Province appealing court ruling allowing slot-like games in Ontario bars

Northerners may have noticed games popping up in local bars that look and sound a lot like slot machines. It's called Got Skill? and they are completely legal and allowed outside of casinos. But the provincial government is hoping to change that.

Ontario court ruled in September 2018 that Got Skill? is not gambling, province is appealing

Got skill? 0:25

You sit in front of a screen, slide in your cash card, press a "spin" button and watch a wheel of symbols go around and around, hoping for a match.

If all goes right you could win $2,000. 

You are not sitting in a casino, but in your neighbourhood bar in northern Ontario.

And you are not playing a slot machine, but a video game called Got Skill?.

But Got Skill? is not gambling according to the Ontario courts.

A ruling in September classified it as a skill-based game meaning it is allowed outside of casinos. 

Got Skill? games can be found in 200 bars across Ontario, including about 10 in the northeast. After a legal challenge from the provincial government, a court ruled last year that they do not constitute gambling. (Erik White/CBC)

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, which took the case to court in 2017, is appealing the decision and declined to comment for this story. 

"We're working constructively with the new Ford government on a resolution that hopefully does not negatively impact us, including the many jobs we support," said Tony Carvahlo, president of Got Skill?. 

"We're confident that if it does go through a court process that the courts will determine once again, that our games are games of skill."

Carvahlo first launched Got Skill? in 2015 and the machine can now be found in 200 bars across Ontario, including about 10 in the northeast in Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins, North Bay and Sudbury.

Bars don't pay to have the games installed and collect a percentage of the profits, which some say has been good for their business. 

The Got Skill? game does look and sound like a slot machine, but the company says it isn't worried about gambling addiction because players can only win $2,000 at a time. (Erik White/CBC)

There have been three Got Skill? games in the Overtime Sports Bar and Grill in Sudbury for the past six months. 

"They asked me 'How is that ever legal?' Because I guess in their eyes they do feel it's gambling," said owner Atillio Langella. 

"You see the same faces playing it over and over again. I don't think it draws too much traffic in my situation."

Got Skill? provides training and technical support for bar staff, but that does not include how to identify problem gambling.

Carvahlo says it isn't a concern because of the "very small" prizes Got Skill? offers.

"We are confident that what we put in place is something that would not cause any issues from an addiction perspective," he says.

Shelley White, the CEO of the Responsible Gambling Council, says her organization "strongly disagrees with that."

"Studies have shown that this particular type of machine is one of the riskiest," she says, with 13 per cent being prone to problem gambling, as opposed to 2 per cent for other kinds of betting.

This hand-eye coordination test in Got Skill? is why the game is classified as a game of pure skill, making it legal outside casinos in Ontario. (Erik White/CBC )

White says the Responsible Gambling Council classifies Got Skill? as a video lottery terminal or VLT, which is legal in many provinces including Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia, and have been criticized for spreading addiction and social problems.

She wants to see the province put in guidelines on these bar games, including requiring staff to get the same kind of training that's needed to work in a casino. 

White doesn't want to wade into the legal debate about what consitutes gambling or not.

Michael Lipton, a lawyer with Dickinson Wright who specializes in gambling cases, says Got Skill? could open up the door to other kinds of games being allowed outside of casinos. 

"It's very hard to come up with a machine that is a game of pure skill," he says. 

"This is one of the few reported cases in Canada where they seem to have been able to move the yardsticks."

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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