HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Gambling is illegal in Hawaii but some businesses are walking a fine line opening what's called internet sweepstakes shops.
The computers have all the sights and sounds of a Las Vegas style slot machine just in Hawaii. Some games also have blackjack, poker and keno.
"It's kind of like trying to twist the rules but I believe on its face it is gambling," said Rep. Cynthia Thielen, (R) Kailua, Kaneohe. "Evidently this company, Tilt feels it can operate because of an Ohio law and an Ohio case but we have received an opinion that says our law is more stringent."
What concerns Rep. Thielen the most is at some locations children of any age can play. We saw a 13 year old boy playing a game called Island Fruit at the Tilt arcade in Windward Mall. It's similar to a tic tac toe. In this case you put money in and can win or lose hundreds of dollars. A winner of anything more than a $600 will need to pay taxes.
We spoke with the boy's grandmother who is livid over these games and has complained to police and the mall saying children shouldn't be allowed to play these types of machines especially when there are regular "gamblers" next to them. Kids in the arcade say some of the adults get grumpy and rude while playing.
"That's the bizarre thing. You have kids in Tilt a kids arcade and you have gamblers in there gambling. Not a good mixture," said Rep. Thielen. "What's the message we're sending to the underage kids? It's okay, go in risk your money."
One man who was playing the game declined to talk saying he did not want to take his attention away. He says he takes it very seriously, even though it is in a kid's arcade. Another woman said she is a regular and loses often, but considers it fun and therapeutic.
Tilt referred questions to retired attorney Sherman Hee who has advised the company. Hee says Tilt went through rigorous scrutiny and says it's not gambling. It's a skill game because you increase your chances of winning the more you play. He says your chances at winning money are better the more you play because you get better at the game. He compared it to a fishing tournament where the kid who catches the biggest fish wins the prize.
There are plenty of internet sweepstakes shops opening around the state. Most require players to be 18 or older. Owners we spoke with say they are modeled after the McDonald's Monopoly game. They also say it's not gambling because winners are predetermined, meaning someone will win the grand prize and smaller prizes throughout a year's time.
Owners also say you don't have to pay to play. The first dollar a day is free. After that you buy internet time in order to continue playing. In many cases one second is equal to one cent. When playing the game you bet credits based on your time, which is equivalent to money. Also once you buy your time, you cannot cash out any unused credits. You can win cash right on the spot or at the Dream Electronic Cigarette shop winners can get store credit.
"I've done my research and the research shows that it's really not gambling because everything is predetermined, it really is a sweepstakes just like McDonald's," said Kehau Kanohokula, Dream Electronic Cigarettes Owner, which has six of the machines running now with three more soon to be set up. "I live in Hawaii if I hit that million dollar prize (in Monopoly) did I just gamble for it? No I just bought me a soda and I got a million dollars if I was the lucky one."
Rep. Thielen, along with Representatives Ken Ito and Pono Chong have requested an investigation with the Honolulu Police Department and the Prosecuting Attorney's office to get a determination if it is gambling or not.
"Once you let one, well break the law, then another gets to and then it starts proliferating and all the sudden you go in to put gas in your car and here's a gambling machine. That's Las Vegas that's not Hawaii," said Rep. Thielen.