AT ABOUT ELEVEN O’CLOCK on a Monday night in early November, more than two dozen men and women were sitting inside the Texas Internet Cafe, a cavernous, computer-filled room housed in an old movie theater in the South Texas town of Kingsville. It was a diverse group—black and white, Hispanic and Asian, middle-aged and ancient—and everyone was sitting in swivel chairs in front of computer monitors, many of them smoking cigarettes. They were all playing video slot-machine games stored on the cafe’s seventy PCs, hoping to hit one more jackpot before closing time.
The cafe sits near a Payless shoe store and an abandoned roller-skating rink in a commercial strip on the south side of town. I had arrived there myself a few hours earlier and had been greeted in the lobby by a sturdy, twentysomething employee named Tim who had a scruffy beard and wore a Longhorns baseball cap. I handed him $5 and told him that it was my first time in the cafe. In exchange, he gave me a white plastic card that read “Hello Money Pre-Paid Phone Card.” Then he led me into the heart of the game room, where we were surrounded by a bleeping, jingling, fun-house clatter.
We sat down at one of the computers, and Tim took the controls. From the Microsoft Windows desktop, he clicked on a star-shaped icon, which launched a menu featuring a dozen slotlike games. Roses to Riches. Formula Won Racing. Fiery 7’s. Then he showed me how to swipe my phone card through a magnetic strip attached to the side of the monitor. The $5 I’d put on the card immediately appeared on the screen as five hundred “sweepstakes points,” which Tim said I could wager on any of the games. If I ran out of points, I could add more money to my card using a handful of machines scattered throughout the room. If I wanted to claim my winnings, I should come see him up front.
Tim left, and I settled on a game called Texas Treasures, which required lining up five oil tycoons to win. I clicked the mouse, and the computer screen faded into a blur of symbols. After a few seconds, it slowed to a halt and I stared at the results: Let’s see . . . a couple of oil wells, some Longhorns, and a bull rider. Nothing. And for the next few hours, I sat there silently like everyone else, wielding my one-mouse bandit and watching the oil wells go tumbling. My luck was up and down until I switched to a game called King Tut’s Treasures. When I succeeded in lining up three pharaohs in a diagonal row, I raked in a whopping 2,080 sweepstakes credits—$20.80. A few minutes later, after Tim announced last call, I sidled up to the front desk to collect my winnings. This time Tim handed me a green plastic BanXcard and instructions on how to activate it using an 800 number. Once I did so, he said, I could use it as a debit card or collect my windfall at an ATM.
When I left, it was midnight, but ten or so men and women were still clicking away inside with grim determination. “Please finish up!” Tim called out. “I have to go home!”
GAMBLING, IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING, is still illegal in Texas. There are, of course, eight horse and dog tracks scattered around the state, an Indian casino on the Kickapoo reservation, and the various state lotteries. As recently as the spring of 2003, with the state facing a record budget crisis, Governor Rick Perry and other public officials floated the idea of legalizing slot machines as a way to make up the shortfall without increasing taxes. But the Legislature eventually called Perry’s hand, and for the time being at least, slot machines remain off-limits.
They also remain enormously popular. During the past decade, elusive entrepreneurs from around the country have been slipping into Texas and quietly setting up small-time casinos that combine the slots of Atlantic City with the decor of an OfficeMax and the convenience of a Circle K. Their machines, known as “eight-liners” for the number of ways—three vertical, three horizontal, and two diagonal—that symbols can line up in a winning spin, have found their way into the back rooms of small towns everywhere, but no community has embraced the machines quite like Kingsville. One hundred years ago, the town was little more than a railroad stop for the storied King Ranch. But by the fall of 2003 Kingsville had become home to 25,000 residents and more than ten game rooms; the most eight-liners per capita of anywhere in Texas, according to the San Antonio Express-News . Little Las Vegas, everyone was calling it. Jackpots on the Kingsville machines reached as high as $5,000. Prizes included TVs, stereos, and motorcycles.
From the get-go, the game rooms of Little Las Vegas owed much of their success to the hospitality of the local politicians, who viewed their presence as a lavish new revenue source. In 2002 the Kingsville mayor and city council even began collecting fees on the games. Anyone willing to pay the council’s steep permitting costs was welcome, and more than $500,000 in eight-liner fees eventually made its way into the city’s coffers. No one in the Kingsville Police Department, meanwhile, made a fuss. Many of the game rooms, which were owned by investors from as far away as North Carolina and Alabama, were represented by the same local lawyer, Frank Alvarez, whose wife served as the Kingsville city attorney and whose brother Bobby owned a prospering eight-liner venue named Cadillac Jacks.
For the most part, locals were also content with the arrangement. One of the few opponents to the eight-liner proliferation was Clyde Allen, the owner of a furniture store in downtown Kingsville. Allen argued to city officials that the game rooms were immoral, preyed on people with gambling addictions, and caused parking problems for other area businesses.