There are no vacancies on four gaming machines at Breakers Sports Bar & Grille in Henrico County on a recent Tuesday afternoon.
Reels spin and faces gaze at screens as players hope to win big, but owner Chris Heppert cheerfully leans back at a nearby high-top table with a beer and no signs of nervousness. In the eight months he's had the machines, they've made him money every week, and he's far from the only one.
"They're so saturated now, because every Tom, Dick and Harry has them," Heppert says. "One place on [Route] 33's got like eight at a little service station. A whole wall ... nothing but these [machines]."
The so-called skill machines are rapidly popping up in convenience stores, bars and restaurants in Richmond and throughout the state — but whether they're legal remains a debate.
About 1,800 establishments in Virginia are carrying Queen of Virginia Skill machines, according to the Richmond-based powerhouse company, which contends its machines are legal, partly because of the skill component.
Being skill-based is a key factor in whether games involving bets are legal in Virginia.
Similar to three-reel slots, the machines produce lively sounds and feature a three-by-three grid of symbols that vary depending on the theme of the game selected by the player. One game feature is similar to tick-tack-toe, and players have to utilize a wild symbol to complete a row and win.
Players can preview puzzles before deciding whether to bet. In addition, players can also turn losses into wins by competing in memory-based games. When successful, players get a 105% return on investment, meaning a 5% profit.
Players can bet between 40 cents and $4 per spin.
"Ultimately, if someone's skillful enough, they can sit at our game and win more money than they played every single time," says Kevin Anderson, the director of compliance for Queen of Virginia Skill.
All four members of the game company's compliance team, including Anderson, are former agents for the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority.
Despite the distinctions between the Queen of Virginia games and slots, the Charlottesville commonwealth's attorney believes the games are illegal, a claim he stated in a news release that stirred up debate and drew retaliation from the company.
Prosecutor Joseph Platania provided Style Weekly a copy of his June 7 statement saying that the machines are illegal. At the time, he stated that establishments with the machines would have 30 days to get rid of them or face prosecution for possessing illegal gambling devices. Such a violation is a misdemeanor that could carry a sentence of as much as a year in jail.
Queen of Virginia objected to the news release and sued Platania.
The lawsuit, filed June 28, does not ask for a specific monetary reward — it leaves that up to the court — but it does ask that the court declare that the game is legal and that Platania violated the company's due process rights. Among other requests, the lawsuit asks that the court prohibit Platania from prosecuting anyone operating the machines.
Platania has not backed down from his statement, and the machines have been removed from Charlottesville businesses as a result.
Anderson says that Queen of Virginia was concerned the Charlottesville warning against the machines could have prompted other localities to challenge the legality of the machines, but the company hasn't gotten the same push back from other localities.
Heppert says he believes there is an element of skill involved in the machines, though there was a brief period of time earlier this year when he was concerned about his legal standing to possess the machines and pulled them from his West Broad Street establishment.
A law enforcement officer warned Heppert that Breakers Sports Bar & Grille might be in violation of the law and that he could get arrested, he recalls.
That was enough to scare him into removing the machines from his restaurant for about a week, only to re-introduce them after talking with a lawyer. The restaurant serves food and drinks but is best known for allowing its patrons to bet on live horse races displayed on TVs that blanket the walls of the restaurant.
Heppert now questions how there could be any concerns about his right to have the so-called skill machines in his restaurant while Rosie's Gaming Emporium has rows of slot machines.
With locations in South Richmond, New Kent County and Vinton, Rosie's operates machines on which patrons can bet on historic horse races or just press a single button to spin a slot.
Any confusion about Virginia's gambling laws comes with good reason. The state's laws are convoluted and leave room for varied interpretations. Casinos with blackjack or sports betting would widely be considered illegal in Virginia, yet lottery tickets, bingo games tied to charities, horse race betting and even slots at Rosie's Gaming Emporium, where new legislation cleared the way, are all legal forms of wagering in Virginia.
The legality of poker is also hazy as debate continues about the level of skill involved compared with chance, while factors such as whether there's a host collecting a stake plays into the equation.
Heppert argues that Virginia should pass legislation to loosen up and spell out gambling regulations in the state, then make more money off gambling through taxation.
Gambling was heavily weighed by the Virginia General Assembly during its most recent session, and legislators ultimately agreed to study the impact of casinos, which could potentially pave the way for them in next year.
Anderson explains that Queen of Virginia supports common-sense regulations on gaming, adding, however, that there are "bad actors" that operate quite differently from his company.
While Anderson contends that Queen of Virginia games are legal, he argues that there are thousands of other machines throughout Virginia that he believes are clearly illegal. Some are games of chance, Anderson says.
In the approximately two years that Queen of Virginia has been in the state, it has asserted itself as a force with plans to stick around.
Representatives for the company say they talked with law enforcement and commonwealth's attorneys' offices at the front end of deploying machines. On its website and in interviews, the company has adamantly claimed that its games are legal.
The company also has machines in Pennsylvania and points to a 2014 ruling by a court in that state's Beaver County that found the games to be skill-based, and therefore, legal.
Here in Virginia, the company has given substantial money to heavy hitters in the political sphere.
In 2018-19, Queen of Virginia Skill & Entertainment LLC gave $224,400 in political donations in Virginia, making it the state's 50th largest political donor during that time, just ahead of Amazon, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks political donations.
Democrats received $120,000 of that money. Republicans got $102,500.
Despite some hoping for more clarity, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has deferred to individual localities to decide whether to treat the Queen of Virginia machines as legal or illegal.
Anderson argues, however, that Queen of Virginia is not the problem.
The former special agent says there are potentially thousands of machines that are increasingly appearing throughout Virginia that need to be given a hard look by officials.
Meanwhile, Anderson says that Queen of Virginia has been regulating itself. For example, while Anderson contends that minors could legally play the Queen of Virginia games, the company prohibits them from doing so and requires measures from business owners to ensure minors aren't. He says that business operators that have the machines are asked to require identification from players who might be younger than 18.
The company, which also has machines in other states, operates on a profit-share system in which the businesses with the machines get 40% of the profits. Queen of Virginia gets 30%, and the machine manufacturers get the remaining 30%.
Queen of Virginia has also been a major charitable donor in Virginia, according to a statement from the company.
It has donated more than $600,000 to various charities, according to representatives. Among them are free health clinics and charities that provide food and clothing for those in need, as well as transportation for children receiving medical treatments. The company has also donated to causes that support arts and education among other initiatives.
As for Heppert, he says the machines have helped his business, considering players often are buying food and drink. That's on top of his business profiting from the net losses by players.
"I've never had a losing week," Heppert says. "I've made good money."Correction: Queen of Virginia is based in Richmond not Norfolk. Style Weekly regrets the error].