Numlock Sunday: S.P. Sullivan and Amira Sweilem on rigged Jersey Shore boardwalk games
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
The boardwalks of the Jersey Shore are home to all kinds of games of skill — claw games, hoop tosses, basketball throws, and of course my personal favorites, the frog flippers — that many have often questioned, yo, is this rigged? Well, the state of New Jersey has your back in the Legalized Games of Chance Control Commission, or the “LG-Triple-C,” which conducted over 7,000 inspections last year alone. Earlier this year they slammed an operator with a $15,500 fine and a 10-year ban for overinflating basketballs to make it harder to score baskets. They’re not messing around. An NJ Advance Media analysis of five years’ worth of LG-Triple-C enforcement data found 63 violations on the boardwalk over five years accounting for $66,650 in fines. That may sound like a lot, but over half of the violations were for the operator that got the decade-long ban, so most of the games are on the level. Setting aside that particular syndicate, the sketchiest boardwalk is in Seaside Heights, which logged 18 violations, beating out Atlantic City’s 12.
This felt like a perfect story to kick off summer. Sullivan and Sweilem talk about the task force that holds operators accountable, the biggest scandal on the Shore, and which games are the ones to avoid.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
You wrote a really fascinating story, “Claw and Order,” at nj.com. You investigated the boardwalk games that are so iconic with the Jersey Shore, and also the organization at the state level that investigates them. How on earth did you get turned onto the story?
SULLIVAN: The attorney general's office in New Jersey is actually quite powerful, and has all of these obscure oversight bodies. I happen to cover the AG's office as part of my beat. So, when they announced earlier this year that they had banned for 10 years and issued a $15,000 fine against a single boardwalk operator, I think I was immediately struck by that, and was like, "Oh my God, this is a universe of documents that exists, and I need to get there immediately."
I think at the same time, Amira had a similar idea. We bumped in into each other very early on and decided to team up.
SWEILEM: From there, we thought it would be a good idea to request five years’ worth of records, because pandemic data can be pretty salty and not really show trends overall. So we were like, "Okay, let's go pretty far back and get pre-pandemic data, and then post-pandemic data, too, and see what we can find."
What can you tell me about the Legalized Games of Chance Control Commission, the LGCCC?
SULLIVAN: This is an organization that goes back to the early 1990s. Like everything on the boardwalk has its origins, the sketchy, the kind of Wild West times of the 1970s when people were getting scammed left and right on the boardwalk. And so they decided that government regulation was needed.
This commission has a board that oversees the rules and regulations for how boardwalk games operate — everything from the PSI that the basketballs have to be at to the tension on the claw games and all that sort of stuff. We set out in the story a little bit to understand about the work that they do.
Strangely, the AG's office was very cagey and didn't let us actually hang out with any of them.
Amira, what can you tell me about some of the data that you ended up getting?
SWEILEM: Basically, the data that we got was in PDF reports. So it would tell us, "Hey, we went down on these two separate occasions and we found X, Y, Z issues."
It was a bunch of different issues. It was some basketballs were overinflated that could be fined. Some of the claw games, hence the title, those have a lot of issues. I think we found that basically that was the game that had the most problems.
What I did was I went through and I created a database. I thought, "Okay, let me get the case number for this. Let's get location. Let's get game type."
Initially I wasn't sure, "Oh, should I just do arcades?" Then it became really evident pretty quick that it wasn't just the arcades. There were also claw games, so we ended up creating two separate categories for our case. There were claw games and then arcades, because some of the arcades had violations for not putting their certs up. Then we created another column that had the fines. That was really interesting to total up, and see who has some of the most fines and who were the repeat offenders over the years.
One thing I was really struck by was just how big this is? You wrote that they conducted over 7,000 inspections last year alone. You interviewed one person who works in the industry who said that their company handed out over 350,000 prizes every year. I mean, this is a really big operation and a fairly substantial slice of the NJ tourism pie.
SULLIVAN: Yeah, the Jersey Shore is a huge driver of our state's economy. This is a part of it that. You think about the exchange of money going on at the Shore here; even in the digital age, it's still very much a cash in hand business.
And so you take the combination of New Jersey and a largely cash business and what exactly do you expect is going to happen?
SWEILEM: Just to be clear, too, we really only requested the boardwalk violations, because they also look at carnivals and anything that could be what the expert we spoke to called "carny games," but a carnival-type game, like arcade games, bushel basket, basketball games. We just wanted to see what the situation was like at the boardwalk.
