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PUBLISHER’S GALLERY

The state launched a Self-Exclusion Program
for addicted gamblers. Will they know
when to fold'em?

by Mike Morsch

The state could well be Illinois’ biggest bookie. In fact, gambling is big business here, and has been for quite some time.

So much so that recent legislation signed by Gov. George Ryan increasing riverboat gambling taxes will raise an estimated $134 million for the state, according to the Illinois comptroller’s office. That money is expected to help offset a big budget shortfall.

But Illinois appears to be trying to do right by its gamblers, as well. This summer, the Illinois Gaming Board launched a Self-Exclusion Program (I would have suggested a more marketable name, such as the “Know When to Fold ’Em Program,” but I wasn’t consulted) that “allows persons who have determined they are problem gamblers to self-exclude themselves from all Illinois casinos.”

What a novel concept: Throwing yourself out of the game.

But this could present a problem, especially for those unable to give themselves the old heave-ho. According to the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery based in Peoria, a “compulsive gambler” is one who “cannot stop gambling no matter how much they want to or how hard they try.”

Is it not a stretch, then, for the state to expect compulsive gamblers to be able to exclude themselves from Illinois casinos? Apparently not, according to Rick Zehr, vice president of addiction and behavioral sciences at the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, which, by the way, receives no state or federal funds for its activities.

Zehr says this program is the state’s way of saying, “be responsible” when it comes to gambling. The Self-Exclusion Program is totally voluntary. A person cannot exclude a spouse or significant other. If a self-excluded person is found including himself or herself among the legions of Illinois gamblers, then that person must forfeit any booty to a charity of his or her choice, preferably not one called “Back-in-My-Own-Pocket Soup and Breadline.”

We’ve had gamblers in my family. There always seem to be a few euchre games going at every family get-together, but those games are merely the precursor to the poker games.

Ah, the poker games. It’s said that as a youngster, I wandered down into the basement during one of the Sunday afternoon games. My grandfather, always the master no matter whose house it was, grabbed a $1 bill out of the kitty and gave it to me. His sons, at least eight of the nine (my father excluded, of course) protested that the old man was taking potential earnings out of their pockets, and a screaming match ensued. I’m told I got to keep the dollar, which I no doubt gave back to the local economies of Peoria or Alton or East St. Louis some 40 years later.

Not until recently, though, did I have a chance to participate in the family poker game. Three generations of the family were represented, including three sons, four grandsons and one great-grandson of the old man.

The star of any poker game always has been my Uncle Pancho. He’s loud, funny and always seems to win money. He’s worth every wager in entertainment value alone.

Pancho is apparently also a star at the Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino in East Peoria. He had warmed up for the recent family poker game that evening by taking home several thousand dollars in a slot tournament that afternoon on the riverboat, or so he said. He finished the evening by taking several nickels, dimes and quarters from subsequent generations of the family’s menfolk.

I never looked at any of my relatives as compulsive gamblers, and I’m pretty sure I know what the answer would be if I suggested to any of them that they enroll in the state’s Self-Exclusion Program: They would immediately lay odds on the over-under number of people who actually would enroll in the program. Uncle Pancho would win, of course.

But they might be surprised at the numbers. According to Gene O’Shea, acting Self-Exclusion Program director and public information officer for the Illinois Gaming Board, the state’s program is modeled after one in Missouri.

The Missouri program had 37 people sign up during its first year of operation. Since October 1, those wishing to enroll in the Illinois Self-Exclusion Program have been able to do so at all Illinois Gaming Board offices located at all riverboat casinos. O’Shea says there were 82 people signed up through mid- October, and he expects between 500 and 1,000 to sign up for the program in its first year.

To enroll, a person must make an appointment (1-877-YOU-QUIT) to visit a designated Illinois Gaming Board office to complete the necessary forms. Candidates must present a valid driver’s license or state-issued identification card to complete the process. Then all they have to do is stay away from the gambling boats.

I would suggest the program offer a piece of rope so that participants can tie themselves to lampposts outside the casinos to prevent them from going in, but I’ll wager the state wouldn’t do that, if for no other reason than to avoid the inevitable headline, “Give a man enough rope.”

At this point, it looks as if Illinois is providing a viable option for those addicted to gambling. If I were betting, I’d lean toward the program being an odds-on favorite to succeed. But, just to be sure, like any gambler, I’d like a bit more of an edge.

“Hello, Uncle Pancho... .”


Mike Morsch can be reached at 217-206-6521 or by e-mail at morsch.michael@uis.edu.

Illinois Issues, November 2002

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