Smoking or non-smoking? Close to home or across the river? Hotel room or waterfront view? Live music or luxury spa? Loose slots or private poker room?
Metro-east residents who want to get out of the house and do a little gambling have six round-the-clock options on riverboat casinos in the area — two in Illinois and four in Missouri.
Alton’s Argosy Casino has been around the longest. It made history in 1991, not only as the first casino in the St. Louis area, but the first in Illinois.
“In reality, it’s still called the Alton Belle by many people,” said Director of Marketing Michael Barker. “When you learn something one way, it’s hard to change.”
Argosy also is the only riverboat casino that’s actually a boat. Docked on the Mississippi, it stands out like a beacon with its brightly colored facade and bridge-like tower.
The boat doesn’t cruise up and down the river like it did in the old days, but its deck views still are spectacular.
Customer Sallie Navarro, 54, of Mascoutah, was looking out over the water on a recent Sunday, taking a cigarette break. Illinois prohibits smoking in casinos, while Missouri allows it.
Navarro, a military and U.S. Postal Service retiree, likes Argosy’s scenery, security and friendly employees, some of whom started on day one.
“They look out for you,” Navarro said. “You don’t have any problem in the parking lot, and once you get inside, everybody is just here to gamble and have fun. I’ve never been approached by anyone with a silly question.”
Illinois and Missouri only allow “riverboat casinos,” but the definition has changed over time.
“In the beginning, they were true riverboats, floating up and down the Mississippi and Missouri rivers,” said LeAnn McCarthy, public information coordinator for the Missouri Gaming Commission.
“They quickly morphed into ‘boats in moats.’ And today, they look like land-based casinos, but by constitutional law, the gaming floor has to be on a floating platform (with water underneath).”
Safety, smoking and slots
Navarro usually goes to the Casino Queen, but she got a little nervous after hearing about its robbery Sept. 17. A security guard was shot and wounded about 3 a.m.
It was the first such robbery since the casino opened in 1993, according to Illinois State Police. Navarro likes the convenience, so she doesn’t plan to stay away forever.
Security isn’t an issue for Tim and Chelsey Hanke, of Carlyle. The Queen has always been their favorite casino.
“It’s very clean and very nice,” said Tim, 29, a concrete worker. “It’s super easy to get to, and you have to go right by the cop shop. I don’t ever feel unsafe there.”
The Hankes also like Ameristar, and sometimes they combine St. Charles gambling with St. Louis shopping. But the Queen has an edge because of its no-smoking rule.
George Culp, 65, of Collinsville, feels the same way. He hates smelling like cigarettes when he leaves Missouri casinos. He also likes the Queen’s layout.
“They’ve got a lot of room,” said Culp, a part-time independent contractor whose late wife worked for Harrah’s. “You don’t feel cramped in. It’s more open. There’s a lot of wide aisles. You have plenty of room to walk around.”
Like Argosy, the Queen was a boat that cruised the Mississippi in the early days, but now it’s land-based.
“It’s the only employee-owned and locally owned casino in the country,” said spokeswoman Julie Hauser. “That’s something they’re very proud of.”
Queen billboards brag about “loose slots,” and that’s not just an advertising gimmick. Its slot machines have the highest payback rate among Illinois and Missouri casinos at 92.63 percent, according to 2015-2016 figures in the American Casino Guide.
The rates are 91.11 percent for Argosy, 91 percent for River City, 90.8 percent for Ameristar, 90.7 percent for Hollywood and 90.2 percent for Lumiere Place.
Paybacks and player’s club benefits — such as free food or lodging — are the two most important factors for Steve Bourie, 67, of Hollywood, Florida, a casino expert and publisher of the American Casino Guide.
“Ultimately, the goal is to go and have some fun,” he said. “You know you’re playing at a mathematical disadvantage, so you want to go to a casino that pays more and gives you benefits.”
Bourie remembers when gambling was the only real draw at casinos, but that’s far from true today.
All the St. Louis-area complexes have music venues, meeting spaces and multiple restaurants and bars. All but Argosy have high-rise hotels. All are open 20 to 24 hours a day.
“The thing I always tell people is, the more casinos there are in the area, the better it is for the player,” Bourie said. “There’s more competition, so the average returns are going to be higher.”
New kid on the block
River City is the area’s newest casino. Las Vegas-based Pinnacle Entertainment opened it seven years ago near the Mississippi, 10 miles south of the Gateway Arch. That company also owns Ameristar.
River City’s theme is based on historic St. Louis and the 1904 World’s Fair, with massive woodwork, giant chandeliers, sashes, draperies, marble-like floors and old riverboat photos.
“I love River City,” said Jerri Allen, 56, of Swansea, a customer service representative who goes now and then with her mother, Dortha Renfro, 78, of Waterloo.
They switched from Lumiere Place to avoid downtown St. Louis traffic. Renfro enjoys the excitement but limits her spending to $30 per trip.
“I like the location (of River City),” Allen said. “It’s in the city but it feels like the country. It’s bigger and more spread out. It’s a little easier to get in and out. It seems like it has a big variety of slot machines, and they have some nice restaurants.”
There’s also a theater, event center and boutique hotel with 200 rooms. That’s about half as many as Ameristar, the largest casino complex with more than 3 million square feet.
It’s branded as a “resort” with a large conference center, an indoor brick streetscape with seven restaurants and 12 bars and a spa with a fitness center and indoor-outdoor swimming pool.
“It’s like a little city,” said Roxann Kincade, director of Pinnacle public relations.
Ameristar’s roots go back to 1994, when it started as a boat cruising the Missouri River. The original Casino St. Charles was later replaced with Station Casino Belle.
Today, Ameristar’s two-level, 130,000-square-foot casino has more than 2,000 slot machines, about the same as Hollywood. That compares to 800 at Argosy, 1,100 at Casino Queen, 1,600 at Lumiere Place and 1,900 at River City.
Ultimately, the goal is to go and have some fun. You know you’re playing at a mathematical disadvantage, so you want to go to a casino that pays more and gives you benefits.
Steve Bourie on choosing a casino
In recent years, Ameristar’s Ryse Nightclub has developed its own following, particularly among young people.
“It’s EDM (electronic dance music),” said Steve Klotz, director of marketing for Ameristar and River City. “It’s not my thing, but it’s pretty big. We have some acts that aren’t normally in the Midwest. Our big act coming in November is Tiësto.”
Lumiere Place, owned by Atlantic City-based Tropicana Entertainment, is the only casino in downtown St. Louis. It opened 10 years ago and changed the city skyline with its distinctive colored-glass lighted tower.
The complex has two hotels, HoteLumiere and the Four Seasons, as well as restaurants, retail shops, a theater and spa. Casino perks include a private poker room.
Some people object to the $20 weekend parking fee during special events downtown, although it’s refundable to casino customers.
“We are less than a mile from Busch Stadium,” said Advertising Manager Amy Meier. “We’re about two miles from Scottrade Center, and we’re right across the street from the convention center. We are part of the true-blue downtown St. Louis experience.”
Representatives of Hollywood Casino, formerly Harrah’s and Player’s Island, couldn’t be reached for comment.
That complex is across the Missouri from Ameristar, about a mile from Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, formerly Riverport. The two aren’t affiliated, but the casino pays for naming rights.
“That means we get to provide you with great hotel packages, a shuttle to and from concerts, awesome merchandise, and the perfect pre- and post-party venues,” according to its website.
What you need to know about St. Louis-area casinos
Number of slot machines
East St. Louis
Downtown St. Louis