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Little Vegas

What Can Maryland’s Troubled History with Slot Machines Tell Us About the Odds for the Future?

Courtesy Southern Maryland Studies Center, College of Southern Maryland, the Slot Machine Collection
The Desert Inn
Frank Klein
The "Hightop," One of William "Whitey" Roberts' Vintage Slots
Stephen Janis
The Waldorf Motel
Frank Klein
William Roberts
Courtesy Southern Maryland Studies Center, College of Southern Maryland, the Slot Machine Collection
Man's Conquest Magazine
Frank Klein
The Wigwam
Courtesy Southern Maryland Studies Center, College of Southern Maryland, the Slot Machine Collection.
Photograph Circa 1968
Frank Klein
Burstin' Cherry
Frank Klein
Rol-A-Top
Frank Klein
Vest Pocket
Frank Klein
Twin Jack Pot

By Stephen Janis | Posted 12/1/2004

The slide projector clicks, and suddenly florid neon signs glow on a grainy plaster wall in the Southern Maryland Studies Center in La Plata. As the carousels advance, the faded pictorial remains of casinos with names like Little Reno, Stardust, the Desert Inn, and Monte Carlo appear, bringing to mind similar images of pre-Rat Pack Las Vegas. But green lawns, deciduous trees, and bushes betray the real locale depicted in the slides—a two-mile stretch of U.S. 301 from Waldorf to the Potomac River Bridge, circa the late 1950s.

The signs, and the accompanying images of girls in tiaras and one-piece bathing suits and parking lots full of sleek tail-finned automobiles, offer a glimpse of the history of Southern Maryland between 1949 and 1968, when nearly 5,000 legal slot machines operated around the clock in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary’s counties. Back then, 301 buzzed with nightlife, roadside glitz, and rural glamour, so much so that it was known as Little Vegas.

Legalized slots come up often these days, given Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s ongoing efforts to bring slot-machine proceeds to bear on the state’s financial ills, but few people on the pro-slots side ever mention Maryland’s history with the devices. Perhaps that’s because in 1963, despite filling up the coffers of Southern Maryland counties to the tune of $1.6 million a year and bringing an economic boom to an undeveloped rural section of the state, then-Gov. J. Millard Tawes (D) introduced legislation to abolish them, in response to pressure from citizens groups and local politicians, including an Anne Arundel County citizens committee that claimed slots were “destroying the fabric of family and economic life in our county.” And despite charges of bribery and intimidation—what former gubernatorial press secretary Frank DeFilippo described in a Jan. 21, 2003, Sun editorial as “slots barons skulking the hallways and glaring down from galleries” of the statehouse—Tawes prevailed, signing a law on the last day of the 1963 legislative session that phased out slots over a five-year period. Thus on July 1, 1968, the last slot machines were hauled out of the bars, taverns, and roadhouses of Southern Maryland, piled onto trucks, and hauled away to be destroyed.

If Ehrlich and the various state politicos and high-powered lobbyists get their way, the current incarnations of those machines will be back. (According to Ehrlich press secretary Henry Fawell, new slots legislation is “under consideration” for 2005.) Slots opponents argue that the price tag for bringing back slots might be measured not only in dollars and cents but also in the far-reaching effects that gambling will have on the lives of Marylanders. After all, 5,000 nickel slots once transformed the economic and social fabric of Southern Maryland to the point where many citizens and lawmakers waged war to rid the region of them.

The favored Ehrlich proposal, a statewide network of corporate “racinos” housing thousands of fast-paced dollar-eating machines at spots like the Pimlico and Laurel racetracks, might exact a price that can only be understood by learning from those who have lived with legalized slots before. And looking back over Maryland’s history of gambling, a potentially instructive pattern emerges: embracing gambling to build things or fund programs that government does not have the political will to finance, then outlawing it as the forces of organized gambling and its social costs spin out of control.

