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Money, murder and the ‘fish game’: Behind Oakland’s crackdown on gambling dens

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Postby Mazukasa В» 15.10.2019

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The sports bar sits beneath a crisp new awning but never seems to open during posted hours. On a recent afternoon, three men huddled over a bulky video game in the cafe, slapping a button as fast as their wrists allowed. One man sipped from a Big Gulp, another from a jug of watermelon juice cocktail. The fish game looks like it came out of a first-generation arcade, with cartoonish sea creatures, joysticks and whimsical, blingy sound effects.

But in this case, money was on the line. Every so often, an employee carrying a stack of cash paid out the winners. Enthusiasm for the fish game has prompted a city crackdown on illegal gambling dens. Beginning in , Oakland police opened long-term investigations into the gaming halls, attempting to root out operations they say are increasingly linked to robberies, assaults and shootings, including a homicide.

Officers have seized more than a dozen fish-game machines in at least 15 raids of unregulated casinos, according to interviews and an internal report provided to The Chronicle.

But trying to shut the dens is like whack-a-mole. As soon as one goes down, police say, another pops up. In a new strategy, city officials are leaning on landlords to evict tenants who profit from gambling. And investigators are going after the criminal networks that run the games. Kirk Coleman, who oversees community resource officers in the Eastlake area. Oakland, like many major cities, has a history of illegal gambling dens. Some places today operate speakeasy-style, others do business in plain sight.

Investigators say most patrons are tightly knit regulars. If one shop shuts down, someone tells the players where the next operation will emerge. Players park themselves around a game table and feed in bills for credits. The goal is to shoot fish, sharks, octopus and other sea creatures, aiming with a joystick and slapping a circular button.

Because the establishments deal only in cash, patrons and employees are often set upon by crooks. According to police, one confrontation turned deadly. This month, a murder case is unfolding in court against Marshawn Chambers, 22, who is accused of fatally shooting year-old Xin Hoang and injuring two others last year in a dispute that kicked off in an illegal casino on the block of International Boulevard. In April, a year-old man was shot and another victim was pistol-whipped during a robbery at the same site, a shuttered hair salon.

Raids on the underground Oakland businesses recently netted at least 10 arrests for crimes that include robbery and illegal firearms possession, officials said.

Search warrants yielded thousands in cash, payroll sheets and, of course, fish games. A woman who works near two of the Eastlake shops said she and her son have witnessed prostitution and drug deals outside the operations. The woman said that the activity is driving away her customers, and that she may have to uproot her store. The Chronicle agreed in accordance with its policy on anonymous sources. But when two officers attempted to enter, they were stopped by an unknown man asking who they knew.

One of the officers said he was looking to buy aquarium equipment. Oakland Councilwoman Nikki Fortunato Bas, whose district covers the area east of Lake Merritt, said her constituents told her about the gaming shacks shortly after her election. Closing the dens, she said, is a priority for her office. The strategy is similar to one used to shut down illicit massage parlors. On March 22, Greg Minor, an assistant to the city administrator, wrote a letter to a landlord demanding that she evict her Oakland tenant, Phap Nguyen, within 25 days.

Nguyen was convicted in January of possessing or controlling slot machines at a property on the block of International Boulevard. The landlord complied. Police and city officials are now going after several other locations. Ivan Golde, a defense attorney who specializes in gambling cases and has represented clients accused of running fish games, has argued in court that gambling is a victimless crime. Nobody cares! William Febel. The gamblers come from all walks of life.

A quick trip to Eastlake can get a gambler in on the action. The question, Fong said, is how much local and state governments should prioritize crackdowns on illicit casinos. Megan Cassidy is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.

Email: megan. A story in the San Francisco Chronicle on Nov. Related Stories. Crime By Megan Cassidy Oakland police beef up street presence ahead of expected Top of the News.

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