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Dens of vice or clean fun for retirees?

The day deputies launched a crackdown on Hernando and Citrus county game rooms, Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson said authorities acted to protect the elderly.

"Many of these people are on fixed income," he said Dec. 20, "and some of these people on fixed income may be wrongfully spending their money on this business."

Within weeks, 200 older people gathered in an empty game parlor to express exactly what they thought about Simpson's concern for their welfare.

"What the hell are they bothering us for? Go look for the crooks!" said Rose Tretola, 71, of Land O'Lakes, who said she goes to the game room to meet other seniors.

From Jacksonville to Fort Myers, Florida's 200 game rooms have come under scrutiny recently as law enforcement decides how they fit into the ongoing debate about gambling.

But to many senior citizens, the authorities aren't attacking crime so much as a harmless lifestyle.

Hundreds have signed a petition asking the Hernando sheriff, the state attorney and the Hernando County Commission to leave the game rooms alone.

"This p----- me off to no end, and you can quote me," said Reba Martin, 68, who was a regular at the Spin City game room until it closed. "They don't want us to have no pleasure. They want you to sit on the couch until you die."

The cases in Hernando, Citrus - and now Pinellas, where a Dunedin game room was closed earlier this month - coincide with an active prosecution in Broward County. The president of the Florida Arcade Association has been charged with operating a house of gambling.

The fate of these cases will set the odds for the future of game rooms in the Sunshine State.

That's why Simpson is eager to shut them down in Hernando.

"Last year we had two. This year we have seven. Next year are we going to have 20?" Simpson asked. "When they find a place they feel tolerated, they grow like a cancer."

But the game rooms cater more to seniors than high rollers.

"I just lost my husband, and this was the only place for me to get away from the pressure," said Joann Caldwell, 76.

Tucked into inconspicuous strip malls, game rooms offer free meals and refreshments, along with the chance to play video slot machines from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., or later. It costs a few pennies per game, and $10 can last three hours.

The games have names like Cherry Master and Pot-O-Gold.

Press once, and the bars start rolling. Press again, and they stop. If the bars line up perfectly, you win. Points are redeemed for gift cards to restaurants, supermarkets and Wal-Mart, but only if the winners sign a pledge not to use them for cash or alcohol.

Simpson argues that the game rooms constitute illegal gambling no matter how they make the payouts, because they're games of chance.

"If you pay consideration and you play a game of chance and there is a payout, the statutes say that is against the law," Simpson said.

Florida voters have rejected casino gambling three times since 1978, but last year they allowed parimutuels in Broward to install slot machines.

Some game room advocates say parimutuels are lobbying for a crackdown on the competition, albeit the low-stakes, penny slot variety. Prosecutors say that isn't the case.

To critics, the game room is a den of vice. To supporters, it's an amusement center. Think Chuck E. Cheese's with a geriatric clientele.

In almost every game room, the owners post the Florida statutes on the wall, declaring it a legal amusement center. But the legal question actually boils down to whether these are games of skill or chance.

Florida statutes ban slot machines. But there is a special provision for amusement centers, the so-called Chuck E. Cheese's clause.

Amusement games must be games of skill. If they pay out prizes, they have to be coin-operated, their payout can't be converted into cash or alcohol, and the winnings can't exceed 75 cents per play.

A Skee-Ball machine is okay. A Vegas slot is not.

But the video slot machines used in the game rooms are a matter of debate.

Advocates like Spin City's owner Kathleen Moreland say that it takes skill to stop the slots spinning at the right time. And some games require the player to decide which cells to keep and which ones to spin again.

But Simpson says the slots he raided spin so fast that skill has nothing to do with winning. He added that the machines were preset to pay out at certain intervals so a veteran and a novice player would fare equally well.

In recent years two appeals court decisions have gone against game room owners who claimed the gambling laws were unconstitutionally vague.

The owners lost on the technical grounds that the games are not coin-operated so the parlors didn't qualify as amusement centers. The decisions also found that there was only minimal skill developed from playing them.

Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist in 2004 also sided against game rooms in Pompano Beach because they were not coin-operated and because there weren't sufficient safeguards to keep people from redeeming their winnings for alcohol or cash.

But a 1995 Florida attorney general opinion left open the possibility that with slow-spinning machines, "a player through superior knowledge, attention or practice may be able to determine when to stop the drums in order to win even though the element of chance still exists." That leads some supporters to think that video slots might be games of skill.

"We have proven time and again that there was an application of skill," said Michael Wolf, who is representing two of the Hernando game room defendants, Chester Noel Nguyen and Manh Dung Nguyen. He said the game room owners would win so long as they didn't run away with their "tails between their legs."

The court cases are only in their preliminary stages, but the game rooms in Hernando and Citrus remain closed while they grind through.

That bothers game room owners on the North Suncoast because the game rooms are tolerated in other parts of the state.

In Bradenton, almost 20 game rooms operate openly, from Lucky's, with its marble-walled entrance and luxurious fish tanks in the DeSoto Square Mall, to Slots of Fun in a decrepit strip mall along 14th Street W to the smoke-filled Jackpot Spot, located a mile away.

On the North Suncoast, the game rooms are fighting with more than just petitions.

John Cucciniello, owner of Club Carnivale in Spring Hill, said he and owners of the other six game rooms in Hernando, as well as two in Citrus, have formed an association, hired a lawyer and plan to sue.

Meanwhile, two game rooms in Citrus already have sued the sheriff and the state attorney, asking for an injunction to allow them to operate their game rooms.

Closing the game rooms is about more than just the money, said Spin City's Kathleen Moreland. She has come to see herself as a caregiver.

"Most of the people who come here are older men and women. They've lost their spouses," she said. "At 2:30 in the afternoon, we call out, "What time is it?' and everyone yells back, "It's ice cream time.' It's like kids," she said.

Diana Pelletier, 75, agrees. "To have this taken away, it's kind of sad. It makes your life dull again," she said. "Gee, I'm done with my housework but where can I go?"

Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@spttmes.com or (352) 754-6114.

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