Game On

With little in the way of penalties, illegal gambling operations flourish in Houston.

Game On

There are few places as depressing as an illegal game room on a sunny Tuesday afternoon.

Inside the Capri Game Room on Telephone Road, the dozen or so patrons spread among the 122 video-slot machines aren't exhibiting any signs of happiness. The only people who look like they're actually enjoying themselves are the two security guards outside the front door. They're shooting the bull a few yards away from an open box of poker chips that patrons can pick up for a "match" from the house.

Don (not his real name) has chaperoned two Houston Press staffers to the Capri, one of many gambling halls known in Texas as game rooms, after a failed mission to visit the nearby Just Gold game room. A security guard at Just Gold, which shares a building with a lawn mower store behind a Dairy Queen, told us that they were allowing in only people with membership cards, and they weren't issuing any new ones. Fortunately, the Capri was wide open.

Game rooms, like this one on Bellaire Boulevard, are legal — as long as owners don't pay out in cash or valuable prizes.
Mandy Oaklander
Game rooms, like this one on Bellaire Boulevard, are legal — as long as owners don't pay out in cash or valuable prizes.

At a machine near the back corner of the former cabaret, Don calls out "Match," and after a little while, a woman in an apron strolls over and pulls out a wad of cash. The match system, where the house matches your bet dollar-for-dollar up to a certain amount, is an incentive some game rooms offer to get you in the door and keep you in front of their machines. At the Capri, players get one match per day.

Don hands her a poker chip with "$20" on it and puts a twenty in the machine; the woman adds another twenty and then produces a roll of masking tape from her apron. She tears off a little strip and covers the bill dispenser, a reminder that you're not supposed to cash out until the house says it's okay. The Capri's rules won't let Don cash out for anything under $80, even if he just wants to switch machines.

The lights are dim and the walls are painted a rather cold shade of blue, peppered with an occasional bunch of red cherries or black spades. Food and soda are free, but it's bring your own booze, and it doesn't look like anyone's drinking today. The few patrons, mostly middle-aged women, sit still and quiet, engaged in a staring contest with their Pot-O-Gold and Life of Luxury games. There's no music, so the only sound comes from the machines' electronic blurts. It's like you not only have to abandon all hope, but any joy, upon entering the Capri.

Or at least that's the way it is on a weekday afternoon. Don says he's driven by the place at night, when the parking lot is full and patrons pack the place for the big-ticket drawings: You can win a laptop, a 46-inch TV and lots of other cool stuff. Don likes playing every once in a while, but his wife, he says, has a problem. He says the marriage is crumbling after 20-odd years because she's blown more than $100,000 in game rooms. Her own family has practically disowned her, and nothing he says can get through to her. He doesn't blame the game rooms for her addiction, but he doesn't think law enforcement is doing enough to crack down on the owners.

What Don doesn't know is that, just three weeks earlier, Houston police arrested four people they believed to be the Capri's owners; the Harris County District Attorney's Office charged them with gambling-related crimes — misdemeanors — and three of them had already pleaded out. The three had already served their few days in jail and paid a few hundred each in fines, which is probably why it's still business as usual at the Capri. As long as gambling charges remain misdemeanors, there's not much the Harris County DA's office can do. Of the 97 gambling-related charges the DA's office filed in the last year, the harshest jail sentence so far was 25 days. Only one person was slapped with the maximum $4,000 fine; most were hit with two to four days and $100 to $600 in fines. (Some of the cases are still pending.)

The Capri is just one of dozens of illegal game rooms in Houston operating in broad daylight. They're like weeds; by the time police investigate and shutter one operation, another one springs up. As long as the machines themselves are legal and the penalties minimal, game rooms will thrive, and owners will hit the jackpot.
_____________________

In an attempt to clarify gambling law and codify the difference between places like the Capri and Chuck E. Cheese's, the Texas Legislature in 1993 and 1995 amended the state penal code and gave birth to what's called the "fuzzy animal" exception.

To wit: Video gaming devices like 8-liners (so called because there are eight combinations of matching symbols) are legal to own and operate as long as there's no cash payout and you can't win anything of real value. Since the legislature didn't have a problem with children winning cheap trinkets, it had to find a way to express this mathematically; therefore, the fuzzy animal clause allows noncash payouts of anything less than ten times the amount of a single bet — or five bucks — whichever is less.

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27 comments
Judeso3
Judeso3

Most of the game rooms are located in predominant Hispanic neighborhoods in Houston, Texas

Take for instance a game room located on Lawndale next door to "EL PORTAL dance hall" in Houston, Texas operating fearlessly under the noses of law enforcement... And the machines don't even have permit stickers.... LOL

It is very evident the establishment does not pay off with little bears or any trinket of that sort, there ain't none found in the establishment...

