February 13, 1997 1:30 PM PST

Stakes raised for online gaming

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Internet casino gambling will get a boost on Saturday with the launch of Global Casino, an online venture that its management calls the "Taj Mahal of the Net."

The casino is run by Interactive Gaming & Communications, a pioneer in a market that could generate $10 billion a year in sales by the turn of the century.

Meanwhile, another online gaming company is expanding. Real Casino and Sportsbook said today that it is adding additional casino-style games including blackjack, video poker, roulette, craps, and keno to its slots. Real Casino lists its operating center as San Jose, Costa Rica.

Interactive Gaming's online gambling headquarters is Grenada, where it has a gambling license. Current U.S. laws prohibit gambling by wire, a legal definition that could include the Internet, although that law hasn't been tested yet. With the entry of Global Casino and other online gaming palaces where gamblers wager real money by offering their credit-card accounts or a cashier's check, that law is likely to soon receive its first challenge.

Legal questions aside, investors think that online gaming is potentially a huge market. An estimated $482 billion is spent annually on gaming in the United States. Interactive Gaming's stock has jumped from 2-1/4 to 3 since December in anticipation of the launch.

Many Net users say they are still leery of online gambling. Some are worried about online security and many prefer the excitement of a real-life casino. But Global Casino is betting that there are lots of dedicated gamblers who will participate, no matter what the venue.

The Global Casino will open with a slot machine tournament. Sign-ups begin Saturday and the first tournament will be held on March 17--St. Patrick's Day--said Interactive Gaming Vice President Jeffery Erb. The entry fee is either $100, $200, or $500, depending on whether players agree to wager 25 cents, $1, or $5, for each spin of the one-armed bandit. The winner of the 7-day tournament receives a grand prize of either $2,500, $5,000, or $10,000.

In April, gamblers will be able to play the slots individually or play black jack. They must set up accounts, however, which typically requires a $5,500 deposit.

Interactive Gaming spent $1.8 million dollars to develop its online gaming. It employs technologies such as Java to making gaming more realistic. The slots feature a patriotic theme, complete with American flags, as well as a planetary theme.

Loyal players also can qualify for free gifts, such as liquor, plane tickets, and hotel rooms.

Other Net gaming sites are springing up, although not all of them accept real money.

World Wide Web Casinos has set up a Net casino for gamblers to play blackjack, poker and slots. Virtual Vegas offers craps, slots and Hotjava poker, and Dagar Software offers a CD-ROM called interBet that provides nearly a dozen casino games complete with sound.

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