In strip malls across the country, from Florida to Texas to Utah to Massachusetts, a battle is being waged between local law enforcement officers and the providers of a new type of suburban entertainment. The owners of the businesses call their storefront parlors “Internet sweepstakes cafes.” But they seem more like pop-up casinos. Inside the popular and lucrative businesses, customers spend cash playing games that mimic the look and feel of traditional slot machines. Cops call it illegal gambling. Supporters—and their high-powered attorneys—call it legal sweepstakes.
Despite myriad police raids and the occasional prosecution, the game rooms continue to spread. While lawmakers struggle to pass legislation designed to ban the sweepstakes cafes, well-funded lobbyists push to legalize them. In the meantime, the market grows. In less than a decade, the Internet sweepstakes cafe business has already ballooned into a multibillion-dollar industry. The Cyber City Internet Cafe in Winter Park, Fla., (pictured above) offers slots like Wheel O’ Treasure, Prize Is Right, and Cobra Cash, and a fax machine.
Cyber City Internet Cafe
Cyber City sits in a sedate shopping mall surrounded by an affluent neighborhood. Inside, patrons play slot machine-like games.
Jacks “Business Center and Internet Cafe”
Jacks in Casselberry, Fla., founded by Darryl Agostino, after construction work dried up.
“You know what? There’s no work for me out there,” says Agostino, co-owner of Jacks. “I started seeing these popping up and thought it would be a good business”
Slot Machine at Jack's
Inside Jacks “Business Center and Internet Cafe” in Casselberry, Fla., a customer takes a spin.
The cash-rich businesses have proven a tempting target for would-be robbers. On the morning of Apr. 19, two men, guns drawn, stormed into the Allied Veterans #67 in Apopka, Fla. A security guard shot one of the men in the back. He was later pronounced dead.
Empire Internet Cafe
A man tried to rob the Empire in Lake Mary, Fla., using a spray bottle of gasoline and a lighter.
Allied Veterans #67
Allied Veterans #67, a sweepstakes cafe and crime scene in Apopka, Fla. A manager says it grosses $100,000 per week.
Florida State Representative Plakon, with a screen shot from a sweepstakes slot machine company.