Jackpot disputes - such as the claim by a PhiladelphiaPark slots player that he was denied a $102,000 payout - are becoming increasingly frequent and could threaten public faith in the industry as casinos spread across the country, several gambling experts said yesterday.
"The legitimate question is: How do people know they are being treated fairly? How do they know they are not being cheated?" said John W. Kindt, a University of Illinois professor who writes about gambling issues.
William Holmes, a former FBI agent and gambling consultant, said that even if PhiladelphiaPark was right in denying the jackpot to the retired Feasterville carpenter, publicized disputes are damaging to public trust.
"They give a poor perception of the casino industry," said Holmes, who was supervisory agent in the gambling unit of the FBI's Laboratory Division.
Slot-machine gambling, confined to Nevada a generation ago, is now permitted in 37 states. Casinos are a $54 billion industry in America, according to the American Gaming Association.
Pennsylvania, the latest state to permit casino-style gambling, licensed the first of 14 possible slots parlors in November. PhiladelphiaPark opened Dec. 19 and, unlike the two other casinos now open, is not affiliated with a major national gaming operator.
The Pennsylvania gaming system is so new that neither the state House nor the state Senate has fully organized its oversight committees.
Rep. Paul I. Clymer (R., Bucks), the GOP chairman of the House Gaming Oversight Committee, said the panel might examine any jackpot disputes when it begins - soon - to hold meetings.
"There are going to be many problems and concerns that at least we should address," Clymer said.
Stephen Wilkinson, 56, a regular slots player at the racetrack casino in Bensalem, was playing at a Wheel of Fortune machine Monday afternoon when a video screen told him he had won the $102,000.
Casino officials soon told him it was a mistake - a malfunction in the in-house computer system the casino uses to inform patrons of prizes and promotions. At no time, they said, did the spinning reels line up on the machine to trigger a payout.
Yesterday, a PhiladelphiaPark spokeswoman, Darlene Monzo, gave additional details of the incident and blamed it on human error.
The casino was running a promotional campaign in which, each day, it randomly awarded a $5,000 Playerpower payout to a slots player. The prize does not require that person's machine to register a jackpot.
Monzo said a casino worker, in an office, was testing the prize-announcement system. She said the worker made up the $102,000 number "for no rhyme or reason." She said the worker then punched in the number of the machine Wilkinson was using, thinking it was out of service and not even on the casino floor.
Andrew Becker, also a PhiladelphiaPark spokesman, said that a casino wrongly crediting a player with a jackpot he didn't win is no different from a bank wrongly crediting a depositor with money he didn't invest: He can't legally keep it.
Wilkinson, who was down a few dollars after two hours of play, recalled Tuesday: "My name came across the screen - 'Congratulations. You are the power player jackpot winner. You've won $102,000.' "
When the casino refused to pay, he filed a complaint with the state Gaming Control Board, which is looking into it.
Wilkinson said he's holding out for the $102,000.
But I. Nelson Rose, a gambling-law expert at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, Calif., said it will be "very difficult" for Wilkinson to force the casino to pay any amount.
"My guess is the regulators will side with the casino, and he will take it to court," Rose said.
Rose said casino operators often are prohibited from paying a jackpot that did not result from a legitimate reel alignment - three cherries, or whatever - on the slot machine.
Doing so might be used as a ploy by casino-insiders to skim money, he said.
But Rose said PhiladelphiaPark might be able to settle the dispute - which has drawn national media attention - with a cash sum.
"If I were them, I'd talk settlement because they are getting killed in the public relations," he said. "If I were [Wilkinson], I would also talk settlement, since there's an overwhelming chance he could lose."
Holmes, the former FBI agent, also said the casino probably could hold its ground legally.
"If the symbols didn't line up, then I agree with the casino - he shouldn't get it," Holmes said.
Kindt, the Illinois professor, said the question for the casino is this: Is it worth it to hold out?
He said the dispute, fairly or unfairly, casts doubt on the fairness of casino gambling.
"I would say, from a national perspective, it raises the issue of how the industry automatically reacts - which is to deny the person," he said.
William N. Thompson, a gambling expert at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, said the casino should pay simply because "it's the right thing to do."
He said $102,000 could be a few hours' profit for a casino such as PhiladelphiaPark, which has 2,100 slot machines.
"It's the casino's mistake; it's not the player's mistake," he said.