A secret Peek at Illegal gambling establishments in Honolulu-“Game Rooms”

I can understand addiction from the point of view of someone who has had an addiction, and from the point of view of someone dealing with other people’s addiction. Now, I can understand how people feel when they have no clue about how an addiction works and cannot understand how powerful the addiction has overwhelmed another. I am speaking about gambling. Yesterday I discovered through conversation that a long-term acquaintance has been going to so-called “game rooms.”  Game rooms are not just for the young. My associate is a senior. He was looking for something new and he found it. I will explain game rooms as best I can from the perspective of a person who as accompanied gamblers and sat next to them while they played.  

In my experience, game rooms are establishments where people go to take part in illegal gambling. They have slot machines and large machines about the size and shape of picnic benches with tabletops. The tabletop is some other electronic game that requires the player to watch the screen and shoot the passing digital marine life as it appears on one side of the screen and travels horizontally across the screen until disappearing on the other side. Lots of bright multicolored flashing lights and noises. The “fish game” is hugely popular. The “fish” looks like a twirling blue whale wearing a fedora. This fish is what a gambler must hit to win big.  I am told that hitting the fish feels better than sex.   

People decide if they are going to go to a game room or choose of one of its many rivals on the availability of the fish game and how often the game is rumored to “pay out.” There are small one or two player versions of the fish game that can line the walls of the perimeter of the game room like slot machines. Some game rooms are the size of a small mom and pop convenience store, or slightly larger. In fact, it is the local mom and pop stores that sometimes serve as fronts for game rooms. There are a few random items for sale in the front. The sparse inventory is supposed to give people a pretext for entering the store where they quickly disappear through a rear door. The larger game rooms sometimes have doors that front the sidewalk.  

  Now that I think about it, game rooms might be close to big chains like 7-11 but they are never directly next to nationally recognized chains. Game rooms are local endeavor. When I go to the state office that handles professional licensing I glance into other rooms to see what else is going on int the building with its important committees and important people that run things in ways that everyday citizens do not know about. There is extraordinarily little Hawaiian influence in the professional decision-making arena. It is mostly white and Japanese who are in positions of power and authority in Hawaii. But the game rooms are a different story. with people of many colors like an ironic integration success story. A diverse population feeds the jangling machines bill after bill after bill until the pockets are empty. The machines are locked around their bodies with the kind of lock and chain used to secure motorcycles. It is not a complex security system, just a small box within a large box. I do not know if the guards are armed. A few years ago, someone I knew vaguely was fatally shot in a game room. It was rare to have a shooting in Hawaii and the lack of gun violence is what makes me feel brave enough to enter these gambling establishments, especially when I have no intention of playing.  

 When someone “cashes out,” it means they want to take their winnings and go, or they want to quit before they spend all their money. I have noticed that people more often run out of money than cash out. The money waits in the machines before it reaches its new home. Wherever its new home will be, it is far from the gamblers who gave the dollars up. Korean women, sixty-ish, guarded by large Samoan men are the people I have seen collecting the money. I wondered if they owned the game rooms. They unlock the chain, open the simple door, and take out the money. I have seen proprietors making use of both hands to press the six-inch stack of hundreds together to remove the money without any of it falling. To “work” in the game room as security or as cashier or as someone selling snacks you must be part of a group. Remember, I am not giving you facts, no statistics, just what I think I have seen as my observations have been interpreted through the lens of my experience. 

I have seen older Korean women collect the money from the machines in game rooms. I never see these women play. It appears that a game room will have one older Asian woman keeping a watchful eye on the players, never more than one. I do not know where they take the money because I don’t want to be caught watching the person with the money. Like everyone else, I try to appear not to notice what she is doing.

The establishments differ from their neighbors in that they do not exhibit their presence. Windows, if any, have black out curtains. There is no signage to show the name of the establishment. The doors are locked. The locked doors are staffed by large men who watch what is always an elaborate camera system with six or so screens giving various views of the exterior from the establishment itself to 20 feet out relatively small area. The proprietors make sure no one can sneak up on them from any angle. Now and then I have seen game rooms that are quite large, I would estimate, I do not know…about the size of the produce section of a sizable Safeway. Normally the fish game is the star of the show and the big draw. The player is in a cartoon world underwater where cartoon fish swim by, along with other cartoon marine life that approximate the appearance of squid, schools of fish, shark. The player wins the grand prize by shooting the largest fish, the one that swims slowly by and takes up most of the screen. I do not know how the machine determines the fish is hit because it makes no effort to avoid detection, obviously, what with it taking up most of the screen. The fish has no defenses. The person is frantically pounding away on the red button, releasing harpoons that all go in the direction of the hat wearing fish. Looks to me like they should take the whale out. But the harpoons do not hit the target, according to the game. However, although almost everyone loses almost all of the time, someone is always winning. I suppose that example is essential to draw people in. Someone will win and now and again that someone is you! Daily players win like, twice a month.

I was surprised by the amounts people win. I had no idea they win as much as $20,000. The only way to really get excited about winning is to never, ever keep a running tab of the amount of money spent. Nothing makes you feel frustrated in your addiction than a correct account. You feel frustrated but you still cannot stop the obsessive thoughts so there is really no point of that. 

I could not get secret video. I go in to sit with people, as I said, and I use the opportunity to read something educational because people feel self-conscious when a non-gambler watches them although they do not say so. When security sees me with my phone out instead of having my eyes glued to the screen of the fish game like, all the other observers, security makes a bee line to me. No one else is interested in the story and they worry that I might be an undercover who is not working with the people they already know. I did not dare chance getting any video. Just like I did not dare put one tiny dollar into the fish game. All I would need is to win and have another problem. A Pyrrhic victory is a win that costs more to achieve than it is worth and winning at gambling is just that sort of victory-a win which is really a loss. That’s why I do not play.

It is way too boring to sit there and watch people feed the machine money. It is also uncomfortable to be around gamblers because they are constantly lying to themselves and me that this is the last one, just one more and then we are gone. They feel like I am watching them and judging them, and I suppose I am but not in a bad way. It is observation I can use for the blog.

Whenever I am languishing in a Honolulu game room, I entertain myself with vague plans to get a box with flashing lights and bells, attach a button that clicks every time people bang on it, until, at random intervals, they are rewarded with less money than they put in.  Gambling Does not sound tempting when it is phrased like you are waiting for your turn   You must give people the illusion that there is some sort strategy to winning and that they are experts in this strategy. Once you put all of this together, combined with the trick and the sense of danger, the intermittent receipt of money due to your intermittently effective genius is impossible to resist. 

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