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Wanna Bet?

Illinois's addiction to gambling
Illinois Issues

May 1997

 As I write, Illinois’s legislators have approved and its governor plans to sign a bill permitting a increase (of the sort usually described as "massive") in land-based casino gambling. Illinoisans who love games of chance already have lotteries and video poker and off-track horse betting and riverboats and, of course, gubernatorial elections. Gaming venues have not quite reached the level of market saturation as Starbucks, which (the jokesters have it) just opened a new Starbucks in the restroom of a Starbucks. But keep your eye on the news. It could happen. 


More Illinoisans gamble than vote or read books or go to church every Sunday. Lottery purchases at their peak a few years ago were made in seven of ten Chicago-area households; more than a third of the adults in the six-county Chicago area reported visiting a casino within the year. Indeed, going to the casinos has become for old people what hanging out at the mall is for teenagers, another group plagued by too much free time and too much spending money.

Illinoisans thus confirm their status as representative Americans; nationwide, gambling (as measured by attendance) is near to replacing big league baseball and football as the national pastime. True, Illinoisans are not as mad for games of chance as were Asians nations earlier in this century, when as much as a third of average family income in some countries went to pay gambling debts. However, a state already struggling with the social effects of drug and alcohol abuse and gun violence does not need another popular vice.

Americans are in some ways peculiarly susceptible to gambling's allure. Psychology Today asserts that gambling is a way to rebel against the dominance that money exerts in our materialist culture. Our lack of a fixed class structure means that fate, not family, determines our futures. We are a nation of much religion but little faith, and the superstitions of the gambler differ hardly at all from the ritual of the believer, save in respectability. The casting of lots used to be a means to divining God's will; now God's will is invoked to influence the casting of lots.

The Rev. Tom Grey is the United Methodist minister from Galena who, as the executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, has been dubbed the "most dangerous man in America" by the gaming industry. Grey recently said, "We are either going to have a casino economy, or we are going to build America with good, economic justice and a quality of life we can pass on to our children." But America has always had a casino economy, as any Galenan ought to know; Galena was the classic mining boom—and bust—town of the 19th century.

The Protestant work ethic may have been needed to inure the lazy to the hard work of digging a living out of the thin soils of New England, but to a European peasant, buying 60 acres of Illinois farmland from the government for $1.25 an acre was a get-rich-quick scheme. And one need read no further than two or three pages into the history of any Illinois town before encountering a successful real estate speculator.

Not much has changed since those days, except that actually getting rich is harder to do for the average person. The expectation is little dimmed in spite of that. Ronald Reagan—beloved saint of the religious right, and another Illinoisan shaped by his environment—used to say that the great thing about the U.S. economy was not that it offered good, economic justice and a quality of life but that anyone could get rich here.

Alas, given the insecurities in the job market caused by downsizing and the stagnation of real wages, even a Lotto ticket with odds of nearly 26 million to 1 offers a better chance of making it rich than does work. But while the cheap land is gone, there is still lots of luck around, and a lot of Illinoisans have concluded that luck is what it takes to win in America. (How to explain that Bill Gates is rich and you are not, if you know nothing of computers or business?) Buying a lottery ticket is to apply personal luck in the form of one's lucky number to the processes at work in the wider world, a chance to enter a plea with the gods personally.

The fact that state- sanctioned gambling is popular doesn't make it right, of course, any more than the fact that voting is unpopular makes democracy wrong. Harvard University's Center for Addiction Studies estimates that between 3.5 percent and 5 percent of all adults exposed to gaming can be expected to develop into pathological gamblers. This is potentially a lot of families, given the high proportion of Illinois adults who play legal games of chance. This also is potentially a lot of crime, job problems and disrupted families.

The neo-conservative journal Public Interest last year stated flatly, "Legalized gambling must be discontinued." Grey's group is asking Illinois legislators to pledge to at least not support any expansion of gambling unless Illinois voters approve it via referendum.