 

The state first legalized gambling in 1791, when the Maryland legislature passed a bill that authorized the issuance of “lottery grants.” These grants were intended to be used by churches or fraternal organizations for the purposes of raising money for the completion of “public works.” Lottery grants were issued as the equivalent of a business license, allowing the licensee to hold a private lottery for a specified cause until the grant expired. Issued liberally to raise money for many projects, from funds for a smallpox vaccination to erecting Mount Vernon’s Washington Monument.

Establishing a trend that would be reprised in future ventures into state-sanctioned gaming, things got quickly out of hand. By 1834 there were 50 competing lottery offices in the city of Baltimore alone, responsible for roughly 3,200 private lotteries, as state lottery grants were extended and sometimes resold to private operators. In response to the mayhem, the state legislature voted in 1834 to prohibit issuance of new lottery grants. Still, it took 25 years, until 1860, before all state-sanctioned lottery grants expired and disappeared.

Regardless, gambling continued to flourish in Baltimore City. According to one eyewitness account housed in the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Maryland Department, dated Aug. 19, 1853, and titled “The End of Fifty-Six Gamblers, or A Reminiscence of Gambling in Baltimore, During the Last 16 years,” “Gambling at that time was countenanced by a great many citizens of high standing,” and featured “rolling faro [a preindustrial form of Black Jack], . . . cock, ring, and dog fighting: horse and foot racing thimble playing.” Illegal gaming continued to thrive into the early 20th century, as Louis Azrael complained in his Baltimore News-Post column of Feb. 3, 1936: “Nobody in Baltimore has to walk more than a few blocks to gamble, if he wants to.”

Slot machines reportedly made their first appearance in the Old Line State on amusement piers on the Potomac River in Southern Maryland—and, according to some accounts, on the river itself. According to historian Susan Hickey Shaffer’s 1983 thesis “Slot Machines in Charles County, Maryland 1910-1968,” former state Sen. Paul J. Bailey (R-St. Mary’s and Charles counties) recalled seeing slot machines on a boat called the Macalister that cruised the Potomac around 1921. The machines were advertised as being for amusement only, much like the poker machines found in many of Baltimore’s drinking establishments today.

In 1935, state Del. Phillip Wallace (D-Baltimore) introduced an amendment to the Maryland Constitution calling for a statewide referendum to repeal the legislature’s previous ban on legal lotteries. In 1936, reflecting on the realities of then-rampant illegal gambling, prominent state Sen. Allan Coad (D-St. Mary’s) added his voice to the debate in the Nov. 10 edition of the News-Post: “I don’t suppose there is a county in the State where the slot machine is not illegal and yet everywhere you go you find these slot machines operating.” In that same article Coad offered a gambling tax as a solution, yet it was Wallace’s proposal, a statewide vote for adopting a legal lottery, that found its way onto the ballot. And despite promises from legislators that the proceeds would be used to lower taxes and fund public works, the referendum was soundly defeated Nov. 8, 1938, by a margin of 123,365-90,805.

Yet the legalization of slots in the Southern Maryland counties was planted in the seeds of Coad’s failure. The state lottery referendum bill also allowed for the licensing of “coin play” machines that paid “merchandise premiums” instead of cash to help counties suffering from the dual affliction of the Great Depression and a sagging market for tobacco to raise money—namely, Southern Maryland. As the machines spread, formal legalization of cash-pay slot machines was accomplished through a parochial Maryland legislative tradition know as “local option,” which allowed county delegations to propose and approve legislation that affected their districts only. Thus special “local option” bills were introduced in the Maryland legislature to legalize slots machines over a period of roughly six years: Anne Arundel County in 1943, Calvert County in 1948, St. Mary’s County in 1947, and finally Charles County, the home of the Sin Strip, in 1949. What followed, current Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. recalls, was the type of free-for-all that typified the state’s past experiments with gambling.

