Years after ban on video poker, the fish game is flour­ish­ing

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY ANNA DOU­GLAS adou­[email protected]­lot­teob­

Be­hind the locked front door and tinted win­dows of the Tank Ar­cade, peo­ple are win­ning — and los­ing — big.

In a back room, a woman’s voice breaks through the rat­tle of plas­tic but­tons be­ing slapped over and over again. “Good shot,” she says. Gar­ish aquatic crea­tures swim across a 55-inch TV screen em­bed­ded in the 6-foot game ta­ble. If you shoot and kill one — some­times a whale, a sea dragon or mon­ster crab — you win

points. Points are re­deemable for cash or more cred­its to keep play­ing.

This is the fish game. Twelve years after North Carolina’s ban on video poker ma­chines, fish game ta­bles are flour­ish­ing across the state. Char­lotte has one of the high­est con­cen­tra­tions of fish game ar­cades with at least 40, al- though au­thor­i­ties say there could be twice that many in the city.

Ar­cade oper­a­tors main­tain they’re fol­low­ing state law be­cause they say the money a per­son can win is based on skill, not luck.

Po­lice agen­cies are skep­ti­cal, say­ing fish games may vi­o­late the state’s gam­bling laws and that ar­cades at­tract crime.

But nei­ther the At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s of­fice nor the State Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion have clar­i­fied whether the games are le­gal, lead­ing to in­con­sis­tent en­force­ment across the state.

In Greensboro, for ex­am­ple, po­lice have banned fish games.

In other cities, though — in­clud­ing Char­lotte and Raleigh — fish game ar­cades openly ad­ver­tise, with neon lights, big ban­ners and packed park­ing lots. Some po­lice agen­cies told The Char­lotte Ob­server they sus­pect il­le­gal gam­bling in­side the ar­cades but they don’t know whether a judge or a prose­cu­tor will agree.

In the city of Con­cord, of­fi­cials took up the is­sue on their own last year and put re­stric­tions on ar­cades. The po­lice chief still says state law­mak­ers need to step in

and clar­ify what’s le­gal and what’s not.

“The state leg­is­la­ture cre­ated this mess and they need to fix it. The law is as clear as mud,” says Con­cord Po­lice Chief Gary Gacek.

Even some in the ar­cade busi­ness want clearer rules.

“The state should come in and say this is le­gal and this is not. And the oper­a­tors would com­ply,” says Terry Wood, who has owned three ar­cades in North Carolina. He sold his last ar­cade, in Salisbury, after a part-time em­ployee was fatally shot in­side dur­ing a do­mes­tic ar­gu­ment.


The money, oper­a­tors say, is good.

In a week’s time, a large ar­cade can eas­ily col­lect $50,000 in rev­enue, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral em­ploy­ees and po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tors. Smaller lo­ca­tions with fewer cus­tomers might pull in about $10,000 weekly.

Some cus­tomers stay in the ar­cades hours at a time, man­agers say. In­ves­ti­ga­tors say they’ve talked to play­ers who, over a few hours, make mul­ti­ple ATM runs for more cash.

The lure is to “play their money and see if they can dou­ble their money,” ex­plains Keisha Reed, em­ployee at the Tank Ar­cade lo­ca­tion on West Boule­vard in Char­lotte.

“When you lose, it’s a hard pill to swal­low,” she said. “And you’re not guar­an­teed to win ev­ery time.”

Many ar­cades stay open 24/7. In­side, cus­tomers are of­ten fed free food and drinks.

“Once they start com­ing here, it’s like a so­cial club for them,” says Rio Simp­son, man­ager at Xpress Ar­cade on Moores Chapel Road in Char­lotte.

The cost to play, though, is high for some.

“Ev­ery time you hit the trig­ger, you’re spend­ing money,” says Gary Gray, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the North Carolina Coun­cil on Prob­lem Gam­bling.

Gam­bling ad­dic­tion and the num­ber of peo­ple who ask for help to quit has been on the rise in North Carolina, ac­cord­ing to statis­tics from the state’s hot­line and coun­sel­ing pro­gram.

