by John Grochowski
A year of change was mapped out for Chicago area casinos, but most plans were put on hold as focus shifted to coronavirus precautions. As in most of the U.S., casinos in Illinois and Indiana were closed for several months. When they reopened it was with reduced capacity, barriers between gaming positions, limits on services and requirements for masks and social distancing.
That leaves 2021 as a potentially big year for change in the Chicago casino market, if everything that had been planned comes to pass.
Sports betting is the driving force behind the big changes, and it was one of the few things in an overall expansion of gambling in Illinois that went off on schedule. Rivers Casino in the west Chicago suburb of Des Plaines became the first in Illinois to accept sports bets beginning in March, and its betrivers.com became the state’s first online site to open for sports wagering.
The shutdown happened before others on the Illinois side of the Chicago area could launch sports bet. The time table for openings remained on the back burner as casinos began to reopen in June.
Other items, including new casinos, were on hold. The Illinois Gaming Board delayed decisions for sites and license-holders for newly legal casinos. One major piece of the expansion, a land-based casino in the City of Chicago, was in limbo because potential bidders saw the tax structure as making profit impossible. Legislation to revise conditions for a Chicago casino joined many casino plans in a lengthy holding pattern.
If and when adjustments are made, licensing is done, and full openings are reopenings are possible, there is much opportunity for players to anticipate:
**A new, land-based casino in Chicago with sports betting and up to 4,000 gaming positions for table games, slots, video poker and other electronic gaming devices.
**Five more new casinos around the state, each with sports betting and up to 2,000 gaming positions.
**Addition of sports betting in casinos that have not already taken the plunge plus an increase from 1,200 to 2,000 gaming positions at existing casinos.
**Addition of sports betting, slots and table games at the state’s tracks for thoroughbred and harness horse racing.
**The possible addition of slots to O’Hare and Midway airports in Chicago, although that’s no slam-dunk. Any gaming positions used at the airports would be deducted from the 4,000 maximum at a Chicago casino, though it’s possible that could change if a deal is reached to change the tax structure for Chicago.
**Legalization of sports betting and the possible addition of wagering terminals at ballparks and stadiums.
Once everything is in place, the additions have the potential to tilt a diverse Chicago area gaming scene firmly toward Illinois.
Casinos in Illinois and on the Indiana side of the border on Lake Michigan have been very different experiences.
Those in Illinois have been restricted to 1,200 gaming positions and so far have had to be on water in keeping with the original riverboat gaming that launched in 1991. The land-based Chicago casino will break that patter.
The definition of “on water” is very loose — the Rivers Casino in northwest suburban Des Plaines, Illinois, was built over a shallow pit with a few inches of water.
Illinois casinos must close for at least two hours a day. Closing hours generally are early in the morning — if you arrive between 6 and 8 a.m., you’re likely to have a wait before you can get on the gaming floor.
Across the border east of Chicago, Indiana casinos are larger and open 24/7. There is no restriction on gaming positions. The only limitation is how many games they can get onto their Lake Michigan barges.
To the north, Wisconsin has full-scale land-based gaming in tribal casinos, though the closest is Potawatomi in Milwaukee, which the locals certainly do not consider part of the Chicago area.
All have multiple restaurants, though not all have hotels. There’s more of an emphasis on live entertainment at the larger casinos in Indiana and Wisconsin than at the smaller operations in Illinois.
Beyond the full casino experience, there’s a wild card in Illinois with up to five slot machines in licensed bars, restaurants, truck stops and service organizations. Though each operation is small scale, in a separate nook from the main businesses, there are thousands of outlets.
When gaming was first legalized, Illinois riverboats were required to cruise and had set boarding, cruise and disembarkation times. There were cruise requirements in Indiana, too, but the boats on Lake Michigan never set sail because of concerns raised by the Army Corps of Engineers. Instead, in the beginning, Lake Michigan casinos simulated cruises. Boats remained dockside, but still had boarding, cruise and disembarking times.
Riverboats no longer leave dock, though Illinois and Indiana still do not permit land-based casinos. That leaves the following options for Chicago-area players, pending the awarding of licenses under the new Illinois law:
**Illinois casinos: Within the Chicago metropolitan area there are five casinos in suburbs and small cities that ring Chicago. Players can choose among Harrah’s and Hollywood in Joliet, Hollywood in Aurora, Grand Victoria in Elgin and Rivers in Des Plaines.
