There's not much that separates Bob's Little Acre from the hundreds of other bars in the metro-east.
A TV, a jukebox, pool table and a dart board are staples at the little bar outside Keyesport in Clinton County. But there's a special area in the corner of Bob's Little Acre -- the tavern's new video gambling machines. They set owner Bob Waddell's bar apart from most others in the region, but not for long, because hundreds more are working to get into the gambling game.
Only 35 establishments in the metro-east had live machines and revenue to report in December, but they had an impressive take: Players fed more than $1 million into the machines, according to a News-Democrat review of state gambling revenue data.
About $350,000 of that amount didn't come back out, representing a tidy take for the establishments, the vendors who provide the machines, the state of Illinois and the local city or county, all of which get a share.
The stakes are about to get much higher. Including new licenses issued by the Illinois Gaming Board during its Jan. 25 meeting, there are now 99 establishments in the metro-east allowed to have video gambling machines. Another 251 have applications pending.
Waddell's bar now has five machines -- the maximum allowable under the law -- but he had only four in December. For that month, those four machines took in $65,319 and paid out $37,381, for a net of $27,938.
The state video gambling law dictates how that revenue is divvied up. The establishment gets 35 percent, the vendor supplying the machine gets 35 percent, the state gets 25 percent, and the remaining 5 percent goes to the municipality or county that issued the liquor license to the establishment.
In the case of Bob's Little Acre, that means the tavern and its machine vendor both made $9,778 in December, the state got $6,985 and Clinton County got $1,397.
That's new profits, found money, or as that song from the '80s said, "money for nothing."
Waddell, whose bar got the machines in October, is happy with the results. "I have not been disappointed," he said.
For the month of December, the 35 metro-east establishments brought in a combined net of $350,650. Of that, the establishments' combined share of the net was $122,728. The state made $87,662, and the cities and counties made a combined $17,532.
Statewide in December, players lost just shy of $7 million on the video games, which started going live in October. Of that, the establishments made about $2.45 million as their share, while the state made about $1.75 million. The cities and counties combined raked in about $350,000.
Anita Bedell, director of Illinois Church Action on Alcohol & Addiction Problems, said the profits for the businesses are staggering.
"We expected that they would be very profitable for the owners, but people will lose a lot of money, and the community will get very little," she said. "We've got a truck stop outside of Springfield where last month people lost over $82,000. It's a big windfall for some of these bars."
THE HIGHEST EARNERS
The distinction of being the metro-east's highest-earning establishment in December went to The Hut Sports Bar and Grill, located just outside O'Fallon.
There, players lost $31,646, of which the business and the vendor both netted a little more than $11,000. The state's take was $7,912, while St. Clair County got $1,582.
Another top earner was TR's Place outside Belleville, in an unincorportated part of the county. Players there lost $21,133. Of that, the business and the vendor both pocketed $7,397, the state $5,283, and the county $1,057.
TR's owner Kim Schewe acknowledges that it's a nice profit for doing little more than watching the machines eat cash.
"Most definitely. Who would turn that down?" she said.
Some of the region's businesses that had machines weren't nearly as lucky in December, though. Triple Lakes Tavern in Dupo actually lost $222. That's because the machines use computers that randomly generate the slot symbols and cards. It's possilbe for a machine to lose money during a certain time frame, but it's almost certainly going to make money over the long run.
On average in December, the players combined lost a little more than $10,000 at each of the region's 35 establishments that have video gambling.
The business that saw the heaviest play was the Moose Lodge in Wood River, where $419,362 was played in December. But the amount played also takes into account winnings that are replayed. Players put $96,963 into the machines at the Moose Lodge, and the machines paid out $88,138, for a net of $8,825. After the state, the city and the machine vendor got their shares, the fraternal organization's net take for the month was $3,089.
Bar owner Schewe said she doesn't see habitual players blowing their paychecks on the machines. Rather, they're people who are curious, or people with a little spare cash and spare time.
"There's some days you don't see players, and other days you see players. It's just hit-and-miss," she said.
