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Orville Dash sits in a recliner with a clipboard. Tall and broad-shouldered, with wispy white hair where a pompadour once rose, the former statistical engineer for Caterpillar removes a sheet of paper, clicks on the flashlight he uses for reading and goes over his numbers.
One spin every six seconds. Ten spins a minute. Six hundred spins an hour.
The 81-year-old widower estimates that, at his worst, in 2015 and 2016, he spent about $2,400 a week on video slot machines, which he played at a hotel and a handful of restaurants and bars around his hometown of Maroa, a farming community of close to 1,700 people north of Decatur in central Illinois.
Looking over his handwritten calculations, Dash figures he lost more than $25,000 in that time.
“It hurts to lose that money,” he said. “I’m addicted to these machines, and I’ve been working hard to understand why for a long time.”
In the 6 ½ years since video gambling went live in September 2012, some 30,000 video slot and poker machines have been installed at 6,800 locations around Illinois, more than in any other state. Gamblers here have lost over $5 billion playing the algorithm-driven machines, which have been described as “electronic morphine” and “the crack cocaine of gambling.”
Yet the state has failed to address the issue of gambling addiction in any meaningful way. Lawmakers introduced and passed the 2009 Video Gaming Act in less than 48 hours, without holding a single hearing or conducting even a cursory study of the potential impact of the massive gambling expansion. Despite promises to increase funding for gambling addiction, Illinois spends less today than it did before legalizing the machines, a ProPublica Illinois/WBEZ investigation has found.
Over the past decade, the number of people receiving state-funded treatment has declined. The state has allocated inadequate amounts for marketing campaigns to encourage people with gambling problems to seek help. It has spent no money to conduct research to measure the prevalence of addiction or to gauge which treatments are most effective.
What’s more, the state has failed to adopt basic prevention measures, such as a self-exclusion list that would allow individuals to bar themselves from playing the machines or safeguards to ensure underage people don’t gamble on the devices.
Instead, Illinois lawmakers have fixated on how much money video gambling has brought into state coffers, though a ProPublica Illinois/WBEZ investigation in January found that the revenue has fallen far short of the legislature’s projections, even as video gambling saddled the state with unfunded social and regulatory costs.
Now, some lawmakers and the gambling industry are pushing another expansion that would include sports betting, new casinos and even more video slot and poker machines. In May, the U.S. Supreme Court paved the way for legalized sports gambling, and other states have begun to explore gambling expansions in hopes of tapping potential revenue streams.
Of the eight states that have legalized video gambling outside of casinos, Illinois is one of two — the other is West Virginia — that have chosen not to track the rate of gambling addiction, a decision a leading gambling researcher calls “mind-boggling,” considering the number of video gambling machines in the state and the amount of money being wagered.
A conservative estimate, using what most researchers set as a national average for gambling addiction — 2.2 percent of people 18 or older — would suggest about 217,000 Illinois residents are addicted to gambling. (Like substance abuse, gambling addiction is generally defined as behavior that jeopardizes someone’s financial security, relationships and emotional well-being.)
The number of people afflicted is likely higher, however, because studies show the rate of gambling addiction tends to increase with the number of gambling options, and Illinois has more locations to place a bet than Nevada.
Yet even as video gambling expanded, state spending on addiction fell nearly 20 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to the most recent figures available. The number of people assessed or treated for gambling addiction by state-funded providers declined nearly 37 percent during that time.
While Illinois’ highways are dotted with billboards advertising video gambling, little money has been spent to raise public awareness of gambling addiction or market what few resources are available to combat it. The most prominent, the state’s 1-800-GAMBLER hotline, received 2,324 calls in 2018, according to state records. Of those, 837 callers were seeking help; the rest were wrong numbers or people calling for other reasons.
Video gambling revenue reached $1.2 billion in 2017, yet the industry is required to contribute little to the state’s efforts on gambling addiction. That’s because, unlike at least three other states with legalized gambling, Illinois does not set aside tax money from video gambling to fund addiction services.
“With gambling, the social impact is just not visible until it affects you or your family,” said Anita Pindiur, executive director of the Maywood-based treatment center Way Back Inn, which treats about 80 people with gambling problems a year. “Our state is so driven by the money video gambling brings in, we don’t see the people it impacts.”
Go to a pizza joint in Springfield or a gambling parlor in Elmwood Park, a motel in the central Illinois town of Clinton or a string of bars in Berwyn, and there’s ample evidence of the problem. Whether it’s mid-afternoon or after midnight, you’ll see people robotically feeding bill after bill into flashing, ringing games.
“To me, it must have been the urge for some big win. Something for nothing, perhaps,” Dash said. “For other folks, they’re trying to get the money to pay the rent. Because they spent that money yesterday. And the food money goes. And the hand-wringing. And the crying. I’ve seen it all.”
In May 2013, less than a year after video gambling went live in Illinois, the American Psychiatric Association reclassified “gambling disorder” from a compulsion to an addiction in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which clinicians use to diagnose and classify mental illnesses.
“Many clinicians have long believed that problem gamblers closely resemble alcoholics and drug addicts, not only from the external consequences of problem finances and destruction of relationships, but increasingly on the inside as well,” said Dr. Charles O’Brien, a prominent psychiatrist and addiction researcher at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania who helped write the classification change.