It is my opinion that the owners of this game room have partnered up with the former owners of "JACKS" a game room that was closed down by law enforcement and it was located off of Allen Genoa in Houston, Texas...

These operators are like terrorists on Hispanic communities making our senior citizens that are in fixed incomes have financial problems...

The operators of the establishments that were mentioned above are non-Hispanic... They look like from a middle eastern racial persuasion.... Immigrants... I don't know if they are legally in this country or not.... But I know their business is illegal...

Many of our senior citizens have been financially victimized by these predators...

Our senior citizens continue to go back and play these machines in efforts to recover money lost but continue loosing... Is a vicious cycle...

In closing... When the game room is inspected and their is not Teddy bears or trinkets of that nature than there is illegal gambling going on and if charged for illegal gambling than also charge them with intent to terrorize our American senior citizens...

Brian Hansen
Brian Hansen

it was nice of Craig to put this story under Peter's name.

Bonny_bunny2000
Bonny_bunny2000

I go to these game rooms all the time. It's near the house and yes, I receive cash, sometimes more than triple with what I brought with me.

Unknown
Unknown

Everybody knows that those machines are illegal, the owner or the operator make thousands of thousands of dollars a month. They aren't paying taxes and those suckers who playing on these machines are losing their money. Most of the people are poor or middle class, who have limited funds to survive. Some the people who love to play on these machines are already on welfare. Why doesn't goverment shut down all these illegal activities, arrest those owners or operators, fine them millions dollars, audit them thoroughly through the state and federal auditors about houses, businesses, money, bank accounts, cars, etc.

Guest
Guest

This operation is WIDE OPEN! Everyone (from elected-officials to citizens) are just looking the other way. The article states that one person is making $500,000/yr. That is CHUMP CHANGE compared to the others who own these game rooms. Some of these guys make $80,000 or more PER MONTH! How many pay taxes on that? The punishment needs to be more severe. Nothing is going to change until the FEDS get involved and these people get sent to the pen.

Copelandchery
Copelandchery

Texas should legealize gaming and that would stop all the game rooms.plus we would stop taking our money to LA. and letting their state benifit ........

Ivan Mims
Ivan Mims

Yes game rooms are everywhere i can count atleast 20. But the thing is Texas should legealize it #1, but i guess they dont cause there making money somewhere on it under the table of course. But where can i get hired so we can riad them??? I can get into any Game Room so i wanna get hired

David Whitten
David Whitten

Some gambling locations, both legal and illegal, are depressing. I once went on a gambling cruise outside of Port Aransas. It was like being on a ship full of Far Side characters. When we reached international waters after a day of slot ecstasy, there was a lounge singing team ready to entertain. A MILF & middle-aged male were "jamming" Steely Dan songs. Need I say more?

When I used to live near Houston, Telephone Road police calls resulted in two units being sent, not one. Rough neighborhood.

Brian Hansen
Brian Hansen

do the owners explain why players can't cash out before they say so, or is it just understood by all that it's to keep them there and they don't even bother justifying it with lies?

how do the investigators decide which places to raid? there's so many.

you say there isn't much the DA can do but then you mention 25 days in jail and a 4k fine. what's the maximum punishment? couldn't they pursue that more?

why aren't there tons of places where people can go to smoke weed and have a cop stand outside protecting them??? it's a misdemeanor. it's a ticketable misdemeanor even. oh yeah cuz old people, like the ones at these places, would throw a fit while they sip their "iced tea".

"point estimate" = best guess. would have been nice to put that in parentheses since the quotes make me think even u didn't know what it was.

overall, i enjoyed this story. keep up the good work. give 'em hell

Bwilson
Bwilson

Find out why Constable Victor Trevino has two reserve deputies working for him that own Metro Security, a company that provides security for only gamerooms.

guest
guest

Anybody ever heard of Dave & Busters? They give away Xbox which last I checked is worth well over $5 (Your "Fuzzy Animal" Rule)

Can we just talk about some relevant news? Like the collapse of the US government and Texas plans for cessation?

lfbill
lfbill

Ironically, "Game On" has been adopted by Palinistas as a fight slogan, and Sara's film opens today in Houston.

Tickets and information for "The Undefeated" are available at:

http://www.movietickets.com/pr...

Lfbill
Lfbill

Ironically, "Game On" has been adopted by Palinistas as a fight slogan, and Sara's film opens today in Houston.

Tickets and information for "The Undefeated" are available at:

http://www.movietickets.com/pr...