Like so many issues that vex the General Assembly, the debate about gambling is in fact a debate about human nature. Many gambling opponents assume that at least some of their fellow citizens are incapable of informed moral choice, or are captives to their appetites. The assumption that a lot of people are incapable of freedom undercuts the basis of the modern liberal state, of course, which is the point of many of gambling's critics from the social right. Oddly for skeptics of government butt-in-ism, such critics argue in effect that family and church are powerless to teach the weak to resist temptation, and that the state must help by removing it.

Asking the state to do what God manifestly has not been able to do is asking rather a lot in Illinois. A more sensible policy will seek to mitigate the social effects of vices—alcohol use is the obvious model—that are too popular to ban. Besides, banning all gambling in Illinois would be not only impolitic but unwise.

The middle-class economy is based on gambling. From the farmer hedging his bean contract to the little old lady moving her retirement mutual fund in search of a higher return, Illinoisans gamble in every realm of life. When newlyweds buy a house, they make a big bet on the neighborhood. And paying for college by borrowing money against a job you might get or choosing a major to give you skills that might be in demand four years from now is more like poker than planning.

What some of gambling's foes mean but cannot say is that the state ought to ban gambling by the poor and stupid. But we are a nation dedicated to equal treatment under the law, and if we are to ban gambling by the poor and stupid, we ought to ban it for the rich and stupid, too. Illinois's poorer citizens spend disproportionate amounts of their money on lottery tickets, but its corporations spend disproportionately on political candidates, and no one is talking seriously about banning elections.

Denying opportunities to strike it rich through the lottery and the slots while leaving the options exchanges open ignores the fact that the poor need gambling more than do the well- off. The dream of winning big in the lottery may be only a dream for the overwhelming majority of players, but at a buck a pop, it's the only dream the poor can afford. The pleasure in playing is the anticipation of winning as much as the winning itself. Poor people are used to disappointments; it's hope that is an entertaining novelty.

Besides, while gambling by the poor may be bad for the poor, it is good for Illinois. The state gets a rebate on its welfare spending in the form of profits on tickets purchased out of AFDC grants. More important, making low- cost gambling available to the poor is a cheap way to keep the social peace. (The Romans had to stage bloody circuses to distract the poor from revolt; Pick Four thus must be accounted one of civilization's advances.) Just as the sensible government provides a bus for those citizens too poor to buy a BMW, so it ought to provide the lottery for those who cannot afford to bet on technology stocks.

That settles the issue of whether the state ought to allow gambling. Even if state-sanctioned gaming is rendered immune to complaints based on morality or political principle, however, it is open to attack on grounds of fairness. The poor tend to get less and pay more for almost everything, including gambling. Illinois has been stacking the decks, as it were, against its own citizens. By ruling that the policy rackets are illegal, for example, the state forces its law-abiding citizens to play the state's games, even though the illegal ones give better service by giving shorter odds, offering credit, and sending runners to pick up bets. Thus does the state presume to interfere in the market in foolish dreams in ways it dares not do in the market for long- distance telephone calls or elected officials.

Better that the state get out of the gambling business and let someone fleece the poor who will do it less punishingly. Let the market set the limit on the extent and type of games, with the state reverting to its traditional role of overseer in return for a reasonable cut of the take. Make policy games legal (but subject to regulation) so the odds tilt in favor of the poor. License bookie parlors. Eliminate the present ludicrous legal distinctions that make betting on running horses legal and betting on running humans a crime.

Unlike a ban on state-sanctioned games, this approach looks politically doable. The governor gets the money he wants to fund retirement benefits for teachers and raise general school funding. (Given the proportion of retirees at the casinos, this comes as close to a self- financing pension system as Illinois is likely to get.) The anti-gambling moralists get the satisfaction of watching the state renounce sin as well as denounce it. Middle-class alums get to support the alma mater in the way that really matters. And the poor get the same range of choices as the rich about how to throw away their money. That's a parlay that can't lose. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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