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Gambler pursues very small claim

10 October 2008

Las Vegas Sun

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- A little-known aspect of Nevada law allows gamblers to dispute the outcome of any game, for any reason. While playing slots at the Orleans earlier this year, Sciannameo won $8.50. As a local who knows his way around a casino floor, he believed his meager winnings should have also included the return of his 25 cent wager.

So he did what any gambler in Nevada is entitled to do: He put up a fight.

In so doing Sciannameo might have become the first gambler in Nevada to complain to the Gaming Control Board that he should have been entitled to receive his initial wager back on top of his slot machine winnings.

Thursday, the Gaming Control Board denied Sciannameo's claim to the extra 25 cents. But at no point did the Gaming Control Board call him a nuisance.

In fact, regulators are proud of their "patron dispute" process, a cornerstone of gaming law lacking in less regulated parts of the world.

"People should have the right to appeal to an independent regulatory authority," board member Mark Clayton said. "This maintains the public's confidence in gaming."

If that is lost, the industry is in trouble, and customers will go elsewhere to gamble, he said.

That's also why there's no monetary threshold for disputes.

"It doesn't matter if it's 25 cents or $25,000," Clayton said. "If a customer feels they were treated unfairly, they deserve their day in court."

Even Boyd Gaming, which owns the Orleans, took it in stride.

"We cooperated fully with the Gaming Control Board," company spokesman Rob Stillwell said. "It really wasn't about a quarter. It was really a matter of understanding the slot payout tables."

Before anyone calls out Sciannameo for wasting taxpayer money, consider his claim.

Sciannameo would say he wasn't fighting over a quarter but the fact that the game he was playing is flawed.

When he put his money in an electronic roulette machine, he expected it to perform like a traditional table game or sports bet, in which winners receive their original wager plus winnings.

Slot machines don't work that way because they take into account the return of the bet. For example, a five-coin wager that pays out five coins is considered a "win" even though the player just gets his money back. In a blackjack game, a player who has the same hand as the dealer hasn't won. It's a push, — neither side wins but the bet is returned.

Had Sciannameo been playing actual roulette, he would have received his bet back in addition to winnings. Not so with this roulette machine, which stated 34-to-1 odds and paid him the value of 34 quarters, or $8.50.

Unlike a lawsuit filed in court, the state's complaint process doesn't have to involve attorneys, nor is there any cost to consumers.

The process lasts months and can progress through three administrative layers. When a customer calls the Gaming Control Board, the agency sends an enforcement agent to the site to interview participants and prepare a written report.

The agent presents those findings before a hearing examiner and the examiner makes a decision and renders a report. Both parties are present, and may bring along attorneys. Customers may appeal that decision to the three-member Gaming Control Board, though the board won't consider any new evidence.

The board rarely overturns decisions by hearing examiners.

Most complaints involve slot machines that gamblers believe have hit a jackpot but instead have malfunctioned. Sometimes wheels spin wildly, a dollar amount is flashing or symbols appear to line up. Most of these disputes are settled by opening up a machine and looking at whether the machine's computer chip has registered a win or a loss. Machines are typically locked down as soon as a dispute arises and the board gets involved.

It would be unlikely for a casino to simply pay a customer to avoid a dispute — so as not to establish a precedent. Nor can the Gaming Control Board pay a customer.

Casinos are required to notify the Gaming Control Board in disputes involving $500 or more.

Without a patron dispute process, casino employees could take advantage of customers, said Al Rogers, general manager of gambling book publisher Pi Yee Press.

Rogers has pursued several complaints with the board. All but one, he said, were resolved in his favor, with the casino paying him money he was owed.

But the process isn't perfect. Many customers are unaware that they are entitled to pursue complaints, no matter how insignificant they may seem.

Casinos don't post such information, nor do they encourage customers to call the board if there's a problem. With smaller amounts, it's up to the gambler to make the call.

Posting the information might encourage frivolous complaints, which could clog the system and take time away from investigating cases in which customers were cheated, Rogers said.

"The average casino patron thinks there's something wrong when they lose," he said.

Which makes Sciannameo's claim all the more rare.

It's not the first time a customer has put up a fight over less than a dollar. A few years ago, a gambler at a race and sports book claimed winnings of 57 cents based on the customer's reading of the odds.

That customer is still out the 57 cents.

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