Lisapink
Lisapink

I happened to stumble upon this article and it's crap. I know a few older women who go to these establishments and I have asked them many times why they choose to go there. They enjoy going because it is a place to socialize and have fun. They don't drink and stay out all night because they're not young but like to HAVE FUN too. If these places have security guards then where is the fear factor? You'd be more likely to get robbed at a convenience store than a gameroom in my opinion. As for the customers, they are responsible for their own financial risks so what's the problem again? The article seemed to place a negative spotlight on the owners and vendors. By the looks of it, most of them are non English speaking individuals who have found a loophole in the system. You really can't blame them for trying to prosper and make something of themselves with language and social barriers. I'm not one to set foot in places like this but I don't see the real harm in all of it. This was waste of 10 minutes of my time Mr. Masilow. Write something with substance or at least do a little more research. Oh and did I mention that this article is CRAP?!?

GNJ
GNJ

These "game rooms" have been around for a while. I don't like them I think that they're dangerous which is why TX should just legalize gambling, bring some much needed revenue to the state as well as jobs. And meanwhile, I still can't play poker on-line and that really sucks!

Duce630
Duce630

I hope they close them all down. My question is, what about the ones at the places that have permits from TABC, that should endanger their permit.

Richard Doll
Richard Doll

Gambling - Games for people who believe the laws of mathematics do not apply to them.

AC
AC

Like the State lottery, people who play these machines are paying their own "Stupid Tax" -- let 'em play all they want.

onelifetolive.bm
onelifetolive.bm

The government needs to regulate these gamerooms. Not only are they breaking the law by giving out cash. There also is a lot of discrimination going on as well as illegal immigrants working in them doing illegal activities..

Sodalite
Sodalite

Telephone Road has always been a bad street. Just ask any old Park Place cop.

Craig Malisow
Craig Malisow

Hi Brian -- thanks for writing; those are all good questions. I would've liked to have spoken with the D.A.'s office in order to get a perspective from prosecutors. Unfortunately, they didn't want to comment. So that's why I just looked at the last year's worth of gambling charges to see what kind of penalties were doled out for convictions. I apologize if I didn't state the maximum punishment for a class A misdemeanor, which is one year/$4,000. Now, as to why there wasn't anything even approaching that in the adjudicated cases over the last year -- that's something I would've liked to have asked a prosecutor.

Thanks,Craig

Brian Hansen
Brian Hansen

this seems pretty relevant. it's draining millions of dollars from seniors through a perilous addiction. maybe dave and busters should have to change their rules too?? or was that beyond your reasoning because they are a big chain and it's out in the open?? the bigger the lie...if you want to talk about the US govt i suggest you go to a national paper, and a state paper like the texas tribute or texas watchdog for state talk.

Craig Malisow
Craig Malisow

Hi Lisa -- just wanted to address one point in your comment: the owners I was writing about did not find a "loophole" in the system. They were breaking the law. Period.

Thanks,Craig

Brian Hansen
Brian Hansen

i ask people why they smoke meth and shoot heroin and they say it's good for socializing and having fun.

i missed the fear factor part - robberies were mentioned, but i don't remember much of an emphasis on danger.

the poor people who signed the subprime mortgages were responsible too. the problem is getting some people to see that the bankers who took advantage are also responsible and that freedom (since you seem to be a free marketer) doesn't just mean freedom to rip people off without repercussions - it means freedom to not be ripped off.

kinda like how the free press is supposed to mean freedom for all voices to be heard, but really it's become just about the freedom of the media to do whatever they want (mergers, acquisitions, editorial control, stifling the marketplace of ideas/democracy, etc.)

i'm not opposed to people having fun. i think drugs should be legal. does that mean they should be available to anyone over 21 who goes to a 7/11 like slot machines and alcohol are? no. it means people shouldn't go to jail for partaking, and that we can do more good with smart regulation and control than by leaving it to these poor souls who can't even speak english and are just trying to make something for themselves...give me a break.

this article had tons of research and substance.

Wyatt
Wyatt

Well, for one, since they're unregulated, owners could be screwing the players by setting machines to absurdly low payout rates. I guess that's the players' fault as well.

Albert Nurick
Albert Nurick

The problem is that the "Stupid Tax" goes to the folks who run the game rooms, not the State.

Legalize casino gambling, tax it, and regulate it. This isn't rocket science.

Mohamad
Mohamad

Some of these owners make close to 80 to 90k a month. Also there are HPD OFFICERS that are on the game room owners payroll. The reason the business is good because HPD and DA office makes it good. When I drive around I can spot a game room and HPD can't.

 
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