Outside the Happy Time Arcade at 401 49th Street S on Monday in St. Petersburg. Happy Time Arcade remains open for business.

Slot machines are illegal. And they’re everywhere in Tampa Bay.

In Florida, gamblers can only play at casinos — yet dozens of “arcades” offer slots in your neighborhood.
Outside the Happy Time Arcade at 401 49th Street S on Monday in St. Petersburg. Happy Time Arcade remains open for business. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
 
In Florida, gamblers can only play at casinos — yet dozens of “arcades” offer slots in your neighborhood.
Published May 16, 2023|Updated May 21, 2023

It happens all day, in any corner of Tampa Bay.

A gambler approaches a storefront with blacked-out windows in a worn strip plaza, or a building along a highway cutting through sprawl. The sign outside reads “arcade.”

In the blank eye of a security camera, the gambler presses a button and hears the approving click of an unlocking door.

The gambler steps into a dark parlor of glowing screens with cascading lines of fireballs and cherries. Bells and explosions bleep and bloop over the tap-tap-tap of plastic buttons, each tap costing maybe a quarter, or a dollar or $10.

When the gambler wins, they shout, “Cash out!” from their free-rolling office chair. An attendant verifies the screen, wary of rampant fraud, then counts out cash.

When the gambler loses, there’s an ATM a few feet away.

A gambler plays a slot machine at an arcade in the Kenneth City area of Pinellas County. The manager allowed a photo on the condition that the Tampa Bay Times not disclose the game room's exact location.
A gambler plays a slot machine at an arcade in the Kenneth City area of Pinellas County. The manager allowed a photo on the condition that the Tampa Bay Times not disclose the game room's exact location. [ CHRISTOPHER SPATA | Times ]

With few exceptions, like the Seminole Hard Rock casino on a 9-acre reservation outside Tampa, slot machines are illegal in Tampa Bay — and the rest of the state.

Yet if you are in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco or Manatee County, illegal slots are never far away.

The Tampa Bay Times visited nearly 30 gambling arcades to watch this scene play out.

The “game rooms,” as they’re known in the industry, don’t advertise and often don’t appear on Google Maps. Some bear only opaque windows and a buzzer, found by word of mouth. Legal names of the businesses differ from signage, and names on paperwork often turn up people who say they aren’t the real owner.

At least 70 game rooms were operating in Tampa Bay as of early May, a review of tax and other records shows. Some estimate 1,000 locations in Florida, with no official tally.

For years, neighborhood casinos have gone largely ignored by local law enforcement, despite frequent police visits, mostly related to the conduct of customers. Much like illicit massage parlors, plainly rule-breaking yet ubiquitous, game rooms have proven difficult to stamp out. In this way, they have spread casino gambling far beyond the borders of what Florida’s politicians or voters have approved, attracting often vulnerable customers who find no recourse when mistreated.

Will that change now that Florida’s new Gaming Control Commission is rolling? Created during last year’s updated contract with the Seminole Tribe, the commission has been amassing a team of statewide law enforcement agents tasked with cracking down.

Since the Times began asking questions, law enforcement has sent warning letters and dispatched officers to arcades. Feeling the pressure, a few game rooms have opted to close.

Those who’ve watched storefront gambling in Florida for decades have seen these efforts before. Even through previous shutdowns, national-newsmaking arrests, the resignation of a lieutenant governor and multiple revisions in the law, the game rooms have survived.

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The money game-room owners make might be worth the heat. An industry operator said a well-run arcade makes $20,000 to $60,000 in profit a month and shared receipts to prove it. They’re cheap to open, and pop up between minimarts and laundromats, clustered in lower-income neighborhoods. This avoids the attention a casino in a sparkling downtown district would surely attract, said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University who specializes in gambling law.

Outside Lucky 7 Arcade at 5016 E Busch Blvd. in Tampa in April.
Outside Lucky 7 Arcade at 5016 E Busch Blvd. in Tampa in April. [ CHRISTOPHER SPATA | Times ]

According to a Times analysis of Census tract data, neighborhoods near at least two casinos are significantly poorer than average. Half of households there make less than $45,000 a year, compared to about a third of them in the rest of Tampa Bay.

“They do it partly for cheap rent,” Jarvis said, but also because the neighbors are less likely to complain and the cops may be less attentive. “Advertising is word of mouth, your customers find you, and the profits are unbelievable.”

At one game room in Clearwater, an attendant was blunt about whom the arcades aim to attract. The people struggling the most, she said, are drawn to a shot at turning $20 into a few hundred. “And once you win, you’re hooked.”

