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Proposed NIGC regulations could render bingo games obsolete

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TULSA, Okla. (AP) - Bingo-based gaming could become obsolete at Oklahoma Indian casinos under a series of proposed federal Indian gaming regulations, according to state gaming officials.

The National Indian Gaming Commission proposals, made public on Oct. 24, centers on what distinguishes a gaming machine with bingo-based games - known as Class II gaming in federal jargon - from those that are skill-based slot machines, so-called Class III games.

Bingo-based games - which are legal at all Oklahoma Indian casinos without state regulation - pit players against each other on a computer server. Slot machines - legal only at casinos covered by agreements between tribes and the state - pit the player against the machine alone.

Creek Nation casinos are primarily Class II bingo-based establishments, although they also offer card games allowed under state compacts.

''I think we're going to see Class II fade out altogether,'' said Enus Wilson, Creek Nation gaming commissioner. ''But we've been haggling over these regulations for years.''

The gaming commission's revisions are complex and include classification standards, electronic definitions, minimum internal control standards and technical standards. But they boil down to making it clearer to gamblers when they are gaming against each other and not against the house.

In a statement, Phil Hogen, gaming commission chairman, called the proposals a needed ''bright line'' drawn between Class II and Class III gaming devices.

Many electronic bingo games in casinos that aren't regulated by the state appear very much like the Class III games.

''Bingo and Class II gaming is the bedrock upon which Indian gaming was built, and its integrity needs to be maintained,'' Hogen said.

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Among the state's 90-plus Indian casinos, Class II machines are standard. Estimates for Oklahoma Indian casinos place Class III at under one-third of total machine numbers, although that percentage may vary at larger casinos.

At Cherokee Casino, more than half of the machines are Class III games covered by an agreement, or compact, with the state, said David Stewart, CEO of Cherokee Nation Enterprises.

''This is why the compact is so important to Oklahoma,'' he said. ''I can say that casinos, in general, are moving to more compacted games simply because of variety and availability.''

Meanwhile, the $25 billion-a-year industry continues to grow on both Class II and Class III games.

Some tribal officials see the proposals not as a means to provide better games to players, but as a way to appease state governments.

''It's like these regulations are penalizing us for our [tribe 's] ingenuity,'' said Seneca-Cayuga gaming commissioner Jerry Dilliner. ''It's logical for states to be behind Class III games because they're regulated, and that means more money for them.''

The proposed revisions could make a difference to the 4,200-member Senecas, who operate a casino in Grove with about 900 machines. They have invested a lot to keep up with video bingo technology, Dilliner said.

''I guess [Class II] technology advanced farther than anyone thought it would,'' he said. ''The ultimate goal is to do away with Class II.''

Thirty-three Indian tribes have gaming compacts with the state. About $75 million has been collected from tribes on Class III games in lieu of taxes since compacts began in 2005, according to state records.