Hot­line calls jumped from 3,825 be­tween July 2015 and June 2016 to 6,113 calls from July 2017 to June 2018. The lot­tery and casino games are the most-of­ten cited prob­lems, with sweep­stakes and ar­cades mak­ing up about 16 per­cent of the peo­ple who are re­ferred to gam­bling coun­sel­ing through the hot­line.

Some peo­ple are more sus­cep­ti­ble to an ad­dic­tive video game than oth­ers, Gray said. Ar­cades in North Carolina, he said, are of­ten found near low­in­come neigh­bor­hoods, where peo­ple can least af­ford to lose.

“I’ve had a ton of phone calls from fam­ily mem­bers of peo­ple los­ing money at these things. We’ve had peo­ple lose their homes, lose their mar­riages ... You can lose an en­tire pay­check in one evening.”


The fish game isn’t new. Ex­perts be­lieve the fish game was first pop­u­lar­ized in China more than ten years ago, ac­cord­ing to Way­point, VICE Me­dia’s gam­ing news and cul­ture web­site. Since then, the games have been found in ar­cades world­wide from Sin­ga­pore to Aus­tralia.

In the United States, news re­ports show law en­force­ment of­fi­cials have raided fish ar­cades in places like Hawaii, Colorado, Cal­i­for­nia and Florida.

In North Carolina, fish ta­bles have taken off the last 18 months, po­lice say.

The At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Of­fice, which of­ten as­sists lo­cal po­lice in pros­e­cut­ing crimes, said it’s aware of fish games. But when asked by the Ob­server, the AG’s of­fice would not say whether the games vi­o­late state gam­bling laws or whether it has given any ad­vice to District At­tor­neys in the state on how to han­dle crim­i­nal charges re­lated to fish games.

Sim­i­larly, the SBI — which has spe­cial agents to in­ves­ti­gate gam­bling in North Carolina — would not say specif­i­cally whether fish games vi­o­late the law.

In re­sponse to the Ob­server’s ques­tions, the SBI cited North Carolina’s law against “slot ma­chines” and other video games where peo­ple bet money. Le­gal amuse­ment games, ac­cord­ing to the agency, can only of­fer prizes or mer­chan­dise worth $10 or less. Ex­change of scores or “tal­lies” in the game for money is not al­lowed.

“If a fish game or any other other gam­ing de­vice is in vi­o­la­tion of this statute or other North Carolina Gen­eral Statutes for gam­bling and gam­ing, then it would be un­law­ful for them to op­er­ate said gam­ing de­vices,” an SBI spokesper­son said.

So far, the SBI has not raided any fish game ar­cades or made any fish game-re­lated ar­rests in North Carolina.

The is­sue, then, has been left to lo­cal of­fi­cials.

The Ob­server’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion found nu­mer­ous po­lice agen­cies and district at­tor­neys han­dling ar­cades in vastly dif­fer­ent ways. The patch­work of en­force­ment also ex­tends to lo­cal zon­ing and busi­ness reg­u­la­tions.

For ex­am­ple, a few mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments re­quire ar­cades to reg­is­ter, limit their op­er­at­ing hours and don’t al­low tinted win­dows. Oth­ers deny op­er­at­ing per­mits on the ba­sis that gam­bling is out­lawed.


Nearly ev­ery form of bet­ting is con­sid­ered il­le­gal gam­bling in North Carolina ex­cept for the state-run lot­tery, the casino on Chero­kee In­dian land and bingo games run by char­i­ties. Even bud­dies play­ing for keeps around a small poker ta­ble is tech­ni­cally il­le­gal but rarely, if ever, en­forced.

Where things get blurry over what’s le­gal and what’s not tends to cen­ter on a part of state law that per­mits adults to win money if a game is based on “skill” or “dex­ter­ity” — not just luck.

Many games have faced le­gal scru­tiny be­fore the fish game: video poker, slot ma­chines and, most re­cently, sweep­stakes.

His­tor­i­cally, it’s taken a judge in North Carolina and years of le­gal joust­ing to de­ter­mine whether a gam­bling ma­chine com­plies with the le­gal def­i­ni­tion of “skill.” In the case of sweep­stakes, law­suits and chal­lenges to the state law started more than five years ago and still aren’t set­tled in all ju­ris­dic­tions.