Schewe predicts that when the machines become more prolific, each establishment's revenue will drop.
"I think eventually it would go down, with everybody having them," Schewe said. She said three bars nearby are on the list of establishments waiting to get machines.
For now, there are no other machines within miles of Bob's Little Acre, and Waddell said his current players include "people I've never seen before."
But Waddell also predicts a revenue decrease for individual establishments when more bars and restaurants get the machines. He said four other bars within a five-mile radius are on the application list. He might have an ace up his sleeve, though: His bar typically gets busier in the summer because it's near Carlyle Lake, which draws millions of visitors a year for recreation.
The state predicted that eventually the machines will have an average daily revenue of $70 to $90 apiece. In December, the machines at Bob's Little Acre had an average net of about $232 each per day, while the average at The Hut was about $200 per machine, per day.
The state's estimates for how much the state will earn in annual revenue from video gambling vary widely, from about $106 million to about $534 million. The low ranges are based on Chicago and Cook County continuing to ban the machines.
Estimated annual revenue for cities and counties combined ranges from $21 million to $107 million.
In the metro-east, more than a dozen cities and towns have banned video gambling. Voters in November approved having video gambling in Belleville and Collinsville, but those cities didn't have any machines up and running during the December revenue period.
Waddell has owned his bar for 23 years, and he says some of those years were pretty lean.
"This has helped. This has helped, yeah. These machines have upped the game," he said. "But I don't see any down side to it. I employ people, and they spend money in the area, and I spend money in the area. The state makes money, the county makes money. I've paid plenty of taxes over the years."
He cited the ripple effect, noting, for example, that the new revenue allowed him to have more rock spread on his parking lot.
Waddell said he hasn't seen any players blowing their paychecks.
"I've not had that problem," he said. "We don't loan money, so you can only play what you've got with you. And you can't play off a credit card."
There is, however, an ATM machine located near the machines in his bar.
Waddell's regular players include a nurse who says playing the games are relaxing for her after work. And a group of three retirees stops in to play the machines together every Tuesday.
"They'll come in and they'll play the machines for, oh, 40 dollars' worth," Waddell said of the trio. "Whether that $40 lasts an hour or 20 minutes, that's all they play. When they're done, they sit here and they talk a little bit, drink some coffee, and they go home. And they come back the next Tuesday at the same time."
He added: "They look forward to it. They have a great time. Sometimes they win, and then they're really happy."
In the past, the trio would make trips to a casino, Waddell said.
In Waddell's view, the machines are just another entertainment option for people.
"You can risk what you want to risk," he said. "It can be very inexpensive, if you choose it to be."
His biggest individual payout, so far, has been to a person who collected $1,120.
Waddell demonstrated how each machine offers a variety of games, from video poker to the traditional slot-type games. He said customers tell him they're the same machines they see at regular casinos.
"They're the latest and greatest," he said.
The machines are linked electronically to a state system, which remotely disables the machines during the hours that an establishment's liquor license is not valid.
"Springfield knows everything that goes on with every machine," Waddell said. "They know everything that goes in, everything that goes out."
Each machine has a computer that is constantly generating random numbers, which determine whether a player is dealt an ace, a jack, a cherry or a bell.
The state law allowing the machines says they "must theoretically pay out a mathematically demonstrable percentage during the expected lifetime of the machine of all amounts played, which must not be less than 80 percent."
Games that involve skill, such as poker, must meet the same 80 percent payout standard "when using a method of play that will provide the greatest return to the player over a period of continuous play."
In other words, a poker game has to meet that same payout standard, based on the assumption that the game is played by someone making the most advantageous poker strategy decisions. But many players don't have enough knowledge of the statistics and mathematics involved in video poker strategy to achieve "perfect play," so they instead rely on hunches or guesses.
Waddell said the players know what they're up against, but it's no different than the state lottery.
"You've got to have losers before you can have winners," he said. "Everybody knows that. It's no secret."
Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at email@example.com or 239-2511.