O’Brien and other researchers say brain imaging studies show that, much like drugs or alcohol, gambling triggers spikes in the chemical dopamine, which activates the brain’s reward system and influences human behavior. Researchers have found that gambling addiction is often accompanied by other forms of addiction.
Those who are susceptible wager beyond their means or spend inordinate amounts of time gambling. Unable to see, or indifferent to, far-reaching consequences, they may find themselves lying to loved ones, turning to crime to cover their losses or becoming suicidal.
“To me, it was a vicious circle, going back to the bars because of the high when you won,” said a 51-year-old mother of two from Springfield. She said she lost her business and still struggles to keep away from the machines. “You walk out and think you’re never going to do it again. But before you know it, you lose.”
The gambling industry and some researchers say there is no evidence video gambling is more addictive than other forms of gambling, though few studies focus on this question. They argue that some people are at risk of becoming addicts regardless of the type of gambling they choose.
Christine Reilly, senior research director at the National Center for Responsible Gaming, a nonprofit largely funded by the gambling industry, pointed to NCRG-funded research that found 70 percent of gambling addicts already suffered from depression, anxiety or other mental health issues. That, she said, makes them susceptible to developing a gambling addiction.
“There are lots of people who took cocaine and never got addicted,” Reilly said. “It’s the relationship between the person and their vulnerabilities. Things are not inherently addictive.”
Yet other studies have shown that people may develop a gambling addiction first, and that can lead to other conditions, such as depression, substance abuse or other mental health issues.
“There is research that shows it’s really a two-way street,” said Rachel Volberg, an associate professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst and a leading gambling researcher.
The state’s trade group for video gambling, the Illinois Gaming Machine Operators Association, said in a written statement that “there has been no concrete evidence of widespread gaming problems related to video gaming” and that the group has “committed significant resources and effort to fighting problem gaming.”
Researchers and clinicians generally agree greater access to gambling can increase addiction rates. They say the wide proliferation of video gambling in Illinois has likely fueled a rise in addiction here. It’s a phenomenon clinicians say they see every day.
But Illinois doesn’t know the extent of its gambling addiction problem or how it has changed as the number of gambling locations has grown. The legislature never commissioned a prevalence study to measure the rate of gambling addiction, which researchers and clinicians say is a crucial first step to combat the disease.
“If you have that many machines that widely distributed and you have no idea what the impacts are, how do you even know where to start?” asked Volberg.
On a Thursday afternoon, you can walk into a gambling parlor on North Harlem Avenue in Elmwood Park and find players who have wandered across the street from the Chicago side, where video gambling remains illegal. The attendant may ask if you’d like a drink, or you can take a butterscotch candy from the crystal bowl at the counter before you sit down to play.
Pick a game like Wolf Run, with a theme featuring dream catchers and the silhouette of a wolf howling at a full moon. The game allows players to bet as much as $2 a turn, distributing their money among as many as 200 lines that zig-zag across the screen like a digital spider’s web. Each line combination could be a winner.
Deposit a $5 bill into the machine and bet the minimum: 40 lines for 40 cents. Hit the spin button, and flutes, electronic horns and whistles blare while the virtual reels spin. As each reel comes to a stop, it sounds as if gears are locking into place. Suddenly, a wolf howls, more bells and whistles go off and lights flash. The screen shows you’ve “won” 10 cents.
But because the bet was 40 cents, you’ve actually lost 30 cents, or 75 percent of your wager, a sleight of hand known as a “false win” that, experts say, keeps people gambling. The $5 is gone in minutes.
Some researchers describe video gambling as “electronic morphine” and “the crack cocaine of gambling.” Every detail of the video gambling experience, from the lights and the shape of the buttons to the sound effects, has been meticulously designed to make people play longer and faster — to spend more money.
In her book, “Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas,” New York University cultural anthropologist Natasha Schüll spent years examining how players in Las Vegas became hooked on video gambling and how the design of video gambling machines and software played into their addictions.
“I don’t think slot machine designers have as their main goal to create an addict, but what they do have as their main goal is to monetize our attention,” Schüll said.
Each individual machine contains an array of games, which are targeted at different kinds of players. Some feature themes centered around shopping, jewelry and makeup; others depict busty, scantily clad women.
The games create the impression that gamblers can control the outcome by touching the screen or hitting the spin button to stop the virtual wheels. But the outcome is determined the moment a player pushes the button.
Many players believe machines run hot or cold, as if the devices get on streaks, or that the more spins a player makes, the greater the chances of a payout. In fact, video gambling machines take a fixed percentage of the amount wagered over a set number of spins or amount of time, known as the “hold” or the “house edge.” Data from the Illinois Gaming Board, which regulates the industry, shows that, on average, the machines take more than 25 percent of the money put into them.
Video gambling chairs, which can cost hundreds of dollars, are built to be occupied for long periods, with padding and ergonomic designs. Some look like recliners, with buttons embedded in the armrests, so people can play without moving their arms.
Anatomy of a Video Gambling Experience
Gone are the days when playing the slots meant pulling a lever on a clanky machine. Today’s video gambling machines are like computer games, with sophisticated algorithms designed to make people bet more and play longer. Here’s what one video gambling experience might look like, though set-ups vary greatly.