“I remember driving down 301 to Richmond with my family in the ’50s,” Curran, 73, recalls in a telephone interview. “I pulled into a gas station and saw people lined up out the door. But they weren’t waiting to buy gas or a soda—they were in line to play a slot machine.”

State Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D), 56, who grew up in Great Mills in St. Mary’s County and now represents an area that includes parts of St. Mary’s, Charles, and Calvert counties, recalls a similar sort of saturation: “The only place I never saw them was in churches—otherwise they were pretty much everywhere else.”

George E. Snyder, a former House delegate, state senator, and state Senate Democratic majority leader from 1971 to ’74 from Hagerstown, concurs. “Slots were everywhere, in gas stations, barbershops, in restaurants,” he says. “That’s how Southern Maryland earned the nickname Little Vegas.”

Ironically, Maryland wasn’t so little in relation to Las Vegas, according to a Sun feature that ran on Feb. 24, 1963. Titled “Gold in the Spinning Wheels,” Maryland had three times as many federally licensed gambling devices as Nevada. In addition, according to the report of the state Slot Machine Committee, a special investigation of gambling completed in 1963, the four counties’ total take was $24 million in 1963 alone. In comparison, the highest-grossing casino in Nevada, the Harrah’s Club in Lake Tahoe, garnered a total take of $20 million in 1961, according to Gambler’s Money: The New Force in American Life, a 1965 book by Wallace Turner. But Harrah’s had at its disposal higher stakes games such as blackjack and craps, thus Southern Maryland and its slots were keeping pace, albeit a nickel at a time.

“I grew up with slots” remembers current Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel County), the primary political opponent to Gov. Ehrlich’s attempt to pass slots legislation in 2003 and ’04. “When I was 9, my grandfather would take me to the corner grocery store, and give a couple nickels to play the one-armed bandits. Anne Arundel County was wall-to-wall slot machines,” he says. “Slot machines were like the Wal-Mart of entertainment—once they moved into town, they took over everything.”

Yet as the slots spread, so did the growing specter of outside influence and power, as Busch remembers. Once slots were established, the powerful slot-machine distributors, a consortium of 11 state-licensed manufacturers who built and sold the machines in Maryland, and the multitude of small-business owners who had slots on their premises and took their cut off the top all had reason to make sure that the business stayed healthy and unopposed.

“The slots people ran the county governments,” Busch says. “They used to fill up A&P bags with 20-dollar bills and hand out ‘walking around money’ during election time, so the slots people were firmly in control.”

Local opposition to the ubiquity and ostensible corrupting influence of slots found an outlet in 1960, when a special grand jury in Anne Arundel County convened to investigate slot machines and organized crime. It rendered a clear verdict, calling the state of gambling in Anne Arundel “sordid and disgraceful.” Heightening the controversy was a special Anne Arundel citizens committee that reported that slots “have a stranglehold on the basic economic life of Anne Arundel County” and charged, among other things, that a combination of “organized crime” and “youth gambling” had “tragic consequences for the people of our county . . . upsetting healthy patterns of family life.”

The citizens report cites the Anne Arundel County grand jury term of 1958, which prosecuted multiple cases of children under the age of 16 for gambling. The report adds that “many of these youngsters were involved in breaking and entering cases, and it is reasonable to believe that the need for money was the overriding reason for the commission of the felony, money to be later spent on gambling devices.”

Additionally, the report details the infiltration of Chicago-area businessmen into slots manufacturing in Anne Arundel County—specifically, the Ace Manufacturing Co. of Glen Burnie. Virgil Peterson, the operating director of the Chicago Crime Commission, identified Ace Manufacturing officers John A. Dillon and Casimir Michalski as having been arrested for illegally manufacturing slot machines in Cook County, Ill. In a letter, Peterson confirmed Dillon and Michalski as officers of the corrupt Ace Novelty Co. of Franklin Park, Ill., and, not to put too fine a point on it, went on to characterize them as “hoodlums.”

