At Tee’s Smoke Shop on North 19th Street, a dozen or so regulars while away the afternoon in a dark, smoky room, feeding dollar bills into video slot machines as soul music plays.
If they can beat the odds on a game, they’ll get a coupon for up to $5 in store merchandise — cigarettes, hookahs or novelty items.
It’s a long way from Vegas gambling. And if you ask the amiable young owner, who gave his name only as “Tee,” it’s not gambling at all.
“Gambling is illegal in the state of Texas,” he said, adding that he had nothing to hide from Waco police.
“They’re always welcome anywhere in this store,” he said.
Police say video slots, also known as eight-liners, have proliferated under the radar in the last few years, with at least 50 known businesses operating them. Police officials say the owners are taking advantage of loopholes in state and local laws that make it difficult to make a case against them.
Now, some Waco City Council members want to tighten some of those loopholes.
At a council work session Tuesday with police officials, council members Dillon Meek, Alice Rodriguez and Wilbert Austin said they would like to see more action against eight-liner operators.
“I know the difficulty of prioritizing this, but this has become a hot button issue for me,” said Meek, whose district encompasses North Waco. “It bugs me that there’s a lot of convenience stores where you will see 24 slot machines, and there are 24 people in front of those machines.
“People in my district know people who have gambled away thousands on a weekend. They’re not playing for a bag of chips or fuzzy animals. It frustrates me, because it’s obvious there’s likely gambling taking place. They usually prey on low-income neighborhoods. It sends a message to neighborhoods that crime will be tolerated.”
Gambling has long been illegal in Texas, but state legislation in 1993, known as the “fuzzy animal exception,” muddied the water and allowed video slot games to flourish, Assistant Chief Robert Lanning told the council. The legislation allowed operators of games of chance to offer non-cash merchandise, of a value up to $5 or 10 times the cost of playing the game, whichever is less.
Lanning said operators offer gift certificates or coupons that can be redeemed for cash or merchandise, creating a “gray area” that makes enforcement and prosecution difficult. By the late 1990s, “spin rooms” were ubiquitous and operating openly around Waco.
In 2003, the McLennan County District Attorney’s office and Waco Police Department started a high-profile crackdown on the operations, reducing their number from 21 to eight and seizing 480 machines and $200,000 in cash.
In 2006, the city of Waco passed a city ordinance to put additional restrictions on eight-liner operators, requiring “indoor recreation rooms” to get a city license that could be revoked for violations.
But businesses with fewer than 25 machines were exempted, as were establishments such as bars for which the machines were a secondary business.
Police have issued more than 110 citations since then for violations of city ordinances, mostly in the last two years, while also pursuing some gambling cases.
But overall, the effect of the ordinance is to change the way operators do business, Sgt. Jared Wallace told the council Tuesday. Many establishments reduced their number of machines to 24, putting others into related businesses.
“Now there’s a larger number of establishments with coin-operated machines, but they don’t have as many machines,” he said. “They’ve spread into areas where we never had this problem before.”
A map created by police showed clusters of game rooms along North 19th Street, Waco Drive, Valley Mills Drive and Lake Air Drive, with scattered businesses in East and South Waco.
Wallace and Lanning cautioned that cracking down on game rooms could take a lot of resources and have some unintended consequences.
‘Very complex problem’
“We have to warn you that it’s a very complex problem, and the solution is quite complex, too,” Wallace said.
The police officials and council discussed several possible changes to the ordinances, such as eliminating the exemptions for businesses based on the number of machines they own, and further restricting hours of operation.
Austin said he would like to see tougher restrictions on eight-liner operations, which he compared to predatory lending.
“The thing that bothers me is that we have poor people go in there and lose their money,” he said. “Sometimes it might let them win $100 or $200, but then it baits them back in to lose the rest of it.”
Jimmy Dorrell, founder and executive director of Mission Waco, agreed that eight-liner operations tend to put poor people deeper in the hole.
“It is a corrosive effect on us,” he said. “I’m not a prohibitionist, but I do think there is an addictive behavior to a lot of these habits. I would be encouraged if the city went forward with this.”
Eight-liner operators argue that their customers play for recreation.
At the Snacks store and game room on 2901 N. 18th St., a manager who declined to give her name said the operation is legal and doesn’t harm anyone.
“There’s nothing to do in Waco,” she said.
At Tee’s Smoke Shop, the owner said he knows all of his customers and keeps an eye out for anyone suspicious.
According to a Texas State Comptroller’s spreadsheet of coin- operated machines, taxes on the machines at Tee’s are paid by Talal Adnan Safi.
Tee said he monitors the facility with 30 cameras and is always willing to cooperate with police. He recalled how a family member who was tending the store one morning last October was held up by a masked gunman, then retrieved a pistol and exchanged gunfire with him.
But he said, for the most part, the establishment is a quiet place where older people come to relax. And he dismissed the idea that game rooms prey on the poor.
“You can spend your money anywhere,” he said. “You can spend it on lottery tickets all day.”