October 25, 2007

Indian Casinos A Bigger Gamble Than You Think

Gary Hoffman was a millionaire, and then he wasn't. Hoffman hit a jackpot worth over $1.5 million in a New Mexico casino on an Indian reservation, and received all sorts of congratulatory salutations on the casino floor. Once he made it to the executive conference room of the Sandia Casino, however, the tone changed from celebration to intimidation:

Hoffman, a retired Albuquerque city employee, was playing a "Mystical Mermaid" slot machine on the morning of Aug. 16, 2006, when he thought he hit it big.

The nickel slot said he'd won $1,597,244.10. Patrons and casino employees came to congratulate him. He even got a marriage proposal, Hoffman said. But, soon he was asked to come to an executive conference room, where he says he was told the casino refused to pay.

A casino employee "became quite intimidating with me, pointed his finger in my face and said, 'You didn't win. We're not paying you any money. Do you understand what I'm telling you? You're not getting any money,'" Hoffman said.

The tribe claims the slot machine malfunctioned. It insists that the machine had a maximum payout of $2500, while Hoffman insists that it had a bonus play option which allowed for much higher winnings. The picture that Hoffman took shows a very precise number that the machine displayed of the jackpot, which indicates that the machine had routines that allowed for seven-digit jackpots -- and the machine's manufacturer insists that the machine cannot malfunction in the way the casino asserts.

Hoffman may have no recourse, however. New Mexico does not have the legal authority to give standing for a lawsuit against an Indian casino. Its sovereignty does not reach into the reservations, one reason why casinos can exist there in the first place. Even federal courts would be loathe to intrude on a contract dispute, which leaves Hoffman few choices to remedy his loss.

It's a costly lesson for those who gamble. Sometimes a jackpot turns into an albatross, and in most American casinos, the house holds all the cards.


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