Watching slots expand, five at a time

HERRIN, lL – While American Gaming Association President Geoffrey Freeman correctly acknowledges gambling’s passage into the mainstream by pointing to Las Vegas’ role in the presidential debates and possibly as an NFL franchise site, I see Americans’ adaptation to gambling here in a town of 10,000, where I was born and raised.

The Illinois Video Gambling Act allows establishments that serve alcohol to install as many as five slot machines per location. The goal was to raise taxes, help struggling bars and fraternal organizations, and thwart illegal machines. The maximum bet was set at $2 and a maximum jackpot at $500; 2013 was the first full year the act took effect.

So, as I walk into the pub I regularly frequent when I make return visits from my home in Florida, I see about the opposite of Vegas. Just those five machines, tucked next to the pool table, away from the dart board, jukebox and Stag beer sign. And all five seats are occupied.

I argue measures such as the approval of slot machines just minutes away from everyone, with signage along every road, is at least as significant as those activities taking place a plane ride away in Vegas – a place, despite its success, the majority of Americans haven’t visited.

And, boy, are these slots prevalent here. My hometown has 75 machines, according to state records.

September showed our 75 machines were at 18 locations, mostly bars, but also venues everybody visits. For example, a new gas station complex walled off a sequestered corner and sells beer to be eligible to offer slots. My hometown’s venues took in $225,239.80 (which I acknowledge is not all profit because they lease the machines), and paid a total of $67,572.60 (30 percent) in taxes, mostly to the state but $11,262.09 to my city.

That’s not much, but then I check the report for Illinois overall. There were 24,433 machines, taking in $91.5 million for September. That’s because very few cities with nightlife choose to ban the slots, following the same corollary that happens once an entire state adds gambling: Those without (in this case, local bars) are at a disadvantage, and business suffers.

Naturally, Illinois commercial casinos are not happy and have reported a major drop in business. Why should patrons drive to a casino when they can almost walk to play slots?

So, on the final day, I pop a $20 into a machine, and choose my favorite option, Jacks or Better Poker. The payout chart is unorthodox – only even money for hitting two pair but a $2.50 payout for a full house on a quarter bet, which is better than most casino machines.

I usually take the five-credit max bet on a quarter machine, making for $1.25 per push, hoping for the $1,000 royal flush. On the Illinois machines, a $1 bet gets you that top prize of $500. So why bet the full $2 to chase the same jackpot?

My $20 lasts the same 30 minutes or so – video poker experts note that if a player never hits at least four of a kind, let alone a straight flush or a royal flush, he likely will have a losing session – and within five minutes after ditching the machine someone else plops down. For the month, my bar will report $24,266.89 in revenues – about $809 per day ($162 per machine).

And the overall experience has me pondering two opposite lines of thought: Will commercial casinos actually benefit long-term, because bar slots create familiarity and act as sort of a farm system? Or will gambling become too much a part of Americans’ everyday life, to the point their bars (and phones and computers) make casinos no longer special, kind of like how sports viewing has evolved from the days of when we had only three networks, all over-the-air? Remember when baseball had a “Game of the Week?”

My conclusion, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca”: We’ll always have Vegas.

Twitter: @NickSortal