arizona and Utah are on the list for expansion. The games are the latest frontier in the battle over what constitutes illegal gambling.
Carson says there is no question. These sweepstakes simply aren’t gambling.
“It’s more or less just a pastime,” the 62-year-old Carson said. “You’re not going to get rich on it by any means.”
Carson is almost an unofficial spokesman for the aptly named Internet Cafe. By his account, he’s been there every day since it opened March 24.
Customers can either buy Internet time by itself, or a combo deal – $5 for a 100-minute phone card, one hour of Internet time and 100 sweepstakes points. Those points can only be used to play games on the cafe’s computers. Points won playing those games – the games pay out on average 92 percent – can be redeemed for cash or for more long-distance time.
That’s where things get fuzzy.
The games themselves mimic casino games. Keyboards don’t sit in front of the screen, but are stashed in a floor-level basket, as players seem to prefer the touch-screens. Close your eyes, and the dull smell of spent cigarettes and the constant electronic jangling from the games create the sense of a casino.
William Consterdine, vice president of Extreme Insured Products, which distributes the games, understands why at first glance people might see the Internet Cafe as a casino.
But there’s one key distinction.
“It’s a free game,” he said. “When a person comes in and buys a phone card from us, if they want to sit down and use their sweepstakes points to log on to our games, they can. If they don’t want to, they don’t have to. They can take their phone card and leave.”
What’s more, he said, the sweepstakes points cannot be traded for cash or merchandise, they can only be used to play the games. The points can only be redeemed for cash or merchandise.
Bob Jarvis, who teaches gambling law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said the classic definition of gambling is that someone gives up something of value to take a chance at winning a prize.
“Certainly there’s a chance involved, because they only pay out 92 percent,” Jarvis said.
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