How slot machines snuck into the mall, along with money laundering, bribery, shootouts, and billions in profits
By Felix Gillette
Inside a one-story building on the edge of a strip mall in Central Florida, Joy Baker calculates the sum total of her morning bets. It’s almost noon, and she’s down $5. Not bad. Her husband, Tony, sits a few feet away. “This is the most fun we’ve had in 20 years,” says Joy, who is 78 and retired. “At our age, we can’t hike. You can’t pay him to go to the movies. This gives us a reason to get up in the morning.”
Tony concurs. “We enjoy this,” he says. “We will be very bitter if the politicians take this away from us. I will take it personally.”
It’s a Wednesday morning in mid-March, and the Bakers are sitting inside Jacks, a new type of neighborhood business that is flourishing in shopping malls throughout Florida—and across America. Jacks bills itself as a “Business Center and Internet Cafe,” but it looks more like a pop-up casino.
Jacks is about the size of a neighborhood deli. There is a bar next door and a convenience store around the corner. Inside, jumbo playing cards decorate the walls. The room is filled with about 30 desktop computers. Here and there, men and women sit in office chairs and tap at the computers. They are playing “sweepstakes” games that mimic the look and feel of traditional slot machines. Rows of symbols—cherries, lucky sevens, four-leaf clovers—tumble with every click of the mouse.
John Pate, a 50-year-old wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, says he is wagering the equivalent of 60 cents a spin. “This place is pretty laid-back,” says Pate. “You can come here and get your mind off everything. You’re not going to win the mortgage. You’re not going to lose the mortgage. It’s pretty harmless.”
Local law enforcement disagrees. Jacks is located in the town of Casselberry, in the heart of Seminole County, a former celery-growing region that is now a suburb of nearby Orlando. For the past couple of years, the vice squad of the local sheriff’s department has been investigating Jacks and seven other similar businesses around the county for potentially violating state prohibitions on gambling. The cafe owners contend that what they are offering is not technically gambling but rather a form of “sweepstakes” promotions, which are currently legal under Florida state law. In January, after consulting with the sheriff’s department, the five members of the local Board of County Commissioners passed an ordinance designed to shut down the mini-casinos.
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