Rivers is the closest to Chicago, with Des Plaines neighboring O’Hare Airport about 16 miles from the north Loop. The others are in an arc about 40 to 50 miles from the Loop, with Elgin slightly northwest, Joliet to the southwest and Aurora in between.
All are smoke-free casinos under an Illinois ban on smoking in public venues. Typically, Illinois casinos use about 1,100 of those positions on slot machines and other electronic gaming devices such as video poker and video keno. Rivers has a larger than usual corps of table players, so its slot total is closer to 1,000. All that will be up for grabs as legal positions expand to 2,000.
Only the two Joliet casinos have hotels, though all have multiple restaurants, including buffet and steakhouse options. None have showrooms, and in Illinois, when a casino sponsors headliner entertainment, it usually is in cooperation with a partner in the host city.
**Indiana casinos: Actually closer to Chicago than all the Illinois casinos except Rivers, there are four Indiana casinos within the metro area. The largest, Horseshoe in Hammond, is only 16 miles from the South Loop. The others – Ameristar in East Chicago and Majestic Star I and II in Gary, are only a few miles farther east.
All may remain open 24/7, smoking is not banned and there is no limit on the number of games. The casinos there are much larger — the largest facility, Horseshoe Hammond’s barge, has more than 2,800 electronic games and 160-plus table games. One consequence is that there is a much larger selection of new table games in Indiana. If you want to try Blackjack Switch, High Card Flush, Pai-Gow tiles or even a Big Six wheel, you’re more likely to find it in Indiana.
Ameristar and Majestic Star have hotels, while Horseshoe prefers to work with Chicago hotel partners. Horseshoe does have state-of-the-art event center for headliner entertainment, conventions, conferences and more. That’s where Horseshoe holds its annual World Series of Poker satellite event.
Outlying casinos: A little outside the Chicago area, but within easy drives of about an hour and a half, are Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City, Ind., Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, Mich., Potawatomi Bingo Casino in Milwaukee. Increase the range to a three-hour drive, and that brings in a couple of Illinois casinos, Par-A-Dice casino in Peoria and Jumer’s Casino Rock Island.
Blue Chip operates under the same conditions as other Indiana properties and Par-A-Dice and Jumer’s operate under Illinois regulations. Potawatomi in Wisconsin and Four Winds in Michigan are full-service, land-based showpieces for those with time to travel a little farther afield.
Video Gaming Machines in Illinois
Illinois bars, restaurants, truck stops and service organizations: Unless prohibited by local ordinance, facilities that receive an Illinois Gaming Board license may operate up to five video gaming machines. Some communities, including the City of Chicago, have opted out, but even so, there are more than 30,000 machines in operation at such facilities across the state.
Each site is limited to five gaming terminals, and the terminals include both slot and video poker games. They are games with random number generators, and work just like casino slots, except there are some restrictions. Credit denominations must range between 5 cents and 25 cents, the maximum wager is $2, and the maximum payout for a single play is $500. A quarter video poker game in the bars, restaurants, et al can’t pay the $1,000 jackpot players are used to on quarter machines.
Back in the casinos, let’s look at some of the best of gaming in the Chicago area, subject to rapid change as the market evolves. In the limited reopening of casinos that began in June in Indiana and July in Illinois, half of gaming positions were shut down. The most attractive video poker games were available in drastically reduced numbers. Whether the full complement will return in better times remains to be seen.
VIDEO POKER: Majestic Star in Gary stands as an oasis of high-paying video poker for players with moderate budgets. High payers once were confined to Majestic Star II, but now there’s a collection of 99-percenters on Majestic Star I, too. They’re not on every machine, so you have to check before you play, but there are 25-cent-50-cent-$1 single-hand machines with a 99.8-percent version of Triple Bonus Poker Plus; Not So Ugly Deuces Wild (99.7); 9-7 Triple Double Bonus (99.6), 9-6 Jacks or Better (99.5); 8-5 Bonus Poker (99.2), 9-5-5 Double Bonus (99.1) and more. One downside is that it takes $100 in play to earn one rewards point on these machines, as opposed to $10 per point on other machines, but the upgrade in payback at the machines is well worth it.