Curran recalls two key factors that drove the anti-slots issue even further in 1963: the gubernatorial candidacy of little-known Del. David Hume in 1962 and the growing consensus among Southern Maryland residents that slots were not worth the cost and the trouble. “The people from the areas where slots were most pervasive felt that slots were hurting the locals, from homemakers to regular wages earners,” Curran says. “Lots of people were losing money for the profit of a few.”

In the 1962 Democratic primary race for governor, Hume ran a single-issue anti-slots campaign and garnered a healthy 101,319 votes vs. incumbent Gov. Tawes. Hume’s position forced the governor to announce in September 1962, just prior to the general election, which Tawes won, that slots were “no longer a local issue,” and thus “should be abolished.” On Feb. 18, 1963, Tawes introduced legislation to abolish all legal slots, stating his intention to “preserve and promote the fine reputation of Maryland.”

For three months during the 1963 legislative session, a battle raged between gambling lobbyists and anti-slots legislators. Charges of intimidation and bribery were rampant, including an accusation by the legendary Clarence M. Mitchell III, then a young state delegate representing Baltimore City, that “a man wearing dark glasses” accosted him in the lobby of the state capitol and offered him $300 to not vote on the issue. When the anti-slots bill failed in its first vote to pass the House, accusations of “slots barons” tampering with politicians became so fevered that a special Anne Arundel County grand jury was convened to take testimony from Mitchell. The investigation ended without any indictments, but The Sun commented in an editorial that the controversy “almost ripped the House of Delegates asunder.”

Finally, on March 29, 1963, the second to last day of the session, Tawes got his way. Curran was one of 25 senators to vote through the final version of the bill, mandating a freeze to all new slots licenses and a phase-out of the machines by July 1, 1968.

“I trusted the judgment of the people from Southern Maryland,” Curran says now. “They believed slots were draining the economy of Southern Maryland, that it was destroying families. Gambling was not a good thing to them.”

The political war was not over, though, as the gambling industry geared up to extend the phase-out date. Snyder says that’s when things got really ugly.

“We all knew when the slots licenses expired in 1968 the gaming interests would work hard to extend it,” Snyder recalls by phone from his home in Sarasota, Fla. “I was sitting in my office in Hagerstown when an old friend named George Tingle, who was down on his luck, walked through the door and offered me $10,000 to vote for a bill that would extend the grace period. He said to me, ‘I’m getting two, everyone else is getting five, so we figured you’d need 10.”

Snyder says he was stunned, but dutifully reported the incident to the then-Senate President William S. James (D-Harford) and Senate majority leader and future governor Harry R. Hughes (D-Caroline). Hughes, in a dramatic gesture, took the Senate floor and spoke on Snyder’s behalf, telling the assembled senators of the reported bribe and, Snyder says, “turning the corner on what was a very close vote.”

Snyder says a state police investigation revealed that Tingle, who is now deceased, was a front for a local “money man” who repaired pinball machines, although, as Snyder notes, “he was probably a middleman for someone else.” As for the cash itself, Snyder adds, “I think it came from Providence, R.I., but I’m not entirely sure.” He says he has always believed the payoff attempt came from organized crime.

Despite lobbying and perhaps the occasional attempted bribe, the phase-out remained in effect and the last slots were carted away on July 1, 1968, as planned. A photo from the Southern Maryland Archives shows a slot machine in a coffin, a document of a sour tribute from some pro-slots business owners sorry to see them go. But not everyone was sorry it was over.

“It was rough, very tense times,” Snyder says. “But fortunately we got rid of them.”

 

The October 1958 cover of Man’s Conquest magazine, a pulp monthly that during its prime in the 1950s existed as an adrenalized alternative to Playboy, is strictly on masculine message. A rugged, straight-jawed man battles a peeved-looking black bear with nothing more than a knife, plaid shirt, and gritted teeth. In the uppermost corner, a sleek caption box proclaims, “Route 301! The eyewitness story of the wide-open Sin Strip.”

