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Vegas in Florida, with deal or no deal

The endless electronic song of thousands of slot machines with names such as Red, White & Blue, I Dream of Jeannie and Double Diamond blend together into a single, compelling thrum.

Stepping onto the floor at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa, I am overwhelmed, disoriented by the countless rows. Where to start? How does it work?

It turns out to be simple. The slots take either hard cash or a computer ticket, as good as money. There are no levers to pull, just a button to push, over and over. The computerized screen tells you how much you've got left.

In just a few spins I hit for almost $90. I push the "Cash Out" button and the machine spits out a ticket. I have $90 of the casino's money. But the casino knows I am likely to put it back in, which I do, soon giving half of it back.

The weekday crowd is mostly made up of senior citizens. The regulars have cards that slide into a slot on each machine. They wear them on a flexible cord, so that as they play the slots, they are literally, physically connected to them.

Servers ply the floor with the call, "Cocktails? Cocktails?" Workers constantly empty the ashtrays. I wander to the large poker room in back, but am intimidated by the serious faces. I settle for a poker machine, win again with four of a kind, and again give most of it back.

The Hard Rock theme is everywhere and done well. Everything is classy. Portraits, framed albums and CDs, even the guitars of famous rock stars hang on the walls. Over each major entrance is a famous lyric. To the left of the casino door there's an Emerson, Lake & Palmer classic: "Welcome back my friends/to the show that never ends."

I leave, still $40 ahead, blinking in the sunlight of the parking lot. I dismiss the fleeting idea of going back in.

• • •

Remember, Gov. Charlie Crist made a deal with the Seminoles to expand to Las Vegas-style slot machines and card games such as blackjack. (There's no blackjack in Tampa yet.)

The Legislature sued, saying that Crist didn't have the authority by himself. In July, the Florida Supreme Court ruled against Crist.

But did the slot machines stop? They did not. Did the tribe fire the thousands of people on its payroll? No. Did people say, "Oh, my, in the absence of a recognized compact, we should cease gambling?" Not exactly.

Our state's attorney general, Bill McCollum, believes the Seminoles are gaming without any authority, without a valid compact with the state. McCollum is trying to get the feds — who have the final say — to shut down the games. But he can only ask.

"This is really black and white," McCollum said in an interview. "It's real simple. There is no compact. The tribe needs to acknowledge that, along with the governor, and they need to go back to good-faith negotiations."

Even a lawyer for the tribe agrees that the Florida court ruling has, at least, kept matters up in the air.

Maybe the simplest thing would be for the Legislature to approve a deal next spring. But that's not a cinch — there's opposition. And if the Legislature doesn't act, nobody knows what the feds will do.

Meanwhile, inside the casino, none of this is of concern. What matters is the next push of the button. If this spin doesn't win, the next one might. Why not?

Vegas in Florida, with deal or no deal 10/29/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 2, 2008 2:58pm]
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