CLEARWATER — Friday afternoon offered varied entertainment near NE Coachman Road.
Philadelphia Phillies' players honed their skills at the Carpenter Complex. AMF Clearwater Lanes touted a renovated sports bar. And in one dark storefront, 28 computer screens mimicked casino games for 25 cents a pop.
That Great Place is one of 12 "Internet cafes'' in Clearwater. Considered illegal wagering by the authorities and harmless amusement by patrons, Internet cafes have riled up the Legislature and may have just toppled a lieutenant governor.
With Tampa Bay Times money, I checked out That Great Place to see how it worked.
A pleasant woman had me sign a form acknowledging that I would be engaging in a sweepstakes, not gambling. The Internet cafe lobby argues that their offerings are no different than when McDonald's offers a sweepstakes for cash and prizes.
And in fact, the computers can provide a service. If you want (wink, wink), you can use your time to surf the net, look up movie times or play video games.
But that's not what attracted the half-dozen patrons glued to their computers at 12:30 p.m. Friday.
You buy sweepstakes entries for a penny apiece. My $20 bought 2,000, plus a bonus 500. The house also kicked in 200 because Friday was Gentlemen's Day. (Women get their extra 200 on Wednesday.)
The minimum play is 25 entries, which equates to 25 cents. You can bet more with a corresponding rise in payouts.
The computer offers a few dozen slot-machine type games, Keno or video poker. A "reveal" button activates each round, a legal nuance that suggests you are not "playing'' a machine, just revealing whether your sweepstakes entries have won.
The slot-like games lack the flashing lights or bells of Las Vegas. Rows of symbols spin around quietly and produce winnings when they line up. With St. Patrick's Day two days off, I chose the Shamrocks and Leprechauns game, which featured pots of gold, unicorns and wenches.
I hit about half the time, which was pretty exciting until I realized I was betting 25 cents to win back 5 or 10.
Pirate Poker suited my taste much better. It was 5 card draw, with one chance to exchange cards. A pair of jacks or better paid 25 cents, three of a kind $1, on up to $62.50 for a royal flush.
One box subtracts entries as you bet. Another counts your winnings. After you use up your original entries, you either cash out the winnings or convert them to more entries by clicking a button.
Cards are not realistically random. Losing hands often seem just one card away from a straight, flush or even a royal flush, enticing you to keep going.
I hit my first full house just as I zeroed out on a set of entries. I was down to $10, but it seemed like a good omen so I slogged on.
I played for 2½ hours, mostly betting in 50-cent increments because $1 bets didn't seem do well. At one point, I built up more than 3,200 entries and I won a $5 Florida lottery scratch-off ticket in a drawing, though it didn't pay anything.
As many as a dozen people played at one point, and for a while, I was there alone. Patrons were well behaved and often chatted. The attendant brought me a free bottle of water. I turned down coffee and sodas and won't be back for the free pizza, wings or hoagie nights.
Gambling addictions can destroy lives. I once had a family member who spent most of her Social Security check every month on legal bingo. I once played legal poker at Derby Lane and won about $280 in four hours, mainly off two senior couples who played atrociously.
Friday seemed boring but benign. I brought back the Times' $20 and pocketed a $4 bonus.