Inside, the writer, one B.W. Von Block, riffs on a lone-reporter-in-the-wild shtick. “Charles County seems to offer everything,” Block reports, “women, dope and gambling. To me it looked drunken, dirty and debauched.” Claiming to have been “hustled” by nine prostitutes during his stay at a motel in Waldorf, Block sums up the 301 stretch called “Felony Row” as “one of the most tawdry, squalid, and sordid stretches of the autobahn I’ve ever seen.”

The story seems unimaginable cruising down 301 through Waldorf today. KFC, Hardee’s, McDonald’s, and then, a few more miles down the road, another KFC, McDonald’s, and a Burger King. Certainly the Sin Strip hasn’t morphed into the Thin Strip.

But smack in the middle of an eight-lane bend in the road is a sign for the the Waldorf Motel, right where it has stood for more than 50 years, looking almost exactly like the slide that captured the same image in its heyday. One of the only remaining physical emblems of the Sin Strip, it doesn’t look unkempt, just out of place—like an outdated tuxedo in the midst of Friday casual.

The Waldorf Motel appears to be a transient rest stop now, not a destination resort. Visitors are not allowed in the lobby; a side-door entrance leads into a booth covered with thick glass. Communication is garbled through a scratchy squawk box. The motel itself looks empty, with hardly a single car parked in front of the horseshoe-shaped split-level buildings that surround the restaurant, now called Rip’s.

No one on the current staff worked at the Waldorf during the slots era, but if you proceed a few miles down the road and past a tiny but well-kept cemetery and small brick church, you’ll find 74-year-old William “Whitey” Roberts.

Roberts not only ran the motel and restaurant during its prime in the 1950s, but also fixed and maintained the slot machines. Now retired, he is a classic old-timer, dressed neatly in plaid shirt and suspenders and sporting a healthy head of white hair and a resigned I’ve-seen-it-all smile.

Roberts’ home is a practical storehouse of both social history and technical information on slot machines and gambling in Southern Maryland, the centerpiece being the antique machines and other gaming devices he accumulated during his tenure at the Waldorf. In short order he produces Lottery Luck, a Boggle-meets-poker dice game that paid out on a five-card roll; a Jackpot! Bingo board that looks like a cross between a paper Keno game and an Advent calendar; and the ancient innards of a Callie machine, a mechanical penny roulette wheel that Roberts claims was the progenitor of the slot machine.

“Gambling’s been around forever,” he says, “in every form you can imagine.”

Needless to say, Roberts has a more positive take on gambling in Maryland than Man’s Conquest.

“It was nice, honest, family-owned business,” he recalls. “Great cheap food, live entertainment, plus the old slots machines were random—you could win three jackpots in row if you knew how to work them. Bright lights, lot of celebrities like Guy Lombardo, Paul Newman, Conway Twitty, Dolly Parton. They all performed on the Strip. I met them, just regular people enjoying themselves.”

As to the argument that gambling hurt the people of Charles County, Roberts contends, “All the talk about people losing their shirts was untrue. We used mostly nickel machines, because dimes were made of silver then, too thin and jammed the machine. And believe me, in the ’50s a nickel wasn’t much.”

And, he says, much of the blame people laid on gambling itself is best placed elsewhere: “Once I had a politician tell me his daddy lost the whole wheat crop on slots. I told the man, who will remain nameless, that he didn’t know his dad too well. You can’t lose that much money on slots—his daddy lost it on women and liquor.”

Organized crime, Roberts says, was “nonexistent.” In fact, he pins the downfall of slots on a different sort of organization. “There are two mobs now—the Democrats and Republicans,” he says. “They got rid of slots here in ’68 so they could clear the way for their own racket—the numbers racket, the state lottery.”

