Come on and take a free ride
Despite the downturn, buses to casinos are still packing 'em in.
While gambling giants like Harrah’s, owner of the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, are reporting losses of several million dollars this year, you can still find plenty of gamblers who aren’t letting hard economic times keep them away from the tables. Chicago-area casinos give their regulars an incentive to keep coming back: a free ride.
Area casinos employ a number of private coach companies shuttling eager Chicago gamblers across the border. In the last month, the Horseshoe (777 Casino Ctr Dr, Hammond, IN, 219-473-7000) has expanded its shuttle service to include five companies offering free rides from spots like Wrigleyville bar Sheffield’s (3258 N Sheffield Ave), the Hotel Monaco (225 N Wabash Ave) and Chinatown. “Casinos simply want to get more people to come to the casinos, and it works,” says George Johnson of the Starlight Express coach company, which has been carting busloads of tourists from downtown to the Horseshoe and back since October.
At a stop at Archer and Wentworth Avenues on a recent Sunday, the mix of people waiting eagerly for their ride included lower-income folks who showed up from nearby South Side neighborhoods, middle-aged gamblers from Chinatown, a well-coiffed executive type tapping away on his iPhone, and scattered seniors whose caps and jackets advertise one gaming parlor or another. Several buses—with destinations such as the Horseshoe, Majestic Star and Ameristar casinos, as well as Michigan’s Four Winds—line up on two-hour cycles until as late as 2am on Friday and Saturday nights. And, economy be damned, the buses fill quickly. “Some of my riders don’t drive and others who do drive want to save on gas,” explains Jean Bayyoud, manager of Golden Dragon Casino Shuttle (3016 S Wentworth Ave, 312-326-5518), which serves Four Winds. Bayyoud says business has been better than usual lately, and she thinks she knows why: “Being broke can make you feel lonely, and casinos are entertainment and there’s always people around.”
Like lipstick and alcohol, casinos tend to weather recessions well. In the wake of the Great Depression, several states, most famously Nevada, legalized forms of wagering to jump-start the economy. So it comes as little surprise that Illinois legislators are looking to a proposed suburban casino in either Rosemont, Waukegan or Des Plaines to soothe the state’s budget woes.
Boarding a bus at Archer and Wentworth headed to the Four Winds, Nate Clifford, 48, has more basic concerns. He works part-time as a painter, but jobs come infrequently these days. Behind on bills, and with Christmas presents to buy for his mother and sister, Clifford says he’s desperate to parlay the $50 he has budgeted himself into a big win by the time he catches the bus back home.
A separate bus headed to the Horseshoe, carrying close to 50 people, reeks of an unidentifiable amalgam of casino carryout food (purchased with the $7 credit the Horseshoe gives bus passengers) and stale nicotine—odors trapped and held through several go-rounds of the back-and-forth route. The bus is a social scene: Riders chat familiarly, and it seems as if everybody knows somebody on the bus. The mentality seems to be, If you’re going to lose, lose among friends and get free eats to boot.
A regular among regulars on a bus ride home from Four Winds, Jack Sipocz, a 72-year-old retired artist, slides into an empty seat. He’s been gambling all night and made $600. In a Hungarian accent still thick after a half-century in the U.S., he says he lives on a fixed income and gambles frequently, from playing the ponies to spontaneous midnight jaunts to wherever the next shuttle is heading. While a trip to Vegas may seem out of reach to gamblers like Sipocz, a free ride to a local casino is just enticing enough to momentarily silence that pesky inner voice that says, “You know, knitting at home would be less dicey.”