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Bet on Having a Great Time
By Brady Gunnink

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Ever since humans developed opposable thumbs, mankind has gambled, and found ingenious ways to do so. As David Schwartz notes in his book Roll the Bones: A History of Gambling, archaeological evidence suggests that early Homo sapiens played a primitive form of craps using the anklebones of sheep. Ancient Egyptians played a game known as senet to commemorate Thoth, the god of gambling. The Rig-Veda, the oldest of all known religious books, compares dice to “pieces of divine coal.” Thousands of variations of games have been formed in civilizations around the world using whatever resources were available.

The practice of gambling has survived many millennia, and it is as important now to many as it was then. Dice have been created from a myriad of different materials. Thousands of games have been created from the same 52-card deck. People have wagered on everything from football games to when a chunk of ice will fall from a glacier. The modern gambling fascination finds a neon-studded home in casinos. The New York Times reports that 54 million people in the United States alone went to a casino in 2004.

In the electronic age, gambling technology has come a long way from throwing anklebones. Now would-be wagerers can play games of chance via electronic slot machines, video poker screens and other cyber-games. This gambling technology may prove to be the biggest invention for casinos since the roulette wheel.

Empress Casino, located in Joliet off of Route 6, has taken advantage of this new wave of technology, with 259 video poker machines and over 1,000 slot machines, many of them video slots. Compare that number with the 24 table games operated by the casino and it will become clear that not only is electronic gaming here to stay, it is the dominant form of gambling.

According to Empress Casino operations manager Jim Ouimette, there are numerous benefits to the electronic machines, which have slowly but surely become the “overwhelming choice” of the majority of Empress customers over the past decade. For the casino, these machines require less maintenance and less supervision. Compared to tables, which constantly need both a dealer and a supervisor, electronic slots and video poker only need someone to pay off jackpots or fix the rare technical glitch.

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Because of an electronic credit system, workers don’t have to worry about weight issues caused by literal tons of coins inserted in and emptied from the machines. Ouimette notes that maintenance is still needed, but since electronic slots run via computer rather than a complicated mechanical system, the work is “more keeping games up to date than trying to keep them up and running.”

Empress has used electronic gambling machines to establish a reputation that has helped them compete with other area casinos. Gambling Magazine notes that Empress has the Midwest’s best odds on video poker. The casino also received a 2006 Midwest Gaming & Travel Readers’ Choice Award for Best Video Poker.

Not only are video poker and slot machines popular; they are also profitable. According to Chicago Sun Times columnist John G. Brokopp, even as early as 2001, Illinois casinos made nearly five times as much money from electronic games than from table games. Brokopp notes that as table games become less popular, Illinois casinos are installing more and more electronic machines, adding nearly 1,800 from 1998 to 2005.

Are traditional table games an endangered species? Ouimette doesn’t seem to think so. Although electronic games are “aesthetically pleasing as well as ergonomically correct,” he asserts that “you still can’t replace that interaction, fun and excitement between dealers and players.”

While table games may be here to stay, it appears that electronic games are, too. Technological advancement will not stop there, either. Online gaming run by real casinos may be the next popular gambling phase, if it manages to survive the current wave of government regulation. Regardless of the medium, however, gambling will not die out. People will always desire a way to test their luck.

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