Inside an arcade

On an April weekday afternoon, a Times reporter pulled into Lucky 777s Arcade, attached to a pawnshop off U.S. 19 in Largo. Inside, Deb Camuti counted out a stack of cash to a gambler before addressing the question of whether the business was legal.

“I have no idea,” said Camuti, who called her husband a part owner. “We all know they can be shut down at any time.”

A regular named Frank chimed in. “It’s as class as it gets. … I pretty much live here.” He led a tour, pointing out free candy and a smoke-filled backroom with more slot machines. Another regular said he often rode his three-wheeled bike to several local arcades.

Then a man burst from a back office and yelled at a group of gamblers. “You three get the f--k out now, or we’re going to have a problem!”

Three young men slowly rose and headed for the door. After they left, the employee called them a racist slur. The screen on a machine blinked and glitched.

The men were using an electronic device the size of a lighter, Camuti explained, to force it to pay out.

Thirty minutes later, at another arcade a few miles away, an attendant had already been warned about the scammers. Typical for game rooms, she said.

She also noted the clientele tended to deal with issues of addiction.

“Gambling, but also drugs,” said Heather, who was tapping an iPad to play a slot machine online while she worked. She did not give a last name. “I have to kick people out for stuff all the time.” A thief had recently damaged the ceiling to reach the safe. Another day, a gambler, having overdosed, was given Narcan.

Players often hopscotch around seeking incentives, like a $20 bonus for gambling $20, free sodas or meals, often a buffet of pizza. At night, soda might become free booze, a perk even Florida’s tribal casinos can’t legally offer.

Many gamblers, said Chris Woehle, a former fast-food manager in Bradenton, are just average, bored retirees, like him.

Woehle said he typically plays at six to 10 game rooms a day, four days a week, stopping after he loses $60 or $80. He also works part time at a game room.

“We all know each other,” Woehle said. “A lot of these folks have nothing else to do.”

Woehle thinks the arcades are mostly harmless, he said, before admitting some gamblers lose more than they should. Playing the slots, though, helped distract his dad from cancer pain, and later did the same for his mom. He’s glad for that.

But so much cash on hand can be a lure for danger. “That’s why I have him,” said Eule Flores, gesturing toward what sounded like a large dog aggressively barking from a backroom inside a Clearwater arcade. She managed the place alone under the gaze of at least nine security cameras.

Flores, a chef by trade, has worked game rooms for a decade. She moved to Pinellas when Jacksonville banned game rooms following a spate of shootings. Flores wasn’t a gambler, she said, until she worked at an arcade and got hooked on “fish tables,” in which players battle to shoot mythical sea creatures — and, if they’re lucky, win cash. But the threats of shutdowns and scammers and violence had worn on her, she said. She wanted out, maybe for something less stressful — like restaurant work.

Part of the landscape and economy

At least seven arcades operate in St. Petersburg. Two opened in one week in April on 49th Street. Tampa has at least seven, with five clustered on Busch Boulevard between Interstate 275 and Temple Terrace, each open for years. At least three others have sprouted on the edges of Hillsborough County in the last year, in Oldsmar and Citrus Park, and east in Valrico, where a new one appeared in April attached to a car wash.

Retirees in Sun City Center need not drive to the Hard Rock — they can play Fire Link slots next to a barbershop in Wimauma, where on a recent afternoon players rocked along in their seats to blasting ranchero music.

Slot machines are even popping up in gas stations, where stools encourage players to sit and stay.

Cruising U.S. 19 north through Pinellas and up to New Port Richey in Pasco takes a driver past a dozen of them, but Manatee County holds the most arcades in the smallest area. Ten line a 3-mile stretch of the Tamiami Trail, with 10 more on nearby streets. One plaza has three, side by side, all with showers of gold coins splashed across their windows.

There’s no question about gambling arcades’ illegality. Florida expressly forbids gambling devices outside of a few venues — Seminole Tribe casinos and a handful of racetracks in South Florida. The Seminole Tribe declined to comment for this story.

Related: Biden administration says Florida, Seminole Tribe gambling deal should get OK

On paper, the arcades register their gambling machines with state and local governments as ordinary coin-operated amusement games, just as a family arcade like Dave & Buster’s would do with its Pac-Man or pinball. But they’re not ordinary games.

That bluff allows gambling arcades to show local business tax receipts and claim legitimacy when a reporter or police officer appears. Some operators even say the money they generate for city and county governments is why they aren’t shut down. In reality, they don’t pay much in local taxes, if they pay at all.

Law enforcement agents raided an arcade at Twin Brooks Commons at 2112 34th St. S on May 9 in St. Petersburg. Four alleged illegal gambling operations with the same owners were busted across the state that day.
Law enforcement agents raided an arcade at Twin Brooks Commons at 2112 34th St. S on May 9 in St. Petersburg. Four alleged illegal gambling operations with the same owners were busted across the state that day. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Local taxes vary. But one of the largest game rooms in Tampa, with 77 machines, paid a mere $2,200 in fees to the city last year.

The state, meanwhile, asks for $33 per “amusement” machine annually, plus a 4% sales tax. State tax records aren’t public, so it’s unclear what Florida actually collects.

Florida taxes legal slot machines at 35%.

The American Gaming Association estimates that local and state governments lose $8.7 billion in taxes annually to unregulated gambling machines.

Industry insider Ace Patel first stumbled into a game room as a Florida State University student in 2006. Now he operates in several roles, including brokering the sales of entire game rooms. He wonders: Were game rooms to be shut down, what would happen to the jobs they create? He said many owners are legitimate business people who also own stores and motels.

Patel shared an invoice of monthly earnings for an arcade. Thirty-nine machines brought in about $202,000, and paid out $170,000 in winnings, for a little under $32,000 in profit. The cut for the vendor providing machines was $7,925.

“Regulate them,” Patel said, suggesting that Florida take a juicier piece of that money. “(Owners) want that. They don’t want to go to jail.”

Crime and confusion

Police have visited some game rooms in Tampa Bay a dozen or more times in a year, but rarely for gambling.

Just south of the University of South Florida, police records show, Luckyz Arcade was the site of three robberies over 11 months. An employee at Fun Arcade in St. Pete told visiting officers in August that the business was a casino. Someone had shot out the window of a parked car.

Records show the most frequent calls come from arcade managers who want to remove and ban an unruly customer.

“Trespassing, thefts, vandalism and overdoses are examples of what we see,” a Manatee County sheriff’s spokesperson said, adding that problems are “magnified by a range of emotions.”

Pinellas Park Police Sgt. Chris Ryan, who has become an expert in game rooms, said police tend to go after arcades only if there’s another crime.

That’s what happened when informants tipped Pinellas Park detectives to drugs at Lucky Park Arcade. Undercover officers began playing slots at the little storefront on Park Boulevard in February. Sometimes they brought along a juvenile informant. The officers were served Corona before someone allegedly sold them methamphetamine and fentanyl.

Police raided Lucky Park in April and arrested the manager on charges of narcotics possession and operating a drug house, but also gambling violations. They confiscated dozens of slot machines in a rare example of gambling enforcement.

“It’s not a sexy crime. There’s not a lot of prosecutorial backing,” Ryan said of the game rooms. “And the proprietors try to work different angles around the statutes to confuse law enforcement.”

For instance, a patrol officer handling a trespasser may clearly see slot machines operating — but an employee might show a fraudulently obtained amusement machine certificate, or point to amusement tax stickers that aren’t supposed to be placed on their slot machines, all while hoping the officer won’t know better.

St. Petersburg police assist a state task force serving seizing slot machines from an arcade at 2112 34th St. S on May 9.
St. Petersburg police assist a state task force serving seizing slot machines from an arcade at 2112 34th St. S on May 9. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Another tactic is to cite Florida’s so-called “Chuck E. Cheese” law and simply claim the business is legal. That law is meant to shield family arcades, like Chuck E. Cheese, from gambling prosecution for handing out prizes like stuffed animals for skill games like whack-a-mole.

These days, even legitimate “skill games” like Skee-Ball are banned from awarding cash, cash equivalents, or any prize valued over $6.50. The “skill game” excuse is simply another smokescreen.

Crackdown logistics can also prove difficult for cops and prosecutors, from storing truckloads of confiscated machines to proving there were cash payouts.

In 2019, Florida legislators reduced penalties for a few nonviolent crimes. Operating a gambling house was no longer a felony but a misdemeanor. That, Ryan believes, made them multiply.

Out of 36 arcades the Times examined in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, every one had opened since 2019. Thirteen opened in the past year.