Horseshoe Hammond has a collection of good games for bigger players. You can find 8-5 Bonus Poker with all quads paying 35-for-1, a 99.76-percent game, on single-hand machines at $5, $10 and $25 level. There’s 9-7 Triple Double Bonus (99.6) on $5-10-$25 single-hand games. There are more, but you get the idea: The good stuff is for big bettors.
Elsewhere, there are opportunities for dollar players, including 9-6 Double Double Bonus Poker (98.98 percent) at. Hollywood Joliet, Harrah’s Joliet and Ameristar East Chicago. All have $1 progressives, with the two Joliet casinos both offering three-way progressives — progressive jackpots on royal flushes, four Aces with a low card kicker, and four Aces without the kicker. Ameristar and Hollywood Joliet also have 9-7-5 Double Bonus (99.1) at dollar level.
Craps: The addition of Rivers gave the Chicago area a second casino catering to big craps players. Rivers offers 100x odds — the same as Horseshoe in Hammond. Horseshoe had dramatically changed the face of Chicago area craps after Jack Binion bought the former Empress in 1999. Bringing in 100x odds and $10,000 maximums was a radical change for Chicago, which had been a double-odds kind of town through the mid-1990s.
Now 20x odds have become common among competitors, while Rivers makes it a 100x odds duo. Rivers and Horseshoe are the busiest casinos in the area, so table minimums often are high. Low rollers might want to check out the competitition.
Blackjack: Most blackjack games in the Chicago area use either six or eight decks, usually with the dealer hitting soft 17 except at some high-limit tables.
The most common games throughout the area use six decks, have dealer hit soft 17, permit double downs on any first two cards, including after splits. The house edge against a basic strategy player is 0.63 percent. There are a few better deals, especially for bigger bettors. At $25 minimums, players can get the edge down to 0.34 percent at the Joliet casinos where, at that level, dealers stand on soft 17 and players may resplit Aces. Majestic Star drops that a fraction more to 0.33 percent by offering late surrender at its $25 tables.
Table minimums tend to be high, especially in Illinois where anything under $15 a hand is rare treat for a midweek morning. Crossing into Indiana, even Majestic Star, long the last bastion of $5 tables, has gone to $10 minimums except for the sporadic opening of a $5 Blackjack Switch game.
OTHER TABLE GAMES
As you might expect, there are more table options at the bigger casinos in Indiana. In Illinois, operators tend to stick to blackjack, craps, roulette and Three Card Poker, with Mississippi Stud making inroads. In Indiana, most operators have all those games, and also pick and choose from among mini-baccarat, Blackjack Switch, pai-gow poker, Spanish 21, High Card Flush, Ultimate Texas Hold’Em — if there’s a promising new game, someone in Indiana is likely to try it.
SLOT MACHINES: Along with the rest of the country, Chicago has seen a great expansion in video bonusing slot machines, with the hottest trend being toward lower and lower coin denominations. All Chicago area casinos now have penny slots. Horseshoe had been reluctant to join the penny trend, but the nationwide growth and popularity of the games have even casinos that cater to big players clamoring for copper.
Traditional three-reel games remain a big part of the mix at dollars and above, with Majestic Star having the largest selection of quarter three-reelers.
One thing you’ll not find in Illinois or Indiana is million-dollar jackpots. Wide-area progressives such as Megabucks that link several different properties to the same jackpot are illegal in Illinois and Indiana. If you’re a jackpot chaser, you’ll need to go to Potawatomi in Milwaukee or Four Winds in New Buffalo, which both are on the national Native American link.
Slot machine payouts tend to be higher in Illinois than in Indiana, from quarters on up, but the Indiana casinos pay as much or more than the Illinois operations in nickels and below. Illinois averages tend to hover around 95 percent on dollars, 93 percent on quarters and 88 percent on nickels, 85 percent on pennies while Indiana returns, are around 94 percent on dollars, 92 percent on quarters and 89 percent on nickels and 86 percent on pennies — with variations from casino to casino, of course.
John Grochowski has been covering casinos and casino games for nearly 40 years. He is the author of six books
and his work appears in newspapers, magazines and websites around the world.
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