Minnesota's first video pulltab games arrived Tuesday, creating a stir at five popular nightspots and launching an experiment expected to fund a new Vikings stadium while opening a fresh chapter for the state's charitable gambling industry.
Five games manufactured by a Las Vegas gaming company were approved by the Minnesota Gambling Control Board on Tuesday morning, marking the first time since charitable gambling arrived more than 20 years ago that electronic games have been allowed in the mix.
The five games are just the tip of the iceberg. Their manufacturer, John Acres, said his company plans to seek state approval for dozens more in the months ahead. Likewise, the number of bars and restaurants offering video pulltabs is expected to soar.
Eventually, the games are projected to fund about $350 million of the $975 million Vikings stadium, but they could also invigorate the roughly 1,200 charities that hold gambling licenses in Minnesota.
"Charitable gambling has been around since 1985; this is the first time we've gone electronic," said Tom Barrett, executive director of the Minnesota Gambling Control Board, which had a standing-room-only crowd for the vote.
"It's not just about the Vikings stadium,'' Barrett said. "It will pay for ice time for youth hockey, firetrucks; it will allow veterans to keep their lights on at their posts."
The private charities hope Barrett is right, but they're keeping a close eye on the way the market develops.
"We're excited that the games are available, but we're still cautious about what it means to charities' bottom lines,'' said Bob Matson, spokesman for Allied Charities of Minnesota. "We're anxious to see other [game] providers come in so we can measure our bottom line.''
Happy Vikings fans
At O'Gara's Bar and Grill in St. Paul, the new games got a thumbs up from curious patrons. Folks gathered for happy hour sat at the bar, sipped beer and tried their hand on the handheld devices. Many were enthusiastic Vikings fans who had spent hours at the Capitol during the stadium debates.
"We're here to support the stadium and stimulate the economy,'' said Lynn Spooner of Plymouth, munching on chicken wings and sporting a purple Vikings shirt. "I'm down $60 already. But it's OK. It's for the stadium.''
Her friend, Diggz Garza, another Vikings super fan, was having better luck.
"I don't gamble, ever,'' said Garza, 41, of St. Paul. "But to help the team, I'll spend a little money. We're going to use the stadium. We're going to play the games.''
Also at the bar was Clark Lingbeek, holding a device that showed three number 7s lined up in a row -- a winner.
A bar owner from Windom, Minn., Lingbeek had driven to St. Paul to check out the new technology. He's considering installing the games at his bar, the Phat Pheasant Pub. "Anything that brings in more people is good,'' said Lingbeek.
Bar owner Dan O'Gara, making the rounds, was thrilled. He said he had spent more than 20 years trying to get electronic games approved. "It's a long time coming,'' he said.
Like other venues, O'Gara's paid the cost of a secure Internet line for the gambling devices, about $900 to $1,000, he said. It also will pay the monthly Internet fees.
The electronic devices are funded by a 4.3 percent fee, said Colin Minehart, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Gambling Association Children's Fund, which runs the gambling at O'Gara's. The charity pays the fee.
Software generates real-time reports on gambling revenues coming from the bar, devices in play, prizes paid out, net receipts and more.
Four other bars and restaurants began offering the handheld devices to customers on Monday. They were Mancini's in St. Paul, Monte's Sports Bar and Grill in Spring Lake Park, CR's Sports Bar in Coon Rapids and Howie's Sports Bar in St. Cloud.
The games approved Tuesday are just the test run. Their manufacturer, Acres 4.0, is developing an ever-growing line of products for Minnesota gamblers. "There are dozens of games in development on a variety of devices,'' said Acres, noting that the new games could be played on devices as small as iPhones.
"What we want to do now is see what players like and give them more of it.''
Acres said he plans to wait a week or two to give the new pulltab system a chance to de-bug. If all goes as planned, his company will have another batch of games ready for review by the Gambling Control Board at its October meeting. Other games will be presented each month "as they become available,'' he said.
Meanwhile, the games' distributor, Jon Weaver, of the newly formed Express Games, said he expects a growing number of Minnesota bars and restaurants to sign on.
"I could easily see 20 to 25 sites open by the end of September,'' he said. "We have the capacity to serve 200 to 300 [locations] a month after that.''
An additional nine manufacturers have expressed interest in making handheld pulltab games for Minnesota, Barrett said. Four already have submitted applications to the Gambling Control Board. The board approved a distribution plan Monday for one manufacturer, International Gamco, a Nebraska-based firm that already has a license with Minnesota for paper pulltabs. The company is expected offer a product soon.
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511