Fish games, too, are “go­ing to be an ar­gu­ment in court one day,” pre­dicts Capt. Aaron Bar­low, su­per­vi­sor of the in­ves­tiga­tive di­vi­sion at the Cald­well County Sher­iff’s Of­fice.

In court, both ar­cade and po­lice at­tor­neys of­ten call ex­pert foren­sic wit­nesses to weigh in on whether a ma­chine’s in­ner-work­ings prove the game is based on pure chance or a player’s skill.

The Cald­well County Sher­iff’s Of­fice has in­ves­ti­gated and made ar­rests in­side lo­cal gam­ing busi­nesses over the past few years. The names and look of the games changes — “The gam­ing in­dus­try will find dif­fer­ent loop­holes,” Bar­low said — but he be­lieves the premise is al­ways the same:

“It’s an (il­le­gal) video poker ma­chine,” Bar­low said.

Nat­u­rally, though, fish game man­agers dis­agree.


In­side a typ­i­cal ar­cade, rows of stand-up ar­cade ma­chines, com­put­ers and fish games cast a col­or­ful glow in­side oth­er­wise low-lit build­ings. The at­mos­phere is ca­sual, with up­beat mu­sic play­ing.

Many lo­ca­tions have in­stalled ven­ti­la­tion sys­tems and al­low smok­ing in­side. There’s usu­ally more than one game avail­able but fish games are the new­est and most pop­u­lar, es­pe­cially among young adults.

Ar­cades are open to adults only and can’t sell al­co­hol. The lo­ca­tions the Ob­server vis­ited have dozens of se­cu­rity cam­eras and an armed guard. Weapons aren’t al­lowed in­side, ex­cept by em­ploy­ees.

There are sto­ries of play­ers bet­ting $5 and win­ning $400. There are cus­tomers who say the ar­cade is a safe al­ter­na­tive to the street.

Dale and Vonne Gre­gory say their work­ers and cus­tomers at Tank Ar­cade are like fam­ily. They say they left their jobs at a ma­jor multi-na­tional ship­ping and de­liv­ery com­pany to man­age the ar­cade. Now, they man­age two lo­ca­tions in Char­lotte and have plans to open a third.

Vonne Gre­gory says she vets the ma­chines in­side to make sure they com­ply with state gam­bling laws and to make sure the pay­outs and ac­count­ing for cash are fair. They’ve also made im­prove­ments to the build­ing to meet fire code and en­hance se­cu­rity and safety, she said.

Sev­eral of their reg­u­lar cus­tomers are se­nior cit­i­zens. They told the Ob­server that the ar­cade has im­proved their neigh- bor­hood by es­tab­lish­ing a busi­ness in a va­cant build­ing where oth­er­wise squat­ters, pros­ti­tutes or drug deal­ers would take res­i­dence.

Ar­cade man­agers say they pay a per­cent­age — usu­ally around 25 per­cent — of the weekly take from fish games to the sup­plier who owns the ta­ble and is leas­ing it to the ar­cade. The games — with names like Ocean King, Fish Hunter and Tur­tle Re­venge — ap­pear to be mostly man­u­fac­tured over­seas though some com­pa­nies ad­ver­tise ta­bles “Made in the USA.”

None of the ar­cade man­agers or em­ploy­ees the Ob­server spoke with were will­ing to say which com­pany or per­son sup­plies their fish ta­bles or who hired them to run the busi­ness.

De­tec­tive M.J. Calvert with the Greensboro Po­lice De­part­ment sus­pects the secretive chain of com­mand is by de­sign. He works for the de­part­ment’s vice and nar­cotics unit.

“If you’re the owner, you may only show up once when you set up the busi­ness,” Calvert said. “You sit back and col­lect all the money while these other folks are hav­ing to han­dle all the risks.”


The risk in Greensboro for run­ning an ar­cade is a felony gam­bling charge.

Po­lice there have been among the most ag­gres­sive in the state to shut down fish game ar­cades.

At the peak of op­er­a­tion last sum­mer, there were about 45 ar­cades in Greensboro. Now, there are only a hand­ful. Calvert says those are op­er­at­ing un­der­ground and re­main un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Greensboro saw a mass ex­o­dus of fish games in late 2017 after its po­lice chief sent a warn­ing let­ter to oper­a­tors, say­ing they had to close their doors or face crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion. Most ar­cades heeded the warn­ing and left vol­un­tar­ily. Only a few stayed open, prompt­ing po­lice to take their equip­ment and ar­rest oper­a­tors.

