MEDINA, Ohio — Ohio casinos are on pace to shatter revenue records this year, bringing in $821 million so far this year alone.
But a News 5 hidden camera investigation reveals Ohio's four licensed casinos in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and Toledo aren't the only games around. Instead, News 5 found underground gaming centers in suburban strip malls betting you'll take a chance on what they call skill games.
At storefronts in Medina, Akron and Mentor-on-the-Lake patrons can walk in, play games, and win cash — which raised concern from state gaming regulators.
Hiding in plain sight
In a strip mall in Medina we caught up with a group of women who said they regularly went out for lunch and then spent time inside the E-Z Win Games of Skill.
"We spend an hour coming out to gamble," said one of the women.
"Maybe we win a little, maybe not. But, it's fun," she said.
"Right now, I'm up $141," said another woman who explained she gets a cash payout of any winnings.
From the parking lot, you can't see inside the storefront; the windows are wrapped in cherries and lucky sevens.
"People win big"
We wanted to know what goes on in there so we sent a member of our investigative team undercover to find out.
The inside of the storefront was filled with rows of people playing games at computer terminals or stand-up machines that looked similar to slot machines at a casino.
"They're all pretty easy — just press a button and play," said an attendant at the back of the room. "And if you win I'll be over to cash you out."
"People win big all the time," said the attendant, "I've seen someone win $12,000."
"That's the skill"
The attendant explained some games were like slot machines.
"These ones are set like the casinos, completely random," explained the attendant, who claimed each game had a twist that made them different, calling them games of skill, not chance.
"When you win you have to slide a little bar, that's what makes it legal," the attendant said. "That's the skill."
Across town at the Skillz Zone in Mentor-on-the-Lake, the cashier was paying a winner out while explaining the rules to us.
"You put cash in, print out the ticket," the cashier said, "Bring me the ticket, I pay you cash.”
The games looked similar. A player would insert money, press a button, watch the icons spin and potentially win.
But inside there were large disclaimers posted saying their games used "no chance" software.
Skill games can't pay cash
We took our findings to the state gaming commission in Columbus.
"In reality, what they are offering is illegal slot machines," said Andromeda Morrison, the director of skill games at the Ohio Casino Control Commission.
Morrison says games of skill are licensed by the state, but they are games like Skee-Ball or the claw game that you would find at an arcade or local roller rink.
Skill games can only offer prizes, in some cases gas cards, but never cash.
"If any device is paying out cash and it's not at an authorized casino or racino in Ohio, then they are doing so in violation of the law," said Morrison.
More cash payouts
Cash was flowing at our last stop, the New Game Time in Akron, where one worker had a wad of cash in his hand, cashing out customers.
"Well, I have it in my apron most of the time, but I was just cashing him out," explained the employee when we inquired.
We played for about half an hour and walked out with $30.
State: No record of license
The casino commission said it could not find any records of any of the establishments we visited applying for a skill game license.
If there are problems at an unlicensed establishment, there is little the state can do.
"Many of the complaints we receive from Ohioans are that they’ve gone into an illegal casino, they’ve won a purported jackpot and the operator has refused to pay the full amount or the amount at all, and there is very little recourse," said Morrison.
Unlike licensed casinos, players never really know how often the machines pay out.
Licensed casino employees are trained to identify and get help for problem gamblers. We saw no signs of programs like these at the places we visited.
Ohio's four licensed casinos, including the Jack Casino in downtown Cleveland, have paid $105 million in taxes this year for Ohio schools.
That's not the case with skill games.
The News 5 Investigation also found at least 88 skill game centers across Ohio are under investigation or were shut down over the last four years, including a federal case accusing operators of a Canton skill game of money laundering and tax fraud.
Still, they continue to flourish.
"This industry has been very good about finding unique and creative ways to try and obscure from local government and the state, the true nature of what they are doing," said Morrison.
None of the skill game centers we visited are facing any criminal violations, but News 5 tried to speak with them about their operations.
We left business cards at each operation and asked them to call us, but have not received any response.
Those with gambling addiction issues can call the Ohio Problem Gambling Helpline 1-800-589-9966.