CHICAGO -- The amusements industry lost what trade leaders had termed a "critical" vote last week as Cook County voted for the second time in two weeks to opt out of legalized, operator-run video poker. The county's Board of Commissioners voted 10 to 4 on Oct. 6 in favor of keeping in place the county's longstanding ban on the machines. A week earlier on Sept. 30, the board's finance committee had voted 11 to 1 against the machines.
The ban applies only to unincorporated areas of the county, but industry members fear that poker opposition may be building an unstoppable momentum. To date, more than two dozen municipalities across Illinois -- along with Lake, McHenry and DuPage counties -- have voted to opt out.
"Towns and counties around Chicago are opting out at an alarming rate," noted one prominent Chicago distributor. "If Cook County goes, the very well funded opposition's next target will be the city of Chicago. If Chicago opts out, the entire Capital Bill [which includes the Video Gaming Act] may crumble."
Video pokers have long been illegal in Cook County, but commissioners had to decide whether to keep the ban in place following the state Legislature's passage of the Video Gaming Act last July. The measure, which is expected to create a multibillion-dollar VLT market starting in the second half of 2010, provides for a local option whereby individual cities and counties can decide whether or not to participate in the newly legalized industry.
The Illinois Coin Machine Operators Association has estimated that the new market is expected to support some 40,000 or more networked gaming devices.
According to local press reports, at least one Cook County commissioner cited racial politics in opposing pokers during the run-up to the Oct. 7 vote. "Video poker machines, it turns out, don't land in places like Winnetka and Kenilworth where rich people can afford to play," reported Chicago Tribune columnist Carol Marin. "They land in black communities like Dixmoor and Harvey where the poor struggle to survive."
On the morning of the Oct. 6 vote, dozens of amusement industry members staged a rally in favor of lifting the ban. These citizens, including members of the Illinois Coin Machine Operators Association, assembled peacefully at the Cook County Building where the vote took place. They chanted, "Jobs, jobs, jobs," and, "Don't opt out," while wearing T-shirts and carrying signs emblazoned with these slogans.
But Marin said Commissioner William Beavers, an African-American, pointedly noted that all the protesters were white, and claimed that any jobs created by legalized pokers would go to white-dominated construction companies. "Even Ray Charles could see that," Beavers was quoted as saying.
In hearings prior to the Sept. 30 vote, law enforcement officials spoke out in favor of the ban, saying video pokers would be impossible to regulate. A retired FBI agent who specialized in prosecuting organized crime claimed that legalization represented "an open invitation to organized crime to become a partner in the gaming business."
Chris Hesch of A.H. Entertainers (Rolling Meadows) disputed these charges, saying they were just typical anti-poker rhetoric.