BERLIN, Germany — The sign on the window promises “fun and games.” But inside the slot-machine arcade, it looks more like compulsion and mundane clerical work.
Behind the colorfully painted plate-glass window, it's impossible to tell if it's 3 in the morning or the afternoon. Apart from the faint strains of light rock music and an overriding mechanical hum, it's as silent as an intensive-care unit.
The two shabby patrons are so intent on their screens that they may as well be wired them.
Presiding over the fun is 28-year-old Ayesha, a bleached-blonde German of Turkish origin who declined to give her last name to avoid trouble with her boss. It's like this day in and day out, she says.
“A lot of people in this neighborhood are unemployed. After the first of the month, when the unemployment checks come out, that's when we get a crowd.”
Described as “poor but sexy” by Mayor Klaus Wowerheit, the German capital is home to some 600 gambling arcades, 300 sports betting houses and around 2,500 cafe-casinos, according to police. Nearly 20,000 of Germany's more than 100,000 gambling addicts are in Berlin, according to Caritas International.
Tough regulations designed to protect gambling addicts from themselves — including a rule against opening a new gambling outlet within 500 meters of an existing one — have failed to make a dent so far.
Across the southern district of Neukoelln, which is home to many immigrants, betting shops, gambling arcades and cafe-casinos line blocks of major thoroughfares including (ironically) one named Karl-Marx Strasse.
“I never saw this many gambling shops until I moved to Berlin,” says Ayesha, whose arcade stands across the street from three sports betting shops and two more arcades.
During a recent crackdown, Berlin police found that a whopping 90 percent of the city's gambling shops violated tough regulations adopted in May 2011, says Wolfgang Petersen, head of the department's gambling wing.
“Berlin is Las Vegas for poor people,” Petersen said.
The authorities continually monitor Berlin's few full-service casinos. But there are too many slot machine arcades and sports betting shops for regulators to visit frequently, according to Germany's federal association of private casinos.
"Operators of arcades feel they are unobserved, so many of them violate the regulations,” Miriam Benert, a spokeswoman for the association, said in an email. “This only comes to light once the police conduct a surprise raid.”
Police say the arcades are guilty of more than just minor infractions.
In addition to around 2,000 violations of the new gambling rules — which prohibit smoking and the consumption of alcohol in gambling outlets, for example — the police have filed another 1,500 cases of robbery, assault, money laundering and drug-dealing connected with gambling outlets.
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Gambling hall workers such as Mustapha, a 50-year-old employee at another Neukoelln arcade who also declined to give his full name, say the stricter regulations have had little impact.
A genial, gray-haired immigrant from Turkey, Mustapha sits at a podium behind a bank of CCTV monitors, buzzing in customers when they approach the arcade's locked doors.
He doesn't serve alcohol or allow smoking, and there's a stack of pamphlets about gambling addiction next to his laptop. Other than that, it's business as usual.
“Sometimes they lose and sometimes they win,” he says. “But almost no one takes his winnings and goes home. It's a sickness, like drugs.”