Darren was playing casino poker before it was cool. Long before ESPN made the World Series of Poker look like an everyman’s championship, he was playing in the seven-card-stud game in Aurora and Joliet. “There weren’t any no-limit games like there are now,” he recalls. “But I’d get into the $40-$80 or $50-$100 limit games.” The popularity of no-limit poker has now killed the limit games, but if a big-time no-limit table were available back then, Darren would have hit it. Instead, he played in the musty corners where the Empress and Hollywood casinos stashed a few poker tables. TV poker has made today’s games soft and in nearly every casino poker room there’s someone sitting down to a live card game for the first time. But when Darren started playing, hardened and experienced gamblers, waiting to snatch everyone’s chips, surrounded the tables. It was a grinder’s game. The only way to survive was to play tight, yet aggressive, mostly folding, and raising. Limit poker is plodding and methodical, no place for a person who feeds on the action of a casino.
An ex-athlete turned quota-crushing salesman, he started playing because it was the only game in the casino that hadn’t taken his money. After reading Doyle Brunson’s “Super System” and “Harrington on Hold’em,” he felt he’d finally found a game he could beat. But for the same reason he’d lost thousands at the blackjack and craps tables, he couldn’t win. Too caught up in the action to make good decisions, he was pushing stacks of chips around hoping the garbage he was holding would hit, or his opponent would fold, but both rarely happened. Darren’s gambling life lasted six years where the only constants in his life were racking up debt, ruining relationships and losing.
There are thousands of people like him around Chicago, yet it’s just a matter of time before there’s a casino downtown. While the projected revenue from city gambling is staggering (in a year there’d be enough money to bail out the RTA, CTA, public schools or buy Wrigley Field), most of that cash is coming from people like Darren. The people believing the expressway billboards shouting they can be the next super-mega-billionaire with a few tugs on a slot machine. Also, since the casino boom of the early 1990s, has gambling helped communities like Elgin, Aurora or Gary? If history is any indication, a casino in Chicago may be a sucker’s move.
The proposal for a land-based casino has already passed through the state senate and is waiting on house approval. Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) speculates that could happen sometime this year, but the sooner the better. The economic impact would be nearly instant. Aside from the 2,500 casino jobs it would create, a 1,200-man construction crew can expect work for the next two years while building Illinois’ first city-run land-based casino.
“The last time I played blackjack and got twenty-one I still won in land or on water,” says Lang, chairman of the Illinois House Gaming Committee. Since the casino gambling explosion of the 1990s, Illinois has only allowed riverboat gambling, until last year. The Casino Queen in East St. Louis moved its operation to dry land. The other eight casinos can’t be called boats, and never leave shore. And if Mayor Daley as the casino’s pit boss sounds crazy, it’s not uncommon. Many European countries have state-run casinos, and Kansas is asking its state supreme court if the government can open four casinos. Still, it raises some eyebrows when City Hall deals the cards. “If the city owns it, they get more profits,” Lang explains.
“To think a state-run casino would be less corrupt is laughable,” says David Schwartz, Ph.D., author of “Roll The Bones: The History of Gambling.” Corruption and gambling are no strangers, even around here. In 1999 a casino project in Rosemont was scrubbed because a few made men were investors. Ironically, the idea of taking casino ownership out of the private sector and moving into the city’s hand is to rid the industry of corruption.
Chicago is the third largest casino market in the country—trailing only the Las Vegas Strip and Atlantic City—yet has a fraction of the gambling space of either of those dice-rolling havens. But that’s changing. A casino in New Buffalo opened this summer, and has already been eating into the profits of the lakefront riverboats. In Hammond, the Horseshoe is going through a $485 million makeover it could have used a decade ago. Right now, an Indian tribe is waiting for the government’s approval to put a giant casino at Kenosha’s greyhound track—right on Illinois’ doorstep. Chicago wants in on the action, but the competition to get gamblers is fierce; a casino downtown would have to rival one in Vegas.
“We’re losing conventions to places like Orlando and Denver,” Lang explains. One thing Las Vegas and Chicago have in common is a dependency on trade shows, and now other cities are cutting in on the turf. Lang says a casino will give conventioneers something to do downtown, while providing a steady stream of tourists. Of course, the proposed downtown casino would be the state’s biggest. Currently, gambling barges in Illinois are allowed a total of 1,200 table and machine games. The proposed city casino would have 4,000 gaming positions. Most of that, unfortunately, would be slot machines.
“A boat filled with nickel slot machines wouldn’t be the best use for the casino,” says Schwartz, from his office at UNLV’s Gaming Research Center. He says many people come to gamble as a form of entertainment, and are willing to pay for the experience. They just want a diversion from their everyday life, and figure dumping twenty dollars into a penny slot is a good way to spend a half hour. They may even get a free cup of coffee out of it. Last year, Resorts in East Chicago took in more than $250 million from slot players. Table games made a measly $65 million. Nearly every casino in the world is slot heavy, because they’re the best employees a casino has: No sick days, no pension, no benefits and people stuff money into them like strippers swinging from a pole.