The state legislature authorized the creation of a state lottery in 1972, and it began business under the auspices of the Maryland State Lottery Agency in 1973. “They take [gambling] away from the little guy, then get the money for the state,” he says. “That’s a real racket.”

Roberts’ perspective on gambling is not a matter of pro and con; for him, gambling is just a part of life, and the only issue is who controls it. “Back in the ’60s, the church and the state said gambling was bad and took it away,” he says wryly as he wanders down his driveway in the spare light of a majestic fall afternoon. “So my wife is out supporting the church today, playing bingo.”

Roberts’ libertarian attitude is echoed by Louise Lockhart, an 18-year-old employee of Waldorf’s Walls Bakery, a bakery and gift shop housed in the old Wigwam, a tepee-shaped edifice that once housed a supper club and slot machines. Where Lockhart now peddles chocolate doughnuts, onion bagels, and a small selection of “Indian artifacts” (plastic moccasins and porcelain arrow heads), the Wigwam once sported dancing girls, fine food, and performances by Doris Day and Brenda Lee. And while Lockhart was born long after the Wigwam’s peak, she’s heard the stories from the older citizens of Waldorf, who gather at Walls on Sundays after church to discuss the good times.

“People talk about it all the time,” Lockhart says. “They remember gambling as nice, especially the go-go girls we used to have. I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about gambling.”

While the slot machines and go-go girls are gone, Lockhart says ghosts remain. “When [the owner] was in the hospital getting a triple bypass, the night cook and janitor heard a woman crying and praying in the upstairs office,” she says. “They went to look and no one was up there—except for the ghost of Brenda Lee.”

The fact that Brenda Lee is still alive notwithstanding, it’s possible that slots could soon be resurrected in Maryland. For her part, Lockhart is ambivalent about whether or not the fast and fat days gambling brought were good or bad for her hometown. Though none of the proposed slots sites are located near Waldorf, it sounds like she wouldn’t turn down some one-armed-bandit excitement.

“It would be nice to have something to do,” she says. “We do have five McDonald’s here, so at least it would be something new.”

 

Some Marylanders have lived long enough to have a positive take on slots, then and now. Madge Paulus, an 82-year-old resident of Laurel, remembers her first encounter with slots on a trip to Southern Maryland in 1948.

“I had just met my future husband, Frank, and we were driving around on a date looking for a restaurant and found this bar off the highway 50 miles outside of Baltimore,” Paulus says. While she doesn’t remember the exact location anymore, she does recall the fun. “It was wonderful. Frank’s friend Chuck won $100, and we spent the rest of the night spending it. It was nothing short of a drinking party.”

Even though she says she never gambled during her many years as a mother and an inventory control manager at a distillery, she now makes regular bus trips to Atlantic City, N.J., Charlestown, W.Va., and Dover, Del. to play slot machines. “I love to play the slots,” she says. “It’s nice to get out, I don’t see any harm in them.”

Paulus doesn’t see the harm, but pro-slots advocates do. Regardless of what state politicians, and by extension Maryland voters, decide to do, the gambling noose has tightened around the state’s neck as Delaware, West Virginia, and now Pennsylvania all have or soon will have slots palaces up and running. And while advocates make many good arguments against slots, Paulus and her cohorts are traveling in droves to gamble away their money in surrounding states, money that might otherwise end up Maryland’s coffers if the state had its own slots. The Sun’s Michael Olesker contended in his Feb. 25, 2003, column that $271 million of Marylanders’ money was lost in Delaware and West Virginia in 2002. The Innovation Group, a gambling consulting firm based in New Orleans, has touted figures as high as $800 million a year.

Attorney General Curran, however, says that his experience, both past and present, has taught him that the costs of gambling are not always obvious, and that some of the money crossing the border doesn’t belong to the people that lose it.

“I just signed an indictment for a woman that embezzled $50,000 from her employer that she spent on slots in Delaware,” he says, adding that these kinds of cases “come across my desk all the time—this is the downside of gambling that doesn’t find its way into the debate.

