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Smoking Ban May Not Be All That Ails Illinois Casinos

20 May 2009

Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, points to the public smoking ban that went into effect on January 1, 2008 as the primary reason for the dramatic drop in casino revenue in the state over the past 15 months.

Whereas the four Chicago area casino destinations in Illinois have experienced a drop of over 30 percent from February 2007 to February 2009 according to Swoik, properties in Northwest Indiana show only single digit declines in spite of the weakened economy.

Are Illinois gaming enthusiasts flocking to casinos in Hammond, East Chicago, Gary and Michigan City primarily because they can smoke, or are there other reasons?

According to the opinions expressed by Illinois resident Karen H. in an e-mail to this column, there's a lot to like in Northwest Indiana. Here are some of her thoughts:

"My husband and I made a list of all the reasons why we very seldom visit Illinois casinos anymore. In our opinion, it has little to do with the smoking ban. He enjoys playing craps and blackjack, and likes Indiana casinos because of the lower table stakes.

"The buffets and restaurants at the Indiana casinos are great. The comps we receive in the mail are higher from Indiana than Illinois, and we always play the same dollar amounts regardless of the state we play in.

"I will say one good thing about gambling in Illinois casinos – it is very nice not having to go home with our hair and clothing smelling like ash trays."

There's no doubt the smoking ban has negatively impacted Illinois casinos, but at the same time the competition in Northwest Indiana has become much more formidable.

Gaming companies such as Harrah's Entertainment and Boyd Gaming have responded to the friendlier regulatory climate in Indiana by investing millions of dollars in major capital improvements in Horseshoe Hammond and Blue Chip Casino, Resort & Spa respectively. Ameristar spruced up its property in East Chicago.

The next new developments in Illinois will be the rebuilt pavilion, restaurant and entertainment facilities at Empress Joliet in approximately 18 months, and the opening of the newly licensed casino development in Des Plaines in 2011.

Indiana imposes no restrictions on the number of gaming positions (slot machines and table games) a property may have, but in Illinois each casino is limited to 1,200 positions. This fact alone makes for an uneven playing field.

It permits Indiana casino destinations to offer a much more diverse slot product in terms of games and denominations, as well as an increased number of table games which gives them the freedom to set lower table limits.

Harrah's Entertainment invested $500-million in the new Horseshoe Hammond, which is closer to many residents of the Chicago area than the four properties in Illinois.

The expanded gaming floor combined with restaurant, feature bar, and entertainment offerings puts the property in a class by itself in this market.

If smoking was once again permitted in Illinois casinos, business would undoubtedly increase, but it's my guess that the momentum Northwest Indiana properties have picked up over the past two years would be tough to overcome.

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