One of those oper­a­tors hired a lawyer and sued the city. His lawyer, Jonathan Trapp of Durham, asked a judge for a tem­po­rary in­junc­tion or re­strain­ing or­der against po­lice. But, that was de­nied. Trapp says his client op­er­ated games of skill, al­lowed un­der state law. The fish game, he con­tends, re­quires strat­egy, tim­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence.

Re­cently, Trapp dropped a law­suit against Greensboro Po­lice be­cause he doesn’t be­lieve his client can have a fair hear­ing in Guil­ford County where the District At­tor­ney’s Of­fice has al­ready de­ter­mined fish games are il­le­gal. The ar­cade op­er­a­tor’s crim­i­nal charges were dropped in ex­change for agree­ing to keep the two Greensboro lo­ca­tions, Fish Palace I and II, closed.

“We’re go­ing to fight the fight some­where else,” Trapp said.


Gam­bling isn’t the only thing po­lice say they’re wor­ried about.

Ar­cades are of­ten as­so­ci­ated with a high fre­quency of rob­beries, shoot­ings and other crimes, says Ed­die Cald­well, at­tor­ney with the N.C. Sher­iff’s As­so­ci­a­tion.

There have been deadly rob­beries and homi­cides in many ar­cades across the state in­clud­ing in Char­lotte, Burling­ton, Salisbury and Greensboro. And, the amount of cash in­side, po­lice say, at­tracts crim­i­nals.

In Lum­ber­ton, three men am­bushed a se­cu­rity guard as he walked a win­ning cus­tomer to their ve­hi­cle, The Robeso­nian news­pa­per re­ported in May. The Robe­son County Sher­iff’s De­part­ment told the news­pa­per the men took the guard’s gun and forced him back in­side where they robbed the ar­cade and stole money from the one cus­tomer.

Crime at ar­cades is like a “free for all,” says Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg Po­lice De­part­ment De­tec­tive Travis Cook, who spe­cial­izes in gam­bling and al­co­hol in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Some crimes, he sus­pects, go un­re­ported to po­lice be­cause oper­a­tors may be wor­ried they could be ar­rested on gam­bling charges.

CMPD, though, has yet to ag­gres­sively pur­sue shut­ting down the fish games. In­stead, the po­lice de­part­ment is wait­ing to see the re­sults of one pend­ing gam­bling case re­sult­ing from an ar­rest and search war­rant at an ar­cade on West­ing­house Boule­vard in De­cem­ber. The man­ager there is charged with a felony for op­er­at­ing five or more il­le­gal gam­bling ma­chines. He did not re­turn sev­eral phone calls from the Ob­server.

CMPD de­tec­tives have vis­ited many lo­ca­tions to give ad­vice on se­cur­ing doors and set­ting up video sur­veil­lance sys­tems.

At both Tank Ar­cade and Xpress Ar­cade, man­agers said they aren’t wor­ried about po­lice shut­ting down fish games.

Vonne Gre­gory says she wants to start a busi­ness net­work among ar­cade man­agers to help each other re­duce crime, im­prove safety and report peo­ple who try to cheat or cause prob­lems in­side an ar­cade. She re­cently be­gan keep­ing sur­veil­lance photos of trou­ble­mak­ers in the ar­cade for a “wall of shame” after a pa­tron broke into a fish game ta­ble and stole cash.

“If ev­ery­one com­mu­ni­cates and works to­gether, ev­ery­one can still eat,” she says. “We can cut down the rob­beries, cut down the shoot­ings and keep peo­ple em­ployed.”

TRAVIS LONG [email protected]­sob­

Gar­ish aquatic crea­tures swim across a 55-inch TV screen em­bed­ded in the 6-foot game ta­ble. If you shoot and kill one— some­times a whale, a sea dragon or mon­ster crab— you win points. Points are re­deemable for cash or more cred­its to keep play­ing.

LORENA RIOS TREVINO [email protected]

Twelve years after North Carolina banned video poker ma­chines, fish game ta­bles are flour­ish­ing across the state’s small towns and big cities.

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