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Empress Joliet Casino celebrates 15 years

3 October 2007

Attaining the age of being able to hail the vendor for a cold one on a hot summer's day at the ball park is a traditional rite of passage when turning 21, however these days a first time visit to a casino is becoming just as popular.

People who are celebrating their 21st birthdays this year were only six when the first casino in the Chicago area opened its doors, so for them the availability of state-regulated gambling in the Midwest is taken somewhat for granted.

Fifteen years ago when the Empress in Joliet ushered in the casino era in this region, things were a lot different. Instead of flying to Las Vegas or Atlantic City for an occasional getaway, area residents for the first time could jump in their cars for a gambling outing any time they wanted.

Toni Johnson remembers. On opening day in June of 1992 she was on board the new riverboat casino Empress I waiting to deal blackjack. Fresh out of dealer's school and brand new to the gaming industry, she was just as awestruck as the guests.

"The excitement in the air about having something like this coming to Joliet was unbelievable," she recalled. "Casinos were Las Vegas and Atlantic City; not the Midwest."

Fifteen years later, Toni Johnson is still with Empress only now as Director of Casino Operations. She's one of an elite group of employees that has been there since Day One, all of whom share fond memories of how much the industry has progressed as Empress holds a year-long celebration of a milestone anniversary.

"I remember all the people on board," Toni said. "There were seven seats at each of the tables and there was always a player at every spot."

Toni recalls the amenities associated with the gaming operation in 1992 as "primitive" by today's standards. The pavilion was still under development and on-board dining was restricted to what amounted to little more than a hot dog stand.

"The majority of people back then were making their first trip to a casino," she said. "I remember that they asked a lot of questions. It was an education process."

The property quickly evolved. A second vessel (Empress II) was added. Restaurants, a buffet, shops and entertainment filled the pavilion. The hotel opened in 1996. Several years ago the space-challenged riverboats were replaced with a twin-level, permanently docked facility.

Empress Joliet has survived three ownership changes since it opened. The original investors sold it to Jack Binion, who was there only a year before regulatory problems forced him to sell to Argosy Gaming, which was subsequently acquired by current owner Penn National Gaming.

"The industry has changed by leaps and bounds," Toni observed.

Empress Joliet, which has a year-long schedule of promotions on tap, has released a commemorative $5 gaming chip in honor of the property's 15th Anniversary.

CASINO NEWS:

You're in for a pleasant surprise the next time you visit Las Vegas and rent a car. Earlier this year the gigantic new Rental Car Center opened on South Las Vegas Boulevard. A fleet of full-size coach buses provide 24-hour round-trip service between McCarran International Airport and the facility. The complex houses all of the rental car companies under one roof which makes it super convenient for travelers.

Resorts East Chicago is hosting "Sit & Go" qualifying tournaments in its poker room now through Nov. 11 for opportunities to win a $10,000 World Poker Tour main event seat plus $5,000 in cash for upcoming events at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut and Bellagio in Las Vegas. Visit the poker room for complete details.

Four Winds Casino Resort in New Buffalo, Michigan, awarded W Club Jackpots to 161 guests during the month of August. Two people won the Windfall Jackpot, which must hit by $100,000; seven people won the Medium Jackpot, which must hit by $20,000; and 152 people won the Small Jackpot, which must hit by $500. The jackpots are awarded randomly to guests playing slots with their W Club cards.

John G. Brokopp

John G. Brokopp's gaming column appears in Chicago Sun Times (Chicago, Illinois), The Times (Northwest Indiana), The Quad City Times (Davenport, Iowa), The Courier News (Elgin, Illinois), The Gazette (Southwest Suburban Chicago) and Senior Wire (Denver, CO). He's also a regular contributor to The Colorado Gambler, Midwest Gaming & Travel, Casino Player and Strictly Slots. John possesses 28 years of experience as a professional handicapper, publicist, freelance writer, and casino gaming correspondent. He is also the author of two very popular books, The Insider’s Guide to Internet Gambling and Thrifty Gambling.

Books by John G. Brokopp:

> More Books By John G. Brokopp

John G. Brokopp
John G. Brokopp's gaming column appears in Chicago Sun Times (Chicago, Illinois), The Times (Northwest Indiana), The Quad City Times (Davenport, Iowa), The Courier News (Elgin, Illinois), The Gazette (Southwest Suburban Chicago) and Senior Wire (Denver, CO). He's also a regular contributor to The Colorado Gambler, Midwest Gaming & Travel, Casino Player and Strictly Slots. John possesses 28 years of experience as a professional handicapper, publicist, freelance writer, and casino gaming correspondent. He is also the author of two very popular books, The Insider’s Guide to Internet Gambling and Thrifty Gambling.

Books by John G. Brokopp:

> More Books By John G. Brokopp