Video gambling grows like weeds in Illinois

If you’re still bummed about Cedar Rapids missing out on gambling, you can always meander into Illinois.

In the Land of Lincoln, you can’t swing a bag of disposable income these days without hitting a little gambling parlor. Five years ago, the Illinois Legisalture authorized the installation of up to five video gambling machines in bars, restaurants and other businesses. They started showing up in 2012 and took off in 2013.

So last week, when we walked into TJ’s Liquor in Pinckneyville, Ill., my wife’s hometown, we found a line of video poker machines. TJ’s, once a conventional grab-and-go liquor store, the kind a guy might like to stop at before he encounters his in-laws, now serves alcohol in-house to its players.

Over at Alongi’s, a terrific old-school Italian restaurant in nearby DuQuoin, there’s a small, dark video gambling room, well within marinara-smelling distance of the dinning room. How about a little toasted ravioli while you say arrivederci to your bucks?

Ditto for the great old college town pizza joint in Carbondale, Italian Village, where you can write your name on the wall, eat a pie dubbed “confusion” and now enjoy buck-fifty beers while gambling.

Last year, more than 13,000 video gaming machines in Illinois pulled in more than $300 million. In June alone, according to the Illinois Gaming Board, the machines’ take was more than $50 million. That would buy a lot of Coors Light in Carbondale.

Illinois casinos are not happy. In late June, the Chicago Tribune reported that casino revenues in Illinois dropped 5.3 percent in 2013. The Illinois Casino Gaming Association is clamoring for lawmakers to tighten the video gaming law, which it contends was written so loosely that a flower shop in Oak Lawn now has machines. Rules governing video gambling are less stringent than the ones covering casinos.

Illinois municipalities can ban the games. But the list of towns with bans, compared to the list of machine locations, is like a brownstone next to Willis Tower.

“Every month, we’re seeing about 850 new slot machines come into existence,” the gaming association’s Tom Swoik told the Tribune. “That’s nearly a new casino every month.”

So big, glitzy casinos in Atlantic City, Mississippi and elsewhere are cashing in their chips while video machines grow like weeds in Illinois. Seems like those Iowa market studies showing the slow decline of destination gaming might be on to something. The aura of gambling is becoming less like jetting to glamorous Monte Carlo and more like pointing your pickup toward good old TJ’s.

This also brings back memories of TouchPlay, the Iowa Lottery’s video terminals that popped up all over the state circa 2005. More than 6,000 were installed in convenience stores, bars and other joints before many Iowans cried foul and state lawmakers lost their nerve. Iowa casinos, unlike Illinois, nipped it in the bud. The machines were abruptly banned in 2006, then lawyers hit the jackpot.

So if you want to know what Iowa would look like if TouchPlay had survived, head over to Illinois. Maybe you’ll feel relieved or deprived. But if you’re at Alongi’s, and order lasagna, you won’t feel hungry.

l Staff Columnist Todd Dorman appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com.

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