CHICAGO – To hear a gambling addict tell it, the precious few hours that Illinois casinos close – sometimes just two – are the only barrier preventing a sleepless, endless binge at the slots or card tables.
But to casino owners, the ability to remain open around-the-clock would bring desperately needed revenue and keep business in Illinois at a time when neighboring states allow 24-hour gambling.
That exact dilemma is before the state's gambling regulatory board, as it begins hearing testimony Thursday on a push by casino owners to eliminate a mandatory state rule requiring them to close for at least two hours a day.
"It's a public policy argument between making money and protecting people who come into the casino and really sit there all day long," said Illinois Gaming Board chairman Aaron Jaffe. "We're open to arguments. Let everybody have their say."
The push to allow 24-hour gambling at the state's 10 casinos comes from the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, which represents the gambling houses' interests, and is addressing ways to fight decreased revenue. The group says extending the 22-hour maximum levels the playing field with video gambling at 24-hour truck stops and keeps Illinois competitive with Indiana, Wisconsin and other surrounding states.
But anti-gambling groups are uneasy, saying the social costs could be great.
No one knows that better than Jerry Prosapio, 61, a onetime problem gambler who founded a nonprofit to help those like him. He remembers going to Las Vegas casinos and playing for up to 35 hours a time.
"If you keep these places open, you're not even going to allow these people to catch a breath," said Prosapio, who started Gambling Exposed a decade ago. "Normally they have to at least get out for a few hours, think about what they've just done. They're going to be victimized more."
Gambling is a problem for roughly 5 percent of the general population and a significant issue for about 1 percent, according to Anita Pindiur, who sits on the board of the Illinois Council on Problem Gambling and is executive director of The Way Back Inn, a suburban Chicago facility which helps addicts.
While she declined to take a position on the board's dilemma, she said extending to 24 hours could hurt those struggling with addiction. She says she's seen instances where gamblers were so immersed and determined to play another hand that they'd forgo food and wear adult diapers to save trips to the bathroom.
"The difference is that you don't give people any time to separate themselves from their addiction," she said.
Trying to stay open around-the-clock has been unsuccessful previously and not all casinos take advantage of the current limit. Still, this attempt is seen as the best shot yet.
Most of the reasons that Gaming Board members factored into rejecting it in the past are now moot.
Unlike previous years, Gaming Board agents are now on hand for longer hours to monitor operations and machines are no longer fed with coins, meaning casinos don't need to be closed to empty them out.
The extension also could help cash-strapped Illinois, advocates say.
Casino Gaming Association spokesman Tom Swoik said that since 2007 the state's nine casinos – excluding the newest and most profitable Rivers Casino in Des Plaines – have lost 38 percent in revenue and 2,000 employees. He says extending hours will add about $5 million in annual state revenue.
"We're not asking for it to be mandated, just the ability to do it if we want to," Swoik said.
Swoik said the association has pushed for numerous ways to help addicts, including a 24-hour hotline and developing a self-exclusion program where addicts can volunteer to be put on a list that bans them from casinos.
Extending the hours requires the board's vote, which could come as early as next month.
Illinois is unique in its gap, at least regionally.
Neighboring states – Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri – offer 24-hour gambling. Elsewhere, Maryland extended to around-the-clock last year and New Jersey has actually argued that 24-hour gambling makes everyone safer than closing in the middle of the night and releasing tired and potentially inebriated people onto the roads.
For proponents, like Casino Queen in East St. Louis, it's a way to get business. The casino is open 8 a.m. to 6 a.m. daily, but near four Missouri casinos that are always open.
"We look at it as evening the competitive field," said Jeff Watson, the president and general manager. "That's Illinois tax dollars going across the state line."
Still, those struggling with the problem say it all means more temptation.
Al, a recovering addict who declined to give his name because of ongoing treatment through Gamblers Anonymous, started driving to neighboring Indiana after the state extended hours in 2003.
Binges up to 72 hours weren't unheard of. He maxed out credit cards, lost his restaurant business, declared bankruptcy and said his addiction contributed to his divorce. He went to rehab in 2008 and says he's mostly stayed clean but more video gambling terminals – which Illinois approved in 2009 – don't help. The 43-year-old Forest Park man, who works as a chaffeur, is seeking treatment at Way Back Inn.
"Gambling was my escape. That's how I got away from my problem. I would sit there for hours on end," he said. "I wouldn't think of anything else."
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