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It took Kevin Harrigan about 10 seconds to lose three times at the Dynamite Diamonds machine, his 40-cent bet quickly dissipating whenever the rattling electronic music played over and over and the reels of kings, queens, wild cards and candy-colored gems flashed. .

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Minutes later, he walked away from Cleopatra’s cluster of sleek curved glass screens and sat down by a cluster of Wheel of Fortune machines, each with retro bronze arms on the sides that you could pull down to place bets (though easier and faster just by pressing the “play” button).

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Harrigan, a slot machine expert and recently retired professor of computer game design at the University of Waterloo, is surprised that you can bet up to $9 on each spin. On the nearest machine, Fortune Charm, you can bet up to $12 per game.

“I was a bit surprised that they were allowed to have that limit,” said Harrigan, pointing out that over time, players lose on average about 10 percent of the money they bet on the machine. Say you do 10 spins per minute, you will lose an average of $12 per minute.

Harrigan was surprised not only by the amount and speed at which gamblers could lose, but also by the fact that these machines were here. After all, this is a bingo hall, not a casino.

Delta Bingo & Gaming, in St. Clair Avenue West, is a large, carpeted space filled with tables for bingo players, who can play on traditional paper cards, the touch screen of a tabletop computer, or both. It also has a separate room with a row of “Vegas-style gaming 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 location in Downsview with nearly 100 machines, plus Dolphin Gaming and Rama Gaming House in Scarborough, both of which have over 100. The owners market it as a Sin City flavor (“Bringing Vegas to You!” says the Delta website).

These venues are licensed as bingo halls, but Star investigations have found that dozens of locations in Ontario are secretly de facto casinos, some containing over 100 betting machines that look and operate like slot machines. Provincial laws prohibit slot machines in bingo halls and harmless gaming machines—one expert says they may actually be more risky for problem gamblers than casino slots, because they run faster, allowing users to lose money more quickly.

In total, 37 bingo halls have been “modernized” under a program led by the provincial gambling manager, Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLG).

OLG says the bingo hall – they call it a “charity gaming center” because a portion of the revenue goes to 2,200 local charities across the province – supports the community, follows the law and has been approved by provincial and city governments.

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But with 2,900 slot machines (in the slot machine’s signature upright cabinet style) in venues across the province, they now look more like casinos than yesterday’s bingo halls.

Like casinos, they have dozens of machines designed to separate gamblers from their money — and the odds of losing are roughly the same as in slot machines.

Like casinos, they can attract problem gamblers, who self-report worse health and mental health than other gamblers, and contribute a disproportionately large amount of gambling revenue.

Like casinos, they are potential targets for money laundering — but they don’t yet follow federal rules aimed at tracking the proceeds of crime (just this week, Canada’s financial intelligence agency, Fintrac, said it should).

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They also appear to be breaking previous promises OLG made to the city of Toronto and other municipalities, which said emphatically that they didn’t want slot machines in the bingo hall.

These modernized bingo halls are not making money for the province. In fact, according to an audit by the provincial Ministry of Finance, they have actually drained Ontario’s finances, although OLG spokesman Tony Bitonti said the new business model implemented before the pandemic was expected to help the program break even.

For all these reasons, some say it is time to put an end to slot machines in the bingo hall.

Back when the modernization project was in its infancy, Harrigan warned about the addictive features of the new machine in a paper he co-authored for the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.

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Sitting outside Delta Bingo this summer, he said he was struck by the size of the bets you can place, the modern graphics and sound system, and the fast pace of the game, all miles away from hours of bingo sessions in a basement. church land.

“Now, people can do things like lose their mortgage or home or have suicidal thoughts because of all the money they lost. Now, you can lose a lot of money in a hurry,” said Harrigan.

“This bingo hall is definitely not set up to have slot machines. I think they should be banned immediately.”

The bingo business was already in decline in the early 2000s, and like many legacy industries, its proponents believed that technology could come to the rescue.

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At first it seemed like an odd idea for a game so tied to its physical artifacts — paper cards, colorful dabs, and lucky charms placed in front of themselves after claiming their favorite seat. And the computer won’t flirt or joke with the crowd of mostly older women.

The province’s smoke-filled bingo halls, often staffed by volunteers from local charities and seen as an important source of income for the organization, are facing renewed competition from casinos that have opened over the previous decade.

And then came the ban on indoor smoking, first in every city and then across Ontario in 2006, dealing another blow to the industry.

By 2012, the number of bingo halls in the province had shrunk to 65 from 230 a decade earlier. In Toronto, there are only six halls remaining, down from 23.

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“Bingo halls – disproportionately populated by the elderly, the poor, and natives (though admittedly slanted women) – (severely affected by the smoking ban,” Kate Bedford, a law professor at the University of Birmingham, wrote in a 2018 paper.

The smoking ban, says Bedford, “creates an incentive to automate gambling, by introducing more slot machines in the bingo environment to recoup profits.”

Two groups lead on that front—a coalition of bingo hall operators and local charitable organizations, now known as the Commercial Gaming Association of Ontario (CGAO) and the Ontario Charitable Gaming Association (OCGA, respectively).

They spent years lobbying gambling authorities, including the OLG, and the provincial gambling regulator, the Ontario Alcohol and Gaming Commission (AGCO).

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In 2005, they had a model they piloted in six bingo halls in five cities (Barrie, Sudbury, Kingston, Peterborough and Windsor) and in 2010, the province approved the expansion of what it calls a “modern” version of bingo.

Along with improving the “overall atmosphere” of the hall to attract new players, that meant introducing computerized bingo cards so customers could play together with virtual live games instead of using paper cards and dabber, as well as new “play on demand” bingo games on handheld or table devices. .

But they still need city approval. Lynn Cassidy, executive director of the charity association, and Peter McMahon, CEO of a commercial operator group, are leading efforts to engage host cities.

“Peter and I (travelled) across the province trying to sell the idea, you know, we can’t just stick with traditional bingo, but we need to introduce technology,” Cassidy said during a panel session at the Canadian Gaming Summit in Toronto in June.

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As part of this push, OLG has repeatedly assured city council members and concerned city officials that its new modernized bingo hall will not allow slot machines or video-lottery (VLT) terminals. Instead, he said, the province would bring in a new machine that was simply an electronic version of the traditional paper-based game already played in bingo halls.

“The direction OLG is receiving from the government is … clear: slot machines will not be included in the modernization of charity games,” OLG told Toronto city staff in a March 2012 letter.

“The gaming center will feature electronic games designed to complement, not replace, current paper games,” reads a 2012 city report on the proposal, which pointed to the letter and said, “It is important to note that OLG … confirmed that slot machines were not will be included in this initiative.”

(OLG won’t approve an interview for this story but spokesman Tony Bitonti responded to Star’s question in a lengthy email.)

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Under OLG’s standard charity gaming (or “cGaming”) contract, bingo room operators will receive 47 percent of net revenue, local revenue

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