Metropolis: Wednesday, September 28, 2005
Walking the Eight-Line

Dee Anderson is cracking down on game room customers — and they’re fighting back.


Vegas Fun isn’t in Las Vegas, and it hasn’t been much fun lately. The game room on Highway 80 just west of Fort Worth is a place where mostly older people go to play eight-liner machines at 10 cents a pop. But a few weeks ago that got 11 of them popped by sheriff’s deputies who handed out misdemeanor tickets for illegal gambling.

“This is a real den of inequity here,” a customer said sarcastically on a recent Thursday evening. Bill, a gray-haired man of 59, was one of three people straddling stools and pushing buttons on brightly lit machines in a cavernous, dimly lit room. Along a nearby wall, wire racks held a selection of inexpensive items like toilet paper, detergent, and bottled water that Vegas Fun management insists are the prizes their customers have been playing for.

“They always claim that,” said Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson, because those kinds of prizes — worth less than $5 — are the only kind that eight-liner devotees legally can play for in Texas. But he believes few such establishments are operating legally in this neck of the woods — and that those operating outside the law are making a lot more than dimes for their owners.

If any eight-liner establishment is busy, he said, they’re not playing for toilet paper. “When you see a parking lot full of cars, they are paying cash. The only ones we go after are the ones paying cash. The average gambler won’t put $40 or $50 in a machine for toilet paper,” he said. “No one will play in a place that follows the law.”

Citations issued to customers at several Tarrant County gaming rooms this summer are the latest chapter in the shifting saga of Texas gambling establishments trying to straddle the law. In 2003, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that eight-liners are illegal if they give as prizes cash, cash certificates, or anything worth more than $5.

Since then, the sheriff’s department has confiscated so many eight-liner machines that their storage area is full. So this time around, rather than seizing the machines or shutting down the businesses, deputies just issued Class C misdemeanor tickets to customers.

In response, Vegas Fun has hired Fort Worth attorney Steve Swander to represent the customers. Swander is an expert at fighting Texas over “morals” laws, from those that make sexually oriented businesses illegal to these that put eight-liners in the same category as the real Vegas’ slot machines.

A hearing scheduled this week in Justice of the Peace Jacqueline Wright’s court could determine whether the case will go to trial. The customers’ group has requested that a jury hear their cases.

“I’d like to see 12 of my peers tell me it was illegal betting 10 cents,” said Bill, who asked to be identified by his first name only. “I’m not using bookies and betting on football games, I’m betting dimes in a goofy machine.”

Whether eight-liners are innocent games of chance or illicit money-making venues depends on who’s doing the talking. Adults pushing buttons on machines with names such as “Fruit Bonus” and “Doggie Diamonds” don’t see a thing wrong with game rooms. Law enforcement officers have a different view. It’s the same legal seesaw that law enforcement and eight-liner owners and customers have been tilting on for years now.

“He treated us like we were criminals,” Bill said, describing a deputy’s actions toward the group of older people playing the machines at Vegas Fun.

Anderson, for his part, is skeptical of the innocence claims of game room customers. People who play at establishments that break the rules should be prepared to pay fines of up to $500, he said.

The sheriff sends undercover officers to determine whether the gambling law is being broken at a particular game room. In the past, when enforcement efforts targeted business managers and machines, customers got a free pass — and many just drove down the road to the next game room.

So this summer, deputies went after customers. “That’s one of the alternate methods of enforcement we are taking rather than shutting down the places and seizing the machines,” Anderson said. “We’re trying to affect the other side of it.”

The shift in focus was spurred in part by space problems — an estimated 800 eight-liner machines have been confiscated and are being stored on county property. “We are pretty much full as far as what we can seize,” the sheriff said.

Game rooms once issued gift certificates — worth anywhere from $5 to more than $100 — as winnings. Businesses boomed as people gambled for pieces of paper that could be used like money at area stores and malls. The boom went further when businesses allowed customers to play for cash. In effect, the eight-liner businesses became de facto, unregulated casinos in a state that allows only certain types of gambling, such as the lottery, which has generated more than $11 billion in revenues for the state since 1992. About half of that has helped pay for public education in Texas.

Money and control are what the state’s battle against eight-liners are all about, said Bob Brock, a Vegas Fun employee.

“They don’t have control of the money,” he said. “There is a lot of money in this business if you operate it the way you want to. They weren’t getting their share. In order to get their share they have to shut all these places down. Then they’ll vote in casinos because they’ll have control. That’s what it more or less boils down to.”

The businesses can be lucrative when operated counter to the law. A former game room owner in Tarrant County told Fort Worth Weekly he was offered $1,000 a week by a competing game room to close down his business. He refused — it wasn’t enough money. Two recent raids on “relatively small” game rooms netted more than $50,000 in cash, Anderson said.

Tarrant County Sheriff’s Lt. Alan Dennis said the height of the craze came in late 2002 and early 2003, when more than 80 game rooms were operating in unincorporated areas of the county. Back then, some of the businesses were raking in up to $10,000 a day, he said. Recent raids indicate game rooms are smaller, frequented by fewer people, and taking in closer to $2,000 a day. Some have started opening late and keeping odd hours to avoid scrutiny.

Big money, the industry’s willingness to fight in court, and the time it takes to prosecute cases are other factors that have made enforcement a challenge. “This is very difficult to stamp out,” Anderson said.

Vegas Fun attorney Swander doesn’t dispute that lawbreakers abound in the gaming business. But he said some establishments, such as Vegas Fun, are using eight-liners that comply with current law, and some customers are content to play for fun and relaxation rather than money. Vegas Fun offered machines that allow 10 times the amount of play as winnings (a dime bet could win up to $1 in credits), which could then be exchanged for a prize worth less than $5. The customers that he will represent in court were following the rules, he said.

“You have certain operators that aren’t going to follow the rules, and you have ones that will follow the rules,” Swander said. “And the ones who follow the rules say all the customers are going to the ones who don’t follow the rules.”

While Anderson suspects that few game rooms follow the law, Swander expects to prove him wrong in court. “If the sheriff is faced with a lot of different operations and game rooms, some of which are very illegal, I think he has painted them with a broad brush and said they are all illegal,” he said. “We are trying to convince the sheriff that there can be a legal operation.”

That could be difficult in an industry where even game room operators claim it is nearly impossible to make a living unless something of value is awarded to customers playing the machines.

Bill, the Vegas Fun customer, said he visits the game room mostly for relaxation and to kill time and doesn’t expect to lose or win much. Still, he said, it seems pointless to play without the opportunity to win something.

The arrests and the scrutiny by police have meant fewer customers at Vegas Fun. The game room now prohibits customers from exchanging credits won on the machines for prizes, even toilet paper or detergent. Instead, the manager randomly awards prizes using a raffle system. It’s been judged a poor substitute for winning on the machines, and customers have thinned.

“It’s killed me,” said Vegas Fun manager Linda Daniells.

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