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