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E-pull-tabs hit Minn. bars to fund Vikings stadium

Martiga Lohn, Associated Press

A representative of International Gamco demonstrates their touch screen handset for online gambling during a demonstration at Grumpy's Bar and Grill, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012 in Roseville, Minn. Minnesota game regulators met Tuesday for final approval of the first electronic games of chance that are being counted on to pay the states share of a new Minnesota Vikings NFL football stadium. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

ROSEVILLE, Minn. (AP) -- Gamblers tried out Minnesota's first electronic pull-tab games Tuesday in a handful of bars, as a new form of small-dollar gambling intended to help pay for a $975 million Vikings stadium ventured into the marketplace.

Five games including "Treasures of the Jungle" and "Mystic Sevens" were available at O'Gara's Bar and Grill in St. Paul and four other locations Tuesday afternoon, hours after the state Gambling Control Board approved the electronic pull-tabs at a packed meeting in Roseville. The games cleared their last regulatory hurdle with no debate and no drama, and attention quickly shifted to the rollout of the brightly colored, animated wagers on iPads.

Minnesota becomes the first state to widely offer electronic pull-tabs in bars and restaurants for charitable causes ranging from youth sports to services for the disabled.

The electronic games are based on the paper pull-tabs that charities have long sold in bars. Suppliers of the games said they hope to lure younger gamblers who haven't yet developed paper pull-tab, lottery scratch-off or casino slot machine habits. John Acres, founder of Las Vegas-based Acres 4.0, the games' manufacturer, said his company plans to continue developing new electronic pull-tabs as it tailors its offerings to gamblers' tastes.

"Our goal is to introduce new things every month, then measure and see what the consumers like and give them more of what they like and less of what they don't," he said.

Lawmakers are relying on taxes from electronic pull-tabs to help the state repay borrowing for its share of a new Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis. The Legislature approved the stadium deal with projections showing pull-tab and bingo taxes more than doubling to almost $95 million yearly by next year, as the new technology more than doubles the volume of charitable gambling. Taxes on the new games will cover debt service on the state's $348 million stadium contribution.

"They will bring in more revenue, but not the expected revenue to pay for one third of a Vikings stadium, one third of a billion dollars," said Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, who voted against the stadium because he objected to the funding behind it. "I don't see that happening."

But Tom Barrett, the Gambling Control Board's executive director, said interest is high from manufacturers, and the board also approved a second company's license to make electronic pull-tabs. International Gamco Inc. plans to get its electronic pull-tab game, "Golden Touch," into gamblers' hands by early December, company vice president Scott Henneman said.

The Omaha, Neb., company was already a licensed maker of paper pull-tabs in Minnesota. Henneman said it plans to offer both electronic pull-tabs and bingo on commercial-grade, hand-held devices.

Meanwhile, Acres said his company is working on electronic pull-tab games that would be played on smartphone-sized devices, and may delve into electronic bingo later.

Jon Weaver, who heads distributor Express Games of Minneapolis, said he doesn't see any reason the electronic games can't expand beyond the 2,700 locations that now sell paper pull-tabs.

"We hope to grow it as large as the market will allow," Weaver said after the board's vote.

Bars in St. Paul, Coon Rapids, Spring Lake Park and St. Cloud were the first to offer the new games. Players must show photo identification to prove they are at least 18 years old and pay cash for their bets.

Another lawmaker who voted against the stadium out of concern about the financing said he will be watching closely to see how electronic pull-tabs perform.

"If this financing scheme does not work and we do not get the dollars to fund the stadium and its operations, then it will come and fall back on the taxpayers of this state," said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes.