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Games are back minus ka-ching

Closed by the State Attorney's Office in 2005, Lady Jo's now eschews winnings and awards free games on its video slots.

By JORGE SANCHEZ
Published February 5, 2007


INVERNESS - After being closed for more than a year, Lady Jo's Game Room reopened a couple of weeks ago to the delight of loyal customers, who say they're glad to have a place where they can relax and socialize.

Lady Jo's was one of several area game rooms closed down by the State Attorney's Office in December 2005. An investigator from the state attorney determined that the manner in which the electronic slot machines were being used constituted illegal gambling.

The owner said Lady Jo's, at U.S. 41 and Eden Drive, now operates as a video amusement arcade.

The 53 coin-operated video slot machines at Lady Jo's do not pay out winnings as they did in the past. Gone are the days when winners would walk out with gift cards for a steak dinner at Outback or free groceries at Publix.

Now, players can win at most only free games if they hit a jackpot. Some customers last week said that took some of the excitement out of playing, but they mainly came to socialize.

Owner Mike O'Gara said his customers viewed the video slots as an inexpensive way to get out of the house and socialize.

He said his lawyer, Mike Sawyer, had contacted the State Attorney's Office and told officials there about the reopening.

Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson, who closed down Lady Jo's and other game rooms in 2005, said he is reviewing the information he received from Sawyer.

"If they say they've reformatted, they'll have to prove that to us," Simpson said.

He said his office would most likely send in undercover investigators to determine whether the machines are games of skill, which are legal, or games of chance, which are illegal.

"At this point, they're taking it upon themselves as to whether they're legal in reopening," Simpson said.

Among the guidelines to comply with arcade laws are that games must be games of skill, a coin must be used for each play, no more than 15 free games can be won and each payout cannot exceed 75 cents, Simpson said.

O'Gara said he thinks he is in compliance.

A poster informs customers that "play is for amusement only" when they enter Lady Jo's.

Last week, only a handful of regulars were playing video slots. Some said they were there because the game room offered them a way to get out of the house for a few hours without spending a lot of money.

One man, who wouldn't give his name, said he came from Ocala and just wanted a place to hang out and have a little fun.

Another Lady Jo's regular is Kathleen Bassett of Inverness, who was there with her husband, George.

"I absolutely love it that it's reopened," she said.

She munched on free chocolate chip cookies, washing them down with a soda. She pushed a few dollars into the video slots. "It costs too much money to play bingo. We go to bingo and spend about $70.

"Here, I can spend a lot less, five or 10 bucks, and stay practically all afternoon," she said.

O'Gara said that before Lady Jo's was shut down, he had about 3,000 regular customers. He said that the game room provided lonely seniors with a place to socialize.

On a busy night, there would be as much socializing as there would be video gaming, he said.

Lady Jo's would offer free food and beverages. Many times his regular customers would organize potluck dinners.

"Mainly, it became a place where people could meet each other," he said. "Not everybody can join the VFW, but here, there were no requirements. They just came to have a good time."

Jorge Sanchez can be reached at sanchez@sptimes.com or 860-7313 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 7313.