“I’d go to bed hating myself, and wake up hating myself,” Darren admits. “All because I knew I couldn’t stop.” Leading a double life took its toll, making him a man he could no longer stand. He began gambling in his late twenties; when he married at 31 his addiction had already taken hold. The road is an outside salesman’s office. It seemed Darren’s road always took him to the boat, usually with a commission check on him. He’d stand in line with some of the workers from the steel mill trading a week’s pay for a stack of chips, or a musty homeless person cashing in a welfare check to play video poker. He would tell his wife the money had gone into car repairs. Now Darren wonders why she rarely questioned why his car needed a new set of tires every 20,000 miles. “I would have gone crazy if I didn’t stop.”
“Gambling is based on lies,” proclaims Chris Anderson, executive director of the Illinois Council on Problem and Compulsive Gambling. He’s also a therapist, treating clients out of his home in Wilmette. He’s seen how broken promises are part of gaming. Casinos promise fortune, governments promise better schools and jobs and everyone promises they’ll only gamble what they can afford. But everyone lies about gambling; just ask someone how he or she did after a trip to Las Vegas. Anderson says people lie about gambling because, simply, winning feels good. The casino industry and the politicians that promote gambling lie about the realities of gambling’s effect on a community.
“Sixty percent of compulsive gamblers steal to feed their habit,” he says. Violent crimes are tracked around casinos, and in most cases those numbers have dropped significantly. Other crimes, like stealing cash from work, or running scams for a quick buck to feed a gambling addiction, aren’t tallied. Ultimately, the casino keeps the ill-gotten cash, and the taxpayers foot the bill for the prosecution of the gambler-turned-criminal. Anderson says politicians, like Lang, aren’t dealing with the truth, saying the city casino proposal is, “All a bluff.”
“When you win big, something happens,” he explains. “Gambling has an intoxicating effect. It’s not inert.” That’s why he says Illinois is addicted to gambling—communities have been lured by the initial blast of money, but end up not being able to function without it. If the casino dies, it will take the town with it.
Tourism in Gary isn’t booming, and few are going to Aurora to stroll the Fox River. People go there to gamble, maybe get a tank of gas on the way home. Flourishing economic development has yet to become a reality in many of the state’s boat towns. Many other entertainment venues, like bars, bowling alleys and clubs, have shut down.
In the late 1980s, comedy clubs were as popular as Starbucks. Every bar had an open-mic night, and every cable station had a late-night stand-up show. The comedy boom made a lot of comics rich and famous, and even the ones that didn’t get a network deal were pulling in a grand a night for telling jokes for forty-five minutes. “It ended when the riverboats opened,” says Mike Toomey, featured on the WGN Morning News, and a twenty-year veteran of the local stand-up circuit. The gambling boom blew away the comedy boom, and anything else getting in its way. As the gaming market expanded, discretionary spending was funneled into casinos.
But Chicago isn’t Gary or Joliet. Business won’t dry up at Frontera Grill if a casino is built down the street. And if a century of losing doesn’t drive Cubs fans away, a craps table shouldn’t have any effect on ticket sales. Florists, dry cleaners and food-service providers are among the outside resources a giant casino needs. It’s estimated these secondary jobs could employ 8,000 people bringing in $80 million in revenue. Because of these numbers, Schwartz says the casinos that were part of the gaming boom aren’t lying.
“They’ve pretty much done what they’ve said they were going to do,” he says. Indeed, casinos do create jobs and provide a steady stream of revenue for the state, but Schwartz cautions they’re not a long-term solution, merely quick fixes for structural problems where it’s just a matter of time before the local government says they’re broke again. “Politicians don’t have, what the Republicans would call, fiscal discipline,” he laughs.
“I’d play anything in the casino,” Darren says about his gambling days, which have ended. He was no stranger to the craps table, and knew his way around the high-limit room well, playing $100 minimum hands of blackjack. He says he won “about a year’s salary” in one day. But his need for a rush just pushed him to up the stakes, and he blew the cash a few weeks later. “It didn’t matter if I won or lost,” recalls Darren. “I just needed to be in action.”
Darren’s last bet was November 17, 2000. A $75 blackjack bet at the Grand Victoria. “It was a make-or-break hand,” he recalls thinking, as he pushed his last three green chips into the betting circle. If he hit it, he’d keep going. Busting would send him to a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting first thing in the morning. The dealer flipped up a ten, and gave Darren a lousy fourteen. He doesn’t remember exactly how the hand played out, but he hasn’t been tempted to go back. “If you’re working the program, it shouldn’t matter.” He attends weekly GA meetings, and volunteers a few hours a month answering a hotline for gamblers looking to lay down the dice. His life is a lot different now. “I’ll put it to you this way,” he says. “We just bought a $30,000 car. If I were still gambling it would have cost us $50,000 because I would have lost twenty grand trying to win the thirty for the car.”