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West Virginia Gambling & Casinos + Poker

West Virginia has an interesting gambling history, going back to just beyond the Great Depression. The current gambling situation is almost as much fun to watch as it is play, with the number of players and the stakes involved. The future of gambling in West Virginia looks bright, if just a little murky.

The state of West Virginia has a state lottery, racing, and, most recently, video slots. All other forms of gambling are illegal, even bingo and poker, and the owning and playing of gambling is punishable by law (although most such crimes are considered a misdemeanor). Also, West Virginia has no Indian casinos, due to a lack of current local Native American tribes (several tribes have migrated in and out of the state, but never stayed, and the one tribe that was native to West Virginia merged with another tribe and moved).

West Virginia horse tracks and two greyhound tracks are available. All four tracks allow pari-mutuel on- and off-track racing, and simulcast (broadcast the race as it happens) their own races, as well as the Triple Crown horse races. Greyhound racing is in decline, mainly due to competition from the video slots and protests from various animal rights groups regarding the treatment and care of animals. Both greyhound tracks use video slots in order to keep the track sustainable. The horse tracks have managed to remain highly profitable, especially with new ownership seeking new ways to expand their business.

There has been racing of one form or another in West Virginia since 1926, when the first greyhound tracks were built. Horse racing joined in 1933, during the Great Depression (when the tracks were so poor they paid the owners of the winning horse with IOUs). There has been some influence by organized crime, and it has even involved a couple of senators, but the influence has been successfully weeded out by the work of the FBI and local agencies. In the 1960’s and 1970’s horseracing began experiencing a decline (and one of the greyhound tracks is actually a former horse track), but it has made somewhat of a comeback since then, but they are now facing competition from video slots.

Greyhound racing reached a peak, and then experienced a decline in the early 1990’s, and has yet to really bounce back. All four tracks have experienced changing of owners and some have almost closed down, but they have all managed to survive.

The state legislature recently voted down bills that would have allowed the four tracks to become “racinos”, race tracks that feature all of the amenities (shows, slots, card games) of casinos. However, all four tracks feature video slots to some degree, the greyhound tracks more so than the horse tracks. It also appears that West Virginia may have hit a plateau in the amount of gambling that it can handle. To make matters more interesting, the tracks are facing competition not only from local gambling, but potentially from Pennsylvania as well, which has just been cleared by its supreme court to permit slot machines, with casinos already planned to follow within the year.

Some racetrack owners are debating joining the anti-video slot groups due to the competition that they are receiving from neighborhood slot shops. In 2001, West Virginia passed the Limited Video Lottery Act, legalizing slot machines at bars and fraternal clubs. Since then, the state has licensed over 9000 machines at almost 1700 locations (1000 permits are inactive). These slots brought in $240 million last year. Locations are limited to five or ten machines, depending on the type of location (bars are limited to five machines each, and recognized fraternal organizations are limited to ten machines each). An average machine operator with five machines will spend $75,000 between permits and the machines themselves.

Some people and groups believe that West Virginia has reached a saturation point as far as the number of venues available for gambling, and that the profits from gambling as a whole have reached a plateau. Another of the racetracks’ biggest issues would be the perception of hypocrisy, as they made $371 million dollars from slots last year. Also, some house members are in the limited video lottery business, creating the possibility for conflict. However, others in the legislature are debating the number of machines, and are seeking to further limit the number of machines, possibly through just letting the permits expire. An added issue is that 1000 of the permits issued have yet to be used, and the state legislature is debating whether or not to allow those permits to be used, or to somehow bring them back in.

An interesting issue that has sprung up is placing the new machines. Some cities have placed limits on how far machines must be placed apart, as well as how far they must be from schools, churches, and other family-related buildings. Although some locations can legally ignore these restrictions (due to grandfather clauses), it has caused an interesting issue when trying to place a new video slot location in those cities. Some companies have already faced charges due to the situation.

Adding to the situation is that there has been a perceived proliferation of machines. Prior to the legalization, some places had a large number of so-called “gray” machines. After the legalization, the number of machines in a given location was reduced, but the number of locations increased. Thus, although there are fewer machines, they have a greater visibility. Suffice to say, this has also added fuel to the fire.

In short, gambling in West Virginia can be exciting, both on the table and off, as the different entities struggle for survival against both themselves and forces just outside the state. As they reach equilibrium between the various forces involved, it should be interesting to see what the future of gambling in West Virginia will bring.

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