SULLIVAN: That's an important distinction to draw there. Because they do so many inspections in any given year, while we were negotiating with them, that was one of concessions we made. "Okay, we're going to limit this to the Jersey Shore and not get the inspection reports for every church carnival and county fair," because that's also what they do.
That's a fascinating division of law enforcement that I had absolutely no idea existed until I read your article.
SULLIVAN: Well, that's what we're here for, is to shine light in the most ridiculous places.
Let's talk about what you found. You found tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of fines over the course of a five-year-period, $66,650 to be clear, across 63 different violations. So what did you find within this data?
SWEILEM: We also found that there were some places that had more violations than others. I think, correct me if I'm wrong, Sean, was it Wildwood that had the most violations?
SULLIVAN: Yeah, Wildwood. Especially if you factor in the one operator that accounted for that, they were number one.
SWEILEM: This one operator, Christine Strothers. What we ultimately did was we decided to remove Strothers from our totals, except for when we were tallying up the money, because we thought it was astonishing that before they issued Strothers with that 10-year ban and the $15,500, that she had accounted for basically half of that $66,000 over the five-year period.
When we looked at the reports, they'd been fined multiple times. They had tried to appeal those fines. They were just consistently violating.
Taking a step back, one thing that you did find is that things are pretty on the level in a lot of places. If you take away the repeat offender, you're talking what? 30 fines over five years? That's actually not that bad for the reputation that the Jersey Shore sometimes has.
SULLIVAN: I think that overall, a lot of these places, especially the more established places, have an understanding of what the limits are, and they stay within those boundaries.
That said, after we did publish the story, we did hear from some operators that were like, "Oh yeah, this is just scratching the surface of the corruption going on at the Jersey Shore." So there may be other avenues to follow there.
I'm going to keep following your coverage very closely. The one thing I did want to talk a little bit about was just, not to get too deep into the weeds here, but you did find that there was, for a period of time, a pervasive overinflation scandal going on at the Shore. What was the deal with that?
SULLIVAN: Yeah, so we just tripped over this while we were reporting it out. And it was alluded to in the announcement when the basketball operator was banned initially, that this was some sort of persistent issue.
This is something that was bubbling under the surface, and it kept coming up in interviews we were doing and stuff. It turns out that around the summer of 2020 into the summer of 2021 that there were a number of basketball games — basically your free throw shot games — where they were overinflating the basketball.
I believe the factory recommended standard is between 7 and 9 PSI. And some of these places were pumping them up allegedly to like 19 PSI.
SULLIVAN: The overinflated basketball is much harder to sink. And so this is one of those rules that's just a bright line. A lot of the stuff that this organization regulates, it can get kind of fuzzy. But the PSI of the basketball is something that's a pretty hard and fast rule.
They started cracking down, and several operators fell in line, in part because actually the state threatened to remove the certification for basketball games across the entire Jersey Shore, which would've effectively banned free throw basketball games for the Shore because of a few cheaters.
That's actually a pretty good piece of news that you can use from this; if you are going to try to do the basketball games, you want the less inflated ones.
SULLIVAN: Because you can sink them a lot easier. That was one of the things that we did here, is we were asking for expert tips, and that was one of them. If you want to be a real Poindexter at the Shore this summer, ask them what the PSI is on the basketball. See if they'll check it for you.
It's really excellent journalism. I know that you guys are going to continue looking into this, because it is just such a fascinating topic. Any kind of final thoughts on this story? Or advice for folks who might avail themselves of the Shore?
SWEILEM: I guess just watch out for other people who are playing the game, and just go in maybe a little wary, especially with the claw games.
Did you not have a good time with the claw games?
SWEILEM: Oh, when we went down there, I think we spent so much money on just testing out different claw games. We tried other games, but it was like, for what we spent, we got so little, unless it's the play until you win. Those, they were $5 each, and we got on the first try. The other ones, which were like $1 each, ended up being way harder because they would just drop the toy whenever we pick them out.
Brutal. Sean, anything from you, besides spending a bunch of company money on some stuffed animals?
SULLIVAN: I would say if you're going to the Shore, your money is better spent on the food.
Amazing. All right. The story is on nj.com.. Where can folks find you both and where can they find your work?
SULLIVAN: I'm on Twitter @spsullivan.
SWEILEM: And I'm on Twitter at @sweilem_amira.