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It takes Kevin Harrigan about 10 seconds to lose three times on the Dynamite Diamonds machine, his 40-cent bet quickly disappearing each time as blaring electronic music repeats and the candy reels of kings, queens, wilds and gems wobble. .
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A few minutes later, he wanders away from the row of Cleopatra machines with their sleek, curved glass screens and sits down at a cluster of Wheel of Fortune machines, each with a retro bronze arm on the side that you can pull down and place a bet (although it’s easier and faster, just tap the “play” button).
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Harrigan, a slot expert and recently retired professor of computer game design at the University of Waterloo, is surprised that you can bet up to $9 per spin. You can bet up to $12 per game at the nearby Fortune Charm slot machine.
“I’m kind of amazed that they can have that limit,” Harrigan said, pointing out that players lose an average of about 10 percent of the money they bet on such machines over time. “Let’s say you do 10 spins per minute, you lose an average of $12 per minute.
Harrigan is shocked not only by the amount and speed at which gamblers can lose, but that these machines even exist. After all, this is a bingo hall, not a casino.
Delta Bingo & Gaming, on St. Clair Avenue West, is a spacious, carpeted space filled with tables for the bingo crowd to play on traditional paper cards, desktop touch screens, or both. It also has a separate area with rows of “Vegas-style slot machines,” nearly 200 in total.
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It is one of four locations with electronic betting machines in Toronto. There is another Delta branch in Downsview with almost 100 machines, plus Dolphin Gaming and Rama Gaming House in Scarborough, both with more than 100 machines. The owners sell them as a taste of Sin City (“Bringing Vegas to you!” reports Delta’s website).
These venues are licensed as bingo, but a Star investigation found that dozens of venues across Ontario have quietly become de facto casinos, some of which feature more than 100 slot machines that look and work like slot machines. Provincial law bans slot machines in bingo halls, and slot machines are not harmless — one expert said they may actually be more risky for problem gamblers than casino slots because they run faster and allow users to lose money at a faster rate.
A total of 37 bingo halls have been “upgraded” as part of a program led by the province’s gambling regulator, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLG).
OLG says the bingo halls — it calls them “charity gaming centers” because a portion of the proceeds go to 2,200 local charities across the province — support communities, comply with the law and have been approved by provincial and municipal governments.
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But with 2,900 slot machines (in the stand-up cabinet style typical of slot machines) in locations across the province, they now seem to resemble casinos more than yesterday’s bingo.
Like casinos, they have dozens of slots designed to separate players from their money – and the odds of losing are about the same as slot machines.
Like casinos, they can attract problem gamblers who self-report worse health and mental health than other gamblers, and account for a hugely disproportionate amount of gambling revenue.
Like casinos, they have the potential to become targets for money laundering — but they don’t follow federal rules aimed at tracking the proceeds of crime (just this week, Canada’s financial intelligence agency Fintrac said they should).
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They also appear to be breaking earlier promises OLG made to the City of Toronto and other municipalities that made it clear they did not want slot machines in bingo halls.
These upgraded bingo halls did not make money for the province. In fact, according to an audit by the provincial finance ministry, they were actually draining Ontario’s finances, although OLG spokesman Tony Bitonti says a new business model implemented just before the pandemic should help the program break even.
For all these reasons, some say it’s time to do away with slot machines in bingo halls.
When the modernization project was still in its infancy, Harrigan warned of the addictive properties of the new machines in an article he co-authored for the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.
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Sitting outside Delta Bingo this summer, he says he was impressed by the size of the bets you can make, the modern graphics and sound systems and the fast pace of the game, all miles away from hour-long bingo. the basement of the church.
“Now people can do things like lose their mortgage or lose their house or have suicidal thoughts because of all the money they’re losing. Now you can lose a lot of money quickly,” Harrigan said.
“These bingo halls were clearly not set up for slot machines. I think they should be banned immediately.”
The bingo business was already in decline in the early 2000s, and like many traditional industries, they believed technology could help.
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At first, it seemed like an odd idea for a game so tied to its physical artifacts—the paper cards, colored dabbers, and talisman regulars laid out in front of them after taking their favorite spots. And the computer wouldn’t flirt or joke with crowds of mostly older women.
The province’s smoky bingo halls, often staffed by volunteers from local charities and seen as an important source of income for those organisations, faced new competition from casinos that had opened in the previous decade.
And then came indoor smoking bans, first for individual cities and then across Ontario in 2006, dealing another blow to the industry.
By 2012, the number of bingo halls in the province had decreased to 65 from 230 a decade earlier. There were only six theaters left in Toronto, down from 23.
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“Bingo halls – disproportionately populated by the old, poor and Aboriginal (though admittedly skewed women) – (have been) heavily affected by smoking bans,” wrote Kate Bedford, a law professor at the University of Birmingham, in a 2018 paper.
Smoking bans, Bedford said, “created incentives to automate gambling by introducing more slot machines in the bingo environment to recoup profits”.
Two groups led the charge on this front – a coalition of bingo hall operators and an organization of local charities, now known as the Commercial Gaming Association of Ontario (CGAO) and the Ontario Charitable Gaming Association (OCGA).
They spent years lobbying gambling authorities, including the OLG, and the provincial gambling regulator, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO).
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By 2005, they had a model they were piloting in six bingo halls in five cities (Barrie, Sudbury, Kingston, Peterborough and Windsor) and in 2010 the province approved the expansion of what was described as a “modernized” version of bingo.
Along with improving the halls’ “overall environment” to attract new players, this meant the introduction of computer bingo cards so customers could play alongside live games virtually instead of using paper cards and dabbers, as well as new “play-on demand” bingo. games on handheld or desktop devices.
But they still needed the approval of the municipality. Lynn Cassidy, chief executive of the charity, and Peter McMahon, chief executive of the commercial operators group, led the push to get host cities on board.
“Peter and I have been (traveling) around the province trying to sell the idea, you know, we can’t survive on traditional bingo alone, but we need to implement technology,” Cassidy said during a panel session at the Canadian Gaming Summit in Toronto in June.
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As part of this pressure, the OLG repeatedly assured the concerned city councilors and city representatives that the new modernized bingo halls do not allow either slot machines or video lottery terminals (VLT). Instead, she said the province will bring in new machines that will simply be electronic versions of the traditional paper games already played in bingo halls.
“The direction OLG received from the government was … clear: slot machines will not be included in the charity gaming upgrade,” OLG told City of Toronto staff in a March 2012 letter.
“Game centers will feature electronic games designed to complement, not replace, current paper games,” said a 2012 city report on the proposal, which pointed to the letter and said, “It is important to note that the OLG … confirmed that the gaming vending machines will not be included in this initiative.”
(OLG would not agree to be interviewed for this story, but spokesman Tony Bitonti responded to the Star’s questions in lengthy emails.)
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Under OLG’s standard charitable gaming (or “cGaming”) contract, bingo hall operators would receive 47 percent of net proceeds, local