Legalized video gaming: winners and losers
Some Illinois bar owners are still waiting for the video gaming gold rush to pay off
Inside his nine-year-old dive, Pete’s Krash, in Bridgeview, owner Pete Nelms wishes he were in the far north suburb of Antioch right now. According to Nelms, since the 2009 Illinois video gaming law finally went into effect on October 9, Antioch has already generated $71,000 in revenue. Nelms’s business hasn’t fared as well.
“If my customers produced those [Antioch’s] numbers, I’d give them free beer,” Nelms jokes. His place is home to an Akita-husky mix named Smokey, who lounges at the entrance. The joint is decked out for Halloween with stretched faux-cotton spiderwebs, a plastic Dracula puppet, one flat-screen and a jukebox playing everything from Lil Wayne to Stevie Wonder. “If Antioch continues at that rate, they’re on their way to making $1.4 million annually,” adds a wide-eyed Nelms, whose four newly activated video terminals have seen multiple hundred-dollar payouts up to $500. Until I arrived, though, there wasn’t a single patron playing. But Nelms is hopeful, mainly because of his prime location, one block south of concert and sporting venue Toyota Park, best known as the home turf for professional soccer team the Chicago Fire. He’s relying on events at the stadium to increase his foot traffic, as he says they have in the past.
“Offering gambling is great for someone who doesn’t want to drive to Joliet to play the slots and to attract people to the neighborhood,” Nelms says. “This reminds me that I have to call to request my signage. Advertisement is key.”
Not only is it essential, it’s an Illinois Gaming Board (IGB) policy requirement (effective October 22) that I wished Berwyn hole-in-the-wall Quan’s Oasis had posted. My friend and I could’ve avoided circling the blocks a few times if the mandatory 21" x 13" public announcement had been up. We find the small joint, but it’s closed for the evening.
It turns out the bar closes around 7 or 8pm. Kevin (he didn’t want to give his last name), who “helps out” at the 36-year-old dive, explains to me by phone that staying open late nights has never been a priority for owner Nancy Quan. “But if folks are going to keep playing, we’ll keep the doors open,” he says with a laugh. Though Kevin won’t quote figures, his voice rises with enthusiasm when I ask how the two video machines have impacted the business. “People are always happier when they win. We had to wait a little while because of state regulations, but the payouts have been real good.”
Before the law passed, many bars and restaurants were operating machines for “amusement purposes” only. The mob reputedly owned some of the video poker machines in Berwyn and paid gamblers under the table. To avoid corruption, IGB chairman and retired judge Aaron Jaffe took a few years to select a staff, hash out the licensing apps and handle business inspections. It seems to have been worth the wait. As Nelms also suggested, Kevin says being steps away from the Metra is beneficial. “Folks have been getting on and off the train to play a few games. Our regulars seem to enjoy new faces, depending on the faces,” quips Kevin.
Before we end our conversation, I ask him what, if any, negative aspects these machines have. I mention the people who deem them irresponsible, socially and morally. He shoots back, “People are going to bitch. We have to make a living.”
Video gaming is available at Pete’s Krash, 7122 S Harlem Ave, Bridgeview (708-536-8119), Quan’s Oasis, 3333 S Harlem Ave, Berwyn (708-788-2223) and participating bars and restaurants in Illinois.