'A lot more problem gamblers': Video gaming triples its reach in four months

News-DemocratMay 27, 2013 

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Video gaming grew rapidly in Southwestern Illinois this year, with gamblers in April losing $1.06 million -- nearly triple what they lost at the end of 2012.

Also nearly tripling between December and April were the number of machines and the amounts played, state reports show.

"This is a whole new thing with the state putting machines in the bars and there will be a lot more problem gamblers, a lot more. And they're going to put it on their credit cards," said Mickey Finch, CEO of The Fellowship House in Anna, the only addiction treatment facility listed by the Illinois Gaming Board for the 618 area code.

Locally, the machines grew from 144 in December to 484 in April. Collectively, they handled more than $13 million in bets with an average payout of 91.8 percent at local bars, restaurants, lodges and truck stops.

By comparison, gamblers lost $16.7 million at the two metro-east riverboat casinos during April. The boats each saw revenues drop about 3 percent from a year earlier, but have been on a downward slide since 2008 when the recession began.

Statewide, video gambling losses went from just under $7 million in December to $20.3 million in April. The number of machines grew from 2,293 to 6,673 as of last week.

"We still haven't reached full capacity," Illinois Gaming Board Administrator Mark Ostrowski said. "I think that's a ways off."

When riverboat casinos began operating, the Illinois Gaming Board knew problem gamblers were being created when their family members began showing up to speak at meetings, said Gene O'Shea, director of the self-exclusion program for the Gaming Board.

"We have yet to have anyone address the board about video gaming. I assume that will eventually happen," O'Shea said.

Kenneth Wilson, president of the Illinois Council on Problem Gambling, said it's too soon to see the video gambling horror stories emerge. "My gut feeling is that is about a year or so down the road."

State law lets problem gamblers exclude themselves from casinos, a choice nearly 10,000 people have made in Illinois. While the state discussed a similar self-exclusion system for video gaming -- including putting card readers on machines to check driver's licenses -- it hasn't been implemented because catching the person and then booting them is a lot to ask of a bartender.

"Self-exclusion has worked in the casinos to a certain extent. Casinos have an easier time stopping the person because they have the staffing," Wilson said. "That's a lot of responsibility to put on the individual owners. That would be a stretch."

The Fellowship House's Finch said she sees few gamblers among her addiction clients. Her state gambling grant shrank from $50,000 a year to $20,000 as a reflection of that.

"I know they're out there," she said.

She said there's usually someone who sees alcohol or drug addictions and intervenes, but problem gamblers are rarely treated because by the time spouses catch on they are ready to move on: They file for divorce. Gambling problems remain hidden as little old ladies get into credit card trouble or business people steal from their companies, then either repay to avoid prosecution or go to prison. Some move to other states to continue gambling.

The law does not limit the number of machines or where they are placed, as long as the place has a license to serve drinks or is a truck stop.

"If they apply, have a pour liquor license and meet the standards, we license them," the Gaming Board's O'Shea said.

In the metro-east, that means the current fleet of 484 machines could potentially reach 3,500, according to Illinois Department of Revenue numbers. With roughly 7,500 qualifying establishments in the state, the total could potentially go from 6,219 video gaming machines to 37,500.

Eddie's Bar and Grill, 2900 Nameoki Road in Granite City, was the local hot spot during April, handling $440,000 in bets. The payout was 93.5 percent.

Bartender Elizabeth Dauble, whose parents own Eddie's, said the machines have attracted more customers and yielded some decent jackpots.

"It's been absolutely good for business. For beer and food sales, too," she said.

The Belleville area had two gambling establishments in December and seven in April. The five within the city limits just started yielding taxes in March.

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said the city just got its first check for $417 for the March taxes and the state report shows it will receive about $900 for April. He expects it will be a year before the city can start predicting the gambling revenue and make decisions about what to do with the income, such as possibly hire a police officer. He said the city's police have seen no problems with gambling in the bars.

The $13 million in bets and $1 million in losses yielded $53,421 in taxes during April for local governments in Madison, St. Clair, Monroe, Clinton, Randolph, Bond and Washington counties. The state's cut was $267,104. State government received more than $5 million in taxes from all Illinois machines in April, up from $1.7 million in December.

Ostrowski, the Gaming Board administrator, said the video machines are performing better than expected, with more potential for growth.

Illinois' Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability projected $70 to $90 per day from each machine. Ostrowski said the May number should come in at $125.10 per machine.

Contact Multimedia Editor Brad Weisenstein at bweisenstein@bnd.com or 239-2510.

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