Oak Lawn is no Las Vegas.
But something straight out of Southern Nevada recently invaded the sleepy Illinois suburb: slot machines.
I found them when I traveled home to Chicago in May and visited my father’s favorite watering hole. There in the back corner were four video slots. Though they represent a tiny fraction of the 800,000 slot machines that dot the country, their presence disturbed m e.
In front of those glowing machines sat people I knew from the neighborhood — people who rarely gambled before the government legalized slots in bars. It was disheartening to watch the wide-eyed players zone out in a boozy buzz, mindlessly tapping the “spin” button and waiting for a big win.
In one four-hour catch-up session with Pops, at least two patrons ran their winnings past $100. But most people lost, including my dad, who slipped in a $20 bill, then another, and then another before calling it quits.
Then I watched a guy in his 20s use his grandfather’s ATM card to withdraw cash to play. While his grandson played, the old-timer sat the bar, sipping his beer alone.
It’s no surprise governments have latched onto legalized gambling like leeches; it draws a ton of cash. In the 1980s, legalized gambling drew about $10 billion annually nationwide. It now draws $119 billion annually.
But experts say the proliferation of slot machines in other parts of the country could create a crushing societal problem in a short time, particularly when it comes to problem gambling.
“New problem gamblers have been created because of local governments buying into this without considering the heavy costs associated with the spread of legalized gambling,” said Sam Skolnik, a former Las Vegas Sun reporter, gambling addict and author of the book “High Stakes: The Rising Cost of America’s Gambling Addiction.” “I view that as problematic and a cause for real concern.”
My Midwestern peers once had to save up cash to travel to Las Vegas or a riverboat or an Indian casino to gamble. If they didn’t have the cash to travel? They didn’t gamble.
Now it’s as easy as walking to the local tavern. That carries costs I’m not sure most cities are ready for.
Consider that Las Vegas has more than 100,000 problem gamblers and 100 Gamblers Anonymous chapters that meet every week. And we are the gold standard when it comes to gambling and addiction.
Can other cities handle that?