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It takes about 10 seconds for Kevin Harrigan to lose three times on a Dynamite Diamonds machine, his 40-cent bet quickly disappearing each time as weird electronic music plays over repeating, candy-colored reels of kings, queens, wilds, and jewelry. .
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A few minutes later, he wanders away from a bank of Cleopatra machines with their sleek, curved glass screens and sits down next to a set of Wheel of Fortune machines, each with a retro brass arm on the side that you can pull down to set a bet (although it’s easier and faster to just press 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 as much as $9 per spin. At a nearby machine, Fortune Charm, you can bet up to $12 per game.
“I’m surprised they’re allowed to have that limit,” Harrigan said, noting that over time, players lose an average of about 10 percent of the money they bet on such machines. “Say you’re doing 10 spins a minute, you’ll lose an average of $12 a minute.”
Harrigan is shocked not only by the amount and speed at which gamblers can lose, but also by the fact that these machines are here at all. After all, this is a bingo hall, not a casino.
Delta Bingo & Gaming in St. It also has a dedicated space with rows of “Vegas-style slot machines,” almost 200 in all.
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It is one of four places with electronic betting machines in Toronto. There is another Delta location in Downsview with almost 100 machines, plus Dolphin Gaming and Rama Gaming House in Scarborough, which have more than 100 machines. The owners market them as a taste of Sin City (“Bringing Vegas to you!” says the Delta website).
These locations are licensed as bingo halls, but a Star investigation has revealed that dozens of locations across Ontario have quietly become de facto casinos, some of which contain over 100 betting machines that look and function much like slot machines. Provincial law bans slot machines in bingo halls, and slot machines aren’t harmless — one expert said they can actually be more dangerous to problem gamblers than casino slots because they run faster, allowed users to lose money at a faster rate.
In total, 37 bingo halls have been “modernized” under a program led by the provincial gaming manager, 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, follow the law and are approved by provincial and municipal governments.
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But with 2,900 slot machines (in the standup cabinet style typical of slot machines) in facilities across the province, they now seem more like casinos than yesterday’s bingo halls.
Like casinos, they have dozens of machines designed to separate gamblers from their money – and the chances of losing are about 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 account for a grossly disproportionate amount of gambling revenue.
Like casinos, they have the potential to become a target for money laundering — but they haven’t followed federal rules aimed at tracking the proceeds of crime (just this week, Canada’s financial intelligence agency, Fintrac, said it must to be).
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They also appear to break previous promises the OLG made to the City of Toronto and other municipalities, which said in no uncertain terms that they did not want slot machines in bingo halls.
These modernized bingo halls have made no money for the province. In fact, according to an audit by the provincial Ministry of Finance, they’ve actually been a drain on Ontario’s finances, although OLG spokesman Tony Bitonti says a new business model implemented just before the pandemic is expected to help the program break even. .
For all these reasons, some say it’s time to put an end to slot machines in bingo halls.
When the modernization project was still in its early days, Harrigan warned of problematic features of the new machines 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 says he was blown away by the size of the bets you can place, the state-of-the-art graphics and sound systems and the fast pace of the game, all miles away from an hour-long bingo session. the basement of the church.
“Now, people can do things like lose their mortgage or their house or have suicidal thoughts because of all the money they’re losing. Now, you can lose a lot of money in a hurry,” Harrigan said.
“These bingo halls were not designed to have a slot machine. I think they should be stopped immediately.”
The bingo business was already in decline by the early 2000s, and as with many legacy industries, its boosters believed technology could come to the rescue.
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At first this seemed like an odd idea for a game so tied to its physical artefacts – the paper cards, colorful lamps and lucky charms placed in front of them after they’d taken their preferred seats. And a computer would not flirt or joke with crowds of mostly elderly 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, were facing new competition from casinos that had opened over the previous decade.
And then came indoor smoking bans, first on a city-by-city basis and then Ontario-wide in 2006, dealing another blow to the industry.
By 2012, the number of bingo halls in the province had dwindled to 65 from 230 a decade earlier. In Toronto, there were only six halls left, out of 23.
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“Bingo halls – disproportionately populated by the elderly, the poor and Indigenous people (though admittedly skewed female) – (were) greatly affected by the smoking ban,” wrote Kate Bedford, a law professor at the University of Birmingham, in a 2018 paper. .
The smoking ban, Bedford said, “created incentives to automate gambling, introducing more slot machines into bingo venues to recoup winnings.”
Two groups led the charge on that front – a coalition of bingo hall operators and a local charity, now known respectively as the Commercial Gaming Association of Ontario (CGAO) and the Ontario Gaming Charitable 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 piloted in six bingo halls in five cities (Barrie, Sudbury, Kingston, Peterborough and Windsor) and in 2010, the province approved an expansion of what it called a “modernized” version of bingo.
Along with improving the “general ambience” of the halls to attract new players, this meant introducing computerized bingo cards so customers could play along with live games virtually instead of using cards. cards and boards, as well as new “play-on demand” bingo. games on handheld or desktop devices.
But they still needed municipal approvals. Lynn Cassidy, chief executive of the charity, and Peter McMahon, CEO of the commercial operators group, led a drive to get host cities on board.
“Peter and I (traveled) around the province trying to sell the idea of, you know, we can’t survive on traditional bingo alone, but we have 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 repeatedly assured concerned city councilors and city officials that the new modernized bingo halls would not allow either slot machines or video lottery terminals (VLTs). Instead, he said, the province would bring in new machines that were simply electronic versions of the traditional paper-based 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 modernization,” 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,” read a 2012 city report on the proposal, which pointed to that letter and said: “It is important to note that OLG … confirmed that vending machines will not be included in this initiative.”
(OLG would not agree to an interview for this story, but spokesman Tony Bitonti responded to the Star’s questions in a lengthy email.)
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Under OLG’s standard charitable gaming (or “cGaming”) contract, bingo hall operators would receive 47 percent of net, local revenue