TAMPA — A little slice of Vegas arrived in the Tampa Bay area Tuesday. But quietly.
The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino switched on 56 Las Vegas-style slots, the only legal ones in the state outside South Florida, to the delight and surprise of gamblers like Sue Kinch of Englewood.
"It's awesome," said Kinch, who watched Tuesday evening as players sat mesmerized at every machine, usually with someone standing behind to take their chairs. "Now, I feel the Hard Rock is closer to being a real casino."
Casino executives postponed advertising the new slots until the initial 725 machines were ready for the official debut May 1, worried customers would be unhappy with long lines. Most players Tuesday weren't expecting to find the small cluster of slots among 3,000 bingo-based machines.
Those older machines look like Vegas-style slots but play too slowly for Sharon Collins, a visitor from New York City. In a hour, she'd won $300 on a rapid-fire game called Wolf Run. Some 1,675 of the slots, just over half of the casino's total machines, will be running by the end of May.
They represent the first local impact of a controversial deal between the Seminole Tribe of Florida and Gov. Charlie Crist inked in November.
The deal lets the tribe operate Las Vegas-style slots in competition with a handful of race tracks in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Everywhere else, the Seminoles have exclusive rights to the machines at tribal casinos such as the Tampa Hard Rock.
The agreement also allows Florida's only legal "banked" card games, including blackjack and baccarat. Recruiters are hiring 3,650 dealers for the tribe's seven Florida casinos. By June, the first card games will start at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, said Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen. Tampa should get the games by late summer or fall.
Florida gets a cut of the revenue, at least $100-million a year for 25 years and as much as $1-billion over the first five years.
But two powerful lawmakers, Republicans like Crist, are asking the Florida Supreme Court to throw out the deal. House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, and Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, say Crist overstepped his authority by signing it without the Legislature's approval.
The tribe is going full speed ahead, with plans to operate more than 15,000 Las Vegas-style slots. Hollywood's Hard Rock got the first machines in January, followed by the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek.
There's a big difference between how the old and new machines work. Players compete against one another in an electronic bingo game on the older machines. The spinning wheels only represent the outcome. On Vegas-style slots, players compete against the house.
Early bingo-based games were much slower and required players to hit multiple buttons. Modern versions appear so much like slots that Indian gaming regulators are considering mandating changes. Seasoned gamblers prefer the kind of slots they play in Vegas and Atlantic City.
But neither kind necessarily pays out better than the other, says Steve Bourie, author of the annual American Casino Guide. It all depends on how the casino sets the game.
The tribe's slots must pay out at least 85 percent of money gamblers put in under the contract. Allen says both machines pay comparably to Atlantic City or Las Vegas Strip slots, in the low- to mid-90 percent range.
Unlike the South Florida tracks, the tribe doesn't need to release the payout on its machines.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.