Behind the locked front door and tinted windows of the Tank Arcade, people are winning — and losing — big.
In a back room, a woman’s voice breaks through the rattle of plastic buttons being slapped over and over again.
“Good shot,” she says.
Garish aquatic creatures swim across a 55-inch TV screen embedded in the six-foot game table. If you shoot and kill one — sometimes a whale, a sea dragon or monster crab — you win points. Points are redeemable for cash or more credits to keep playing.
This is the fish game.
Twelve years after North Carolina’s ban on video poker machines, fish game tables are flourishing across the state. Charlotte has one of the highest concentrations of fish game arcades with at least 40, although authorities say there could be twice that many in the city.
Arcade operators maintain they’re following state law because they say the money a person can win is based on skill, not luck.
Police agencies are skeptical, saying fish games may violate the state’s gambling laws and that arcades attract crime.
But neither the Attorney General’s office nor the State Bureau of Investigation have clarified whether the games are legal, leading to inconsistent enforcement across the state.
In Greensboro, for example, police have banned fish games.
In other cities, though — including Charlotte and Raleigh — fish game arcades openly advertise, with neon lights, big banners and packed parking lots. Some police agencies told The Charlotte Observer they suspect illegal gambling inside the arcades but they don’t know whether a judge or a prosecutor will agree.
In the city of Concord, officials took up the issue on their own last year and put restrictions on arcades. The police chief still says state lawmakers need to step in and clarify what’s legal and what’s not.
“The state legislature created this mess and they need to fix it. The law is as clear as mud,” says Concord Police Chief Gary Gacek.
Even some in the arcade business want clearer rules.
“The state should come in and say this is legal and this is not. And the operators would comply,” says Terry Wood, who has owned three arcades in North Carolina. He sold his last arcade, in Salisbury, after a part-time employee was fatally shot inside during a domestic argument.
The money, operators say, is good.
In a week’s time, a large arcade can easily collect $50,000 in revenue, according to several employees and police investigators. Smaller locations with fewer customers might pull in about $10,000 weekly.
Some customers stay in the arcades hours at a time, managers say. Investigators say they’ve talked to players who, over a few hours, make multiple ATM runs for more cash.
The lure is to “play their money and see if they can double their money,” explains Keisha Reed, employee at the Tank Arcade location on West Boulevard in Charlotte.
“When you lose, it’s a hard pill to swallow,” she said. “And you’re not guaranteed to win every time.”
Many arcades stay open 24/7. Inside, customers are often fed free food and drinks.
“Once they start coming here, it’s like a social club for them,” says Rio Simpson, manager at Xpress Arcade on Moores Chapel Road in Charlotte.
The cost to play, though, is high for some.