Imagine a poorly lit room full of sit-down arcade machines from the 1980s loaded with games like Space Invaders, Pac-Man and Centipede. Now, picture that the game table has several seats where four or more players can play at the same time, using joysticks for navigation and buttons to shoot ocean creatures in a virtual undersea wonderland. The predominant sound in the room is that of players slapping buttons.
This is the scene in underground California casinos known as slap houses. The name comes from the sounds made when players hit the game controls in rapid succession.
In recent years, these illicit businesses have become prime targets of law enforcement officials. Police often target slap houses because they are also a magnet for other types of crimes, including drug trafficking, prostitution, illegal firearms possession, homicide, gang activity and more.
The origins and popularity of fish games
Fish game tables are popular all around the country, attracting customers day and night as they try to win cash. The games originated in arcade halls in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia. They quickly spread to the U.S., taking hold in California and elsewhere, including the Southeast.
For example, the games are very popular in North Carolina. Businesses openly advertise them, skirting laws on illegal gambling by describing them as arcade games that require skill. Like the gambling dens in California, they often prey on the hopes and desperation of down-and-out people in low-income areas who dream of big cash outs.
Unfortunately for the customers of slap houses, more often than not, they lose money. When they do get lucky, they can cash out. Some of the more sophisticated games print out receipts that players hand to cashiers for the payout. Since slap houses are cash-only operations with large sums of money on hand, they also become targets of violent robberies.
Atmospheres inside slap houses
As unlicensed gaming tables are illegal, slap houses try to hide in plain sight. Operators set up fish table rooms in abandoned buildings, in the back rooms of mom-and-pop shops and in low-traffic retail spaces that are fronts for the gambling dens.
To keep a low profile, they cover or blackout windows. Inside, the homegrown casinos generally have poor lighting, cheap seating and gaudily designed fish tables crammed into small rooms alongside other illegal gaming machines. Some also host card table games, offer free drinks to patrons and allow smoking and consumption of illegal drugs. Many of the slap houses are run like franchises, with gangs running the dens at the behest of mafia groups.
Where do the illegal operators get the unlicensed machines? It’s fairly easy to buy them. Chinese online retailers list hundreds of different types of fish games priced anywhere from under $1000 to several thousand dollars depending on the size and model of the table. Some of the games look straight out of a Vegas casino, with intricate designs, mesmerizing graphics and sci-fi themes.
The games can also be modified. Some slap house operators adjust the software settings to lessen the chance of someone winning. So, while gamblers think they are playing a game of skill, the odds are stacked against them by nefarious owners. This is in stark contrast to fish games present in legal casinos, as above-the-board gambling establishments must adhere to equipment inspection rules and undergo audits by licensed casino machine inspectors.
California authorities crack down on slap houses
Fish table houses have been around in California for at least a decade. However, in the past few years, police have stepped up raids of slap houses with multiple busts per year.
Back in 2015, cops in Westminster uncovered a bustling slap house within twenty minutes of Disneyland. It had eight fish tables and an estimated profit of $30,000 per day.
According to the Anaheim Police Department, the COVID-19 pandemic made matters worse. It led to an uptick in slap houses as legitimate casinos experienced temporary shutdowns. As a result, the slap houses had no competition and enjoyed skyrocketing profits.
Fast forward to 2023, and law enforcement is still shutting dens down in the same town. Last month, Westminster Police conducted a raid that netted eight fish tables and drugs at a slap house disguised as a pawn shop. Copy that same story in major metropolitan areas in the state, and it’s obvious shutting down the illegal operations is like playing whack-a-mole. Fish game parlors just keep popping up, making it hard for police to get ahead of the spread.
What happens to the fish tables that law enforcement officials confiscate in raids? They destroy them. It’s also common for cops to seize guns, drugs and large amounts of cash.
As fish tables remain popular across the state, law enforcement officials have focused on advocating for harsher criminal penalties to deter their growth.