KEY LARGO -- In the summer of 2007, the office of then-Monroe County State Attorney Mark Kohl raided three penny arcades in Key West and later ordered them to remove their slot machine-style video games or face arrest.
Two years later, as the recent opening of Vegas Fun of Key Largo in Tradewinds Plaza attests, such adult amusement centers are back in business. And new State Attorney Dennis Ward says his opinion is they're legal.
"There is case law. They've won in court," Ward said last week.
Vegas Fun of Key Largo opened its doors at the beginning of October. It's one of Florida's 200-plus penny arcades, or pseudo-slot machine halls, that pay customers in prizes and gift cards rather than cash, according to the Florida Arcade Association.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon a handful of customers were seated at what the arcade calls its 60 "skilled slot machines" when an exulted scream resonated from a machine near the doorway.
"I won 700 points," a young woman shouted -- the equivalent of $7 worth of prize credits.
"It gets pretty exciting," said Rich Shaf, co-owner of the Tradewinds Plaza arcade. "Everybody pulls for each other."
Vegas Fun wasn't the first such penny arcade to open since Ward came into office last January.
Early this year, Stick and Stein Sports Rock Café in Key West, which was one of the businesses Kohl's office cracked down on in 2007, brought their adult arcade games back, owner Steve Degraves said.
Another such slot-style arcade recently closed down in central Marathon, only to be replaced by a new one named Calling All Winners.
Adult arcades like Vegas Fun operate under what's known as Florida's "Chuck E. Cheese Statute," which stipulates that video games may offer pay outs of up to 75 cents per game, but only if they are deemed to be games of skill, not chance, and payments don't come in the form of cash or alcohol.
The element of skill, says Shaf, comes in knowing the patterns of the machines. Unlike full-scale slots, where players start a spin and then have no control over when the reels stop, players on Vegas Fun's arcade games stop each reel of symbols one at a time. Between spins they also have the opportunity to hold onto certain symbols and discard others.
That selection process, says Florida Arcade Association President Gale Fontaine, is where the real skill comes in. Experienced players know to hold certain combinations of symbols that frequently lead to jackpots.
In 2006 Fontaine successfully argued her case in front of a Broward County jury, which found that her Tropicana Rec Room in Pompano Beach was not a gambling hall and that her arcade games were not slot machines.
The decision was considered a landmark one in Florida's adult arcade industry. A Sarasota County jury made the same decision in a similar case the following year.
Bob Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University Law Center professor who monitors the gambling industry, says that, legally speaking, it's well established that slot machine-style arcade machines can be games of skill. The problem, he says, is that games can also be set up in such a way that no skill is involved.
"Looking at a machine, you have no way to know whether it is a game of skill or a game of chance," he said.
That's where the opening is for law enforcement agencies that want to take a shot at shutting them down, Jarvis said.
In 2007, the Monroe County State Attorney's Office conducted its raids only after complaints came from Key West code compliance.
But these days, with the economy in turmoil and taxpaying businesses viewed as salvation, there's typically no such political will.
"The public has become much more tolerant about gambling," Jarvis said. "When that happens prosecutors take less interest. Survey after survey shows people don't really care about gambling."
For his part, Ward says that under his watch authorities won't crack down on adult arcades unless the Florida Legislature tightens up its law.
Meanwhile, back at Vegas Fun of Key Largo, Shaf says winners will get paid in credit cards, which they can use to buy goods at stores. But he demurs when asked if he thinks his new operation might benefit from the recent closure of the SunCruz casino, which had operated out of Holiday Inn less than two miles south of his storefront.
"They're a form of entertainment. A movie theater is a form of entertainment. We're a form of entertainment," Shaf said.