“The people of Southern Maryland, the people who were actually affected by gambling, said, ‘This is not for us,’” Curran continues. “I think if history teaches us anything, it’s that trying live off the losses of our own citizens is not a good way to govern.”

Former state Sen. Snyder is more blunt: “Slots are the pits, and there’s enough history in Maryland with gambling to conclude that slots don’t work. For every dollar there’s a social costs that exceeds it.”

Even though state Sen. Dyson was a teenager, not a legislator, when slots disappeared, he thinks there are parallels between then and now. “Southern Maryland wasn’t as bad as Vegas, but we saw people suffer,” he says. “And I don’t think it will be much different today—it drains money from legitimate businesses and puts it in too few hands.” As to why the issue is still around and enjoying significant public support (an Oct. 30 Sun poll found that 57 percent of registered voters favor legalizing slots in Maryland), Dyson says, “Day to day, people don’t see the problems, only the rationale, but from my experience it’s a lot different when it’s in your backyard, when you see people getting hurt.”

If the issue comes up again in Annapolis this year, it will find House Speaker Busch still adamantly opposed. “You have to take a stand,” he says. “Putting slot machines in a poor neighborhood to pay for service of wealthy neighborhoods is morally questionable.” As for word of Gov. Ehrlich’s future plans for slot legislation, Busch says that “the governor doesn’t communicate with me, so I don’t know.”

Still, if you can’t wait for a slots bill to pass and want to find a little action right here in Maryland, then simply head down Interstate 97, change over to Route 4 West, and take 261 to place called Chesapeake Beach, a small strip of land some 25 miles south of Annapolis.

It’s a small town—one shopping strip, a Giant grocery store, no gas stations, and a few seafood restaurants. Just past a field of sprouting condominiums sits an impressive complex of restaurants spanning into the western tip of the Chesapeake Bay, a medium-size hotel spa, a bar called Smokey Joe’s, and a restaurant called the Rod ’n’ Reel.

The Rod ’n’ Reel bar itself is nondescript, but the action isn’t. Slots may be illegal in Maryland, but on this spit of sand edging out into the bay there’s a small room next to the bar with about a dozen machines that look an awful lot like slot machines. Insert your money, push play, and if you’re lucky, you get a pull-tab that shows the winning combination, redeemable at the bar for a cash pay out.

Why “Instant Bingo” is legal in Chesapeake Beach and standard slot machines are not is a result of some cagey legal work and interesting interpretation of the rules of bingo. In 2001, according to a Feb. 16 article in The Washington Post, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the Instant Bingo machines at the Rod ’n’ Reel restaurant “are not slot machines and therefore are legal.” Technically, the machines follow the rules of bingo, simply spitting out the winning combinations in seconds instead of playing them over time. Thus the innards of the machine allows anyone with a license for legal bingo games to have pull-tab machines as well.

Smoked-glass bubbles of the sort that house security cameras sprout like mushrooms from the Rod ’n’ Reel’s drop ceiling. Security guards in full uniforms wander the complex, including one packing a firearm. There’s even pleasant young bartender who, when asked when the bingo game starts, whispers the answer speakeasy style: “Tonight at 7, I think.”

Between the duplex Keno screens, the organized bingo game, and the so-called “Instant Bingo” machines, the Rod ’n’ Reel offers a nice variety of gaming options. Add flat-screen televisions, live music, and the hotel spa across the street and it’s a mini-casino, and it begs the question: What’s all the fuss about slots if we’ve already got them?

Perhaps the Rod ’n’ Reel is just a reprise of the way slots made their way into Maryland’s law books some 60 years ago—on the sly, a little nod and a wink. At the very least, the young bartender, who refused to give her name, is fully supportive.

“I went to Jamaica and lost all my money on slots,” she says with a sly smile. “Now I’m addicted.”

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