Hawaii Lawmaker Suspects Gambling in Kaneohe

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Hawaii may be one of only two states that prohibit gambling — even bingo and lotteries — but casino-type video games at several Oahu stores have one longtime lawmaker concerned.

State Rep. Cynthia Thielen, a Windward Republican who strongly opposes gambling, believes several video games at the Tilt store at Windward Mall and Internet Sweepstakes at Kaneohe Pawn may violate state law.

Her opinion is informed in part by a January memorandum from an attorney at the Legislative Reference Bureau that suggests the video games that, depending on the specific facts, "may still be considered a 'game of chance' prohibited under Hawaii's gambling laws."

"I think it's worth law enforcement looking into this — to see if quasi-gambling is proliferating to our state," Thielen said. "If it is actual gambling, which there is an argument that it is, then I think it should be shut down."

Thielen learned about the games from Kaneohe resident Jim Wolery, who was visiting the Windward Mall one day about two years ago when he passed by the Tilt arcade. What caught his eye was two teenagers pumping cash into a row of machines that to Wolery's eye resembled Las Vegas slots.

"One of the kids was about 14, and he dropped $40 within about 15 to 20 minutes," he said. "I said to him, 'Do you ever win at this thing?' He said, 'I'm just learning, but my buddy wins a lot.'"

The buddy, according to Wolery, appeared around 17 years of age. He was told by the older teen that he had won $1,600 several months earlier, but for any win over $600 the store mailed a check rather than make the payout in cash.

"This did not look to me like a wholesome activity," Wolery said of Tilt. "The machines were very much at the front of the store and the demographic wasn't old guys — it was the teenage crowd. And this was odd because Hawaii discusses gambling every year or so."

Wolery was referring to proposals to legalize gambling at the Hawaii Legislature that have always failed.

The owners of Kaneohe Pawn told Civil Beat that Internet Sweepstakes isn't gambling, while the proprietor of Tilt referred inquiries to a retired attorney who offered the same opinion about that store.

Wolery doesn't buy it.

"How is that not gambling?" he asks. "I visit the mall often, and other times I would see lounge lizards from Vegas sitting on stools at these things, and I asked them the same question. They say it's skill as opposed to chance. But the machines will take $100 bills. It's like what the courts say about pornography — you know it when you see it. I doubt any players are there to enhance their skills."

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