Game machines are legal in Texas, like those you find at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant. They're legal because they give out prizes like teddy bears or trinkets, not cash. But there are hundreds of gamerooms around Houston operating 8-liner game machines illegally because they are paying out cash. And for the first time, we're giving you an exclusive look inside these illegal gamerooms.
You're inside a gameroom that's operating like a casino. People inside are placing cash bets for the chance to win big money.
But this is not in Louisiana or Vegas; it's right here in Houston, and these illegal operations are sprouting up all over town. Although this sign says the games are "for amusement only," it's just for show only because what's going here is clearly against the law.
To gain access to these gamerooms, we went undercover along with the help of two retired law enforcement officers, who helped us get inside several gamerooms on the city's southeast side with our hidden cameras. They've been here before, including recently seeing on high roller hit a huge jackpot.
"You have people playing what you call high-roller machines. They were betting a larger amount. And when the machine hit the jackpot basically, they won just under $10,000," one of the former undercover officers said.
At several gamerooms, including this one on Telephone Road, we could only get in because our guides had memberships cards. That's a tactic the former cops say is meant to keep undercover officers from getting inside.
"They also put in there who recommended you to come in. They know how much you generally play. They know everything, just like over in Louisiana," the former undercover officer said.
In Louisiana, gambling is legal of course. But it's not illegal to play an 8-liner here in Texas, and the game machines themselves are also legal.
What is against the law is when the operators of these machines pay off more than $5 in cash, which is exactly what constables says was going on last week at this gameroom off Louetta that was raided after an undercover operation.
"You put money in, you win, they pay you money, which is unlawful," Harris County Pct. 4 Constable's Office Lt. Eddie Hazel said.
While we were undercover, we encountered a gambler outside this gameroom on Telephone Road one night, who says she recently hit a big jackpot here.
"A month ago, I hit one here -- $48. Yeah, there's good jackpots here," she said.
Inside our hidden camera catch, another woman hitting it big.
"What'd you pull it down to?" we asked her.
"$500," the woman says.
Watch as the gameroom employee counts out the $500 she just won.
As for our undercover gamblers, their biggest payoff came here at this location on Almeda Genoa. Our $20 bet turns into a $125 payoff. When an employee comes over -- watch this -- she pulls a huge wad of cash from a bag and pays out our winnings.
At this gameroom on Cullen, our hidden camera catches another employee paying off a winning bet to yet another gambler.
And at this operation right off the Gulf Freeway, the manager here tells how they use a twice-weekly drawing pull in gamblers. They even hand out this flyer to promote their mega night, where you win a jackpot starting at $500 and going as high as $2,000. And it's all illegal.
"On Monday it will be $1,500. It cannot pass over $2,000 which will be next Thursday," the manager said. "But it's usually been going on $1,500, I don't know why."
Not surprisingly, none of the people running these operations that are essentially acting as illegal casinos were willing talk to us.
We've shown you the video, you know what's going on inside these places. Here's what we're going to be investigating over the next few weeks: first, enforcement, how are these places allowed to operate so openly; secondly, public safety, we'll see how these places can be magnets for violence and crime; and finally, the city is actually making money off these gamerooms. That's coming up in the weeks ahead as we continue our investigation.
Take ABC13 with you!
Download our free apps for iPhone, iPad and Android devices