Loophole? What Loophole?

Low-profile "legal" gambling operations are slipping into Florida under the door and through the transom

"Financially," Ann insists, "I'm about even. I'm not a greedy person. I'm smart. If I get a hit that gets me 15 or 20 dollars, I take it."

"Sure," Nancy agrees.

"Not like this woman I saw the other day with $72 in the machine. So I said, 'Aren't you going to take that?' And she says, 'No.' I said, 'No?!' Then I see she's playing $2 a shot. She went right through that $72 and kept feeding the machine."

Play for pay. Legally?
Colby Katz
Play for pay. Legally?

Nancy tops that: "You know the woman who's always there with the big, blond, thick hair?" she says. "She's there all the time, you know? Well, she says she spends $500 a day there. She says she's about $100 a day ahead."

Ethel shakes her head.

"What are you talking about?" a lady's yelling. "Are you talking about the Indians?"

No, the ladies are not. They're not talking about the Seminole Casinos or even the cruises to nowhere: the two last bastions of legal gambling in Florida. For the next 20 minutes, as canasta players slowly fill up the Cypress Bend Retirement Community Game Room, Ann, Nancy, and Ethel, the oldest at 87, describe the latest fashion among Broward retirees: adult amusement centers. With a permanent-twilight lighting scheme and the cacophony of buzzers and bells, these establishments offer their patrons Vegas-style nights during lethargic Florida days -- precisely the experience that Floridians have continued to vote against legalizing. These casinos, euphemistically called "adult arcades," are big business in Broward County. Instead of cold hard cash, their slots pay off in coupons for use at Wal-Mart and Publix. These elderly women have already taken note, carpooling there three, four days a week. County authorities, however, have not.

"Oh, and they're opening a third one," Nancy announces as the canasta game gets under way. "That makes three in just a quarter mile."

"That's great," Ann replies, collecting her dominoes. "You see, for us seniors that have to sit around and watch stupid television all day, this is perfect. We're widows. We don't have a man to play with or talk to, so we go to there. We go there for fun."

Fun? Possibly. But nearing 2 a.m. at Pompano's Treasure Island, it doesn't look like the guy at the "Queen Bee" slot machine is having any. There are four rows of slots in the room, about 60 in all, and at the moment, he's one of four people still trying his luck. He's not blinking much, and the only sign of life is his right hand, feeding the machine $5 bills. Occasionally, he sips a Diet Coke. His screen shows he's played 2,322 games. At 10 cents a spin, he's lost more than $200. Luckily, Treasure Island doesn't close until 5 am, so there's time to make a comeback.

Adult arcade owners, like Treasure Island's Jean Fradette, will tell you that this form of entertainment -- which can bring in $30,000 a week -- is definitely legal. They don't call their establishments "casinos," despite the familiar décor. They don't call their machines "slots" either. They're "adult amusement machines" or "redemption machines," a term that gives the enterprise an appropriate religious undertone. In fact, Fradette sees himself as a do-gooder who happens to make a little money with his acts of kindness. "People come in and tell me, 'You saved my life,'" he says. "They were spending an obscene amount of money at the casinos, and they can come here and play all day and not spend very much money at all. For $100, you could play all day, if you want."

Although Fradette himself refers to his business as a "little form of gambling," he insists that technically it's not. "It's entertainment," he says emphatically. He points to a large red sign that hangs on his wall, with the title "Florida Amusement Machine Center (Florida Statute)."

It reads: "Amusement machines operate by means of the insertion of coins/dollars which by the application of skill may entitle the person playing the machine to receive points or coupons/tickets which may be exchanged for merchandise only, excluding cash or alcoholic beverages, provided the value of the merchandise in exchange for such points or coupons does not exceed 75 cents."

In certain circles, Statute 849.161, a 1996 amendment to the state gambling law, is called the "Chuck E. Cheese exception." It passed primarily so places with the Whack-a-Mole-like games that kids play for teddy bear prizes could stay open. Of course, it didn't take long for an adult to learn how to manipulate the law. The typical casino slot, the "8 Liner," has 8 rows of spinning images -- like fruits, animals, and numbers -- that stop automatically. The player has no control, and there is no suggestion that it's a game of chance. "We have none of those," Fradette repeats. But he does have equivalent machines, with an added "skill-stop" feature. Now the player can push a button and stop, one by one, each row, which rolls down to a number or figure. Proprietors of these machines argue this puts the player in control, making these games of "skill," which are perfectly legal.

That was the birth of the loophole: the casino turned "adult amusement center." The loophole had been discovered before, of course. According to Phil McBride, president of the Florida Amusement Machine Association, a trade association representing slot machine operators, South Carolina experienced a boom in adult arcades in the late '90s as a result of a similar statute. Eventually, however, the state started shutting them down. In turn, the machines found their way into Georgia, which also found ways to confiscate them. "They were legal in Georgia," McBride explains, "until these assholes started stealing the money by putting in a hundred machines in one place. Those places looked like casinos." There were more than 30,000 such machines in Georgia, he asserts, and they had to go somewhere.

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