Caesars Arcade in Bradenton advertises "jackpot" and "big win" on its windows.
Caesars Arcade in Bradenton advertises "jackpot" and "big win" on its windows. [ CHRISTOPHER SPATA | Times ]

Wary of difficult investigations with little payoff, police may opt to send arcades a warning letter hoping to scare them off, the detective said, but “They’ll open for six or eight months, make as much money as they can, and once they get a letter, they’ll move locations.” Plenty of empty storefronts in Tampa Bay still bear window decals reading “777″ or “win, win win.” At a St. Petersburg liquor store beside the former Clicks Arcade on 62nd Avenue South, a clerk said recently that the little casino had cleared out overnight without a trace.

Making the web of legalities more complex, slot machines often arrive from out of state, bought used from legal casinos. Others are pirated counterfeits of copyrighted games, smuggled from China. U.S. Customs agents confiscated a shipment of slots that entered the Port of Tampa Bay from China in August.

The U.S. Department of Justice says only legal casinos and dealers can purchase and transport gambling devices, like slots. But DOJ-licensed dealers can be seen advertising machines in Facebook groups for unlicensed game rooms.

Stopping these dealers, who make sizable profits, could require action at the federal level.

Asked about illegal gambling, the largest law enforcement agencies in Tampa Bay declined to talk about any active investigations, before asking a Times reporter to share arcade locations. Some suggested the new gaming commission needs to do more.

Tasked with regulating legal gambling and going after rule-breakers, the commission has been staffing a team of 20 in its law enforcement division, including 15 field agents, with the power to pursue game rooms.

“There was previously a vacuum of agencies in the state to go after this,” said the commission’s executive director, Louis Trombetta. “Now there’s an agency with real resources.”

Movers with Lee's Trucking remove slot machines from an arcade at 2112 34th St. in St. Petersburg after Florida gaming commission agents and local police raided the business. The commission's director said such arcades are often associated with organized crime.
Movers with Lee's Trucking remove slot machines from an arcade at 2112 34th St. in St. Petersburg after Florida gaming commission agents and local police raided the business. The commission's director said such arcades are often associated with organized crime. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

On May 9, agents simultaneously raided four game rooms across Florida, including in Tampa and St. Petersburg, seizing an estimated $1 million in cash and machines. The investigation started with a complaint about a game room in Fort Pierce, the commission said, but uncovered “extensive” gambling operations run by the same owners in Hillsborough and Pinellas.

Agents named seven people they accused of money laundering, racketeering, running a gambling house and slot machine possession, including St. Petersburg resident Peter Brover. At least three were arrested, all in Palm Beach County.

Alexandre Borisovich Barmak, left, Yuliya Sobolevska and Leonid Barmak were arrested May 9 in Fort Pierce, accused of ownership roles in a gambling arcade money laundering operation.
Alexandre Borisovich Barmak, left, Yuliya Sobolevska and Leonid Barmak were arrested May 9 in Fort Pierce, accused of ownership roles in a gambling arcade money laundering operation. [ Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office ]

Over two years, more than $2.9 million passed through a bank account connected to a single arcade, court documents stated, with withdrawals for close to $100,000 for Florida state taxes. Arcade owners also bought a $1.1 million penthouse condo in Sunny Isles Beach.

Hitting a jackpot for nothing

Shiny dollar signs and the words “big prize slots” covered the bright green facade at The Come Up.

Katirra Walters Powell, visiting a favorite restaurant a door over in the strip plaza on 34th Street South in St. Petersburg, took notice.

Walters Powell and her mother like the slots at the Hard Rock in Tampa. Expecting a similar experience, she put $36 into a Double Money Link machine and was stunned when gold coins began to line up, shoom, shoom, shoom, shoom. The 33-year-old mother of six and fast-food worker says she’d hit a jackpot: more than $144,000.

She printed a ticket, as she’d done at the Hard Rock, but claims a security guard snatched it and called it void. The guard said she couldn’t print her own ticket. Another employee hung an “out of order” sign on the machine.

The Come Up on 34th Street South in St. Petersburg advertised "big prize slots" on its windows.
The Come Up on 34th Street South in St. Petersburg advertised "big prize slots" on its windows. [ CHRISTOPHER SPATA | Times ]

She listened as the guard called the owner on speaker. Walters Powell said she heard a woman say, “I’m not paying that.”

“How can you not pay out?” Walters Powell said. “I paid my money. This is illegal gambling.”

Tax records list Marion County’s Anthony Burden as owner of The Come Up. He told the Times he’s not really the “owner,” but “I’m part of the thing, yes.” It’s a common arrangement that makes accountability tricky.

As for the woman’s story, Burden only said, “I’ve never seen a slot machine that has a $144,000 jackpot.”

Walters Powell called police and filed a complaint with the gaming commission, but neither could help. She wants to sue, but can’t figure out whom.

Katirra Walters Powell said that, after she won a jackpot, employees placed this "out of order" sign on a slot machine at The Come Up arcade in St. Petersburg.
Katirra Walters Powell said that, after she won a jackpot, employees placed this "out of order" sign on a slot machine at The Come Up arcade in St. Petersburg. [ Courtesy of Katirra Walters Powell ]

The Times visited The Come Up on a weekend in early May, after reaching out about Walters Powell’s complaint. Dollar signs on the facade still shone under a sign that read “Bingo and arcade.” But the doors were locked, and the arcade appeared to be cleared out. Signs advertising slots had been stripped from the windows.

The landlord had caught a whiff of police attention and asked the business to move, Burden later said, adding that, “Now it’s just another empty storefront, not generating revenue for anyone.”

Legal gambling is highly regulated. Slot machines are inspected for fairness and minimum payouts — 85% of what players put in at Florida tribal casinos must be paid in winnings. Consumers who play legally have recourse if mistreated. Players at arcades have none.

More than 250 complaints about illegal slot machines have already poured into the gaming commission. People gripe about little casinos opening in their neighborhoods. But many are players reporting unpaid jackpots: $1,300 in Brooksville, $4,611 and $18,000 from game rooms in Pasco.

Gamblers wrote of being offered $100 when they’d won thousands, being told the business couldn’t afford to pay, watching managers unplug winning machines.

Game rooms’ fear of scammers can make winning a tense experience for legitimate winners. On a recent Saturday at Tampa’s Lucky Treasure, a Times reporter fairly hit a prize of $600. The attendant asked, suspiciously, “How’d you do that?” A manager, called in from another location, took the machine apart while a security guard stood watch until the prize was reluctantly paid.

And then there are the many complaints to the commission from people who’ve come up empty:

I have lost a lot here.

I am completely broken.

Unfortunately for my family, my wife has been sucked into this.

A man described winning $9,000, just to go back and lose it all, plus an additional $25,000. He wrote the commission to say he was sure something was rigged.

Some are scared, others don’t care

In February, deputies in Charlotte County rolled into arcades wielding a letter from the gaming commission warning of fines of $10,000 per slot machine and jail time.

The county sheriff’s office had asked for help, according to the commission. The local paper wondered what spurred the action, asking, “Who shut down the casinos?”

Whatever the reason, the Charlotte game rooms closed and caused a statewide stir among operators. Amid a spate of sales, Hamilton Blair advertised he was offloading three Clearwater game rooms for $1.4 million.

Blair alone is named on state registrations for Red Diamond Arcades, which operate in Pinellas with “senior club” or “social club” on their signage. Blair said he merely works for the true owner. They were selling, he said, because of what happened in Charlotte County.

Outside the Lucky 611 Arcade at 3600 49th St. N in  St. Petersburg. The Lucky 611 Arcade has been closed.
Outside the Lucky 611 Arcade at 3600 49th St. N in St. Petersburg. The Lucky 611 Arcade has been closed. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

But many of the arcades that closed in February were open again by April — a familiar pattern.

Ten years ago, after a major crackdown on illegal gambling brought down a $300 million, multicounty operation, Florida legislators tried to close the loopholes the arcades had exploited since the mid-2000s. They revised the Chuck E. Cheese law, and tightened definitions of illegal slot machines, multiple times. Gambling arcades around the state briefly closed.

“There’s nothing left for the Legislature to do. We have a very clear law,” said Jarvis, the gambling law professor. “It isn’t enforced. They aren’t scared.”

Related: As Florida eyes illegal casinos, history shows cracking down isn’t easy

Threatening letters from the commission have begun to trickle out beyond Charlotte County, recently arriving in Bradenton and Pinellas County, signaling the agency is ramping up. Yet some arcade operators aren’t worried.

“I got that letter from the commission, and I threw it right in the trash,” said an owner in Bradenton, who uses the name Jeff Lee in professional circles. He doubts 15 agents can do much.

Lee thinks it’s hypocritical for Florida to close game rooms but allow gambling in tribal casinos and at pari-mutuel race tracks and poker rooms and bingo halls and via lottery tickets at every grocery store.

Had the game rooms paid off for him? He might be a millionaire, he said, if not for his own habit.

“I gamble all over the world, gambling is like a drug,” Lee said. “Most of the owners of these places do. I don’t know why the Hard Rock would be mad about my game rooms, I’ve lost probably 2 million of what I’ve made there.”

Tampa Bay Times data editor Langston Taylor contributed to this report.