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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 jangly electronic music plays on repeat and reels of kings, queens, wild cards and brightly colored jewels flash. . .

A few minutes later, he leaves a bank of Cleopatra machines with their curved, curved glass screens and sits down with a group of Wheel of Fortune machines, each with a retro bronze arm on the side which you can pull down to place a bet (although it’s easier and faster to just tap the “play” button).

Harrigan, a slot machine expert and newly retired professor of video game design at the University of Waterloo, is surprised that you can bet as much as $9 on each spin. At a nearby machine, Fortune Charm, you can bet up to $12 per play.

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“I’m kind of stunned that they are allowed to have that limit,” said Harrigan, pointing out 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 per minute, you’ll be losing $12 per minute on average.”

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Harrigan is shocked not only by the amount and speed at which gamblers can lose, but by the fact that these machines are here at all. After all, this is a bingo hall, not a casino.

Delta Bingo & Gaming, on St. Clair Avenue West, is a cavernous, carpeted space filled with tables for the bingo crowd, which can be played on traditional paper cards, tabletop computer touch screens, or both. It also has a separate space with rows of “Vegas-style gaming machines”, nearly 200 in all.

It is one of four places with electronic betting machines in Toronto. There is another Delta location in Downsview with almost 100 machines, along with Dolphin Gaming and Rama Gaming House in Scarborough, which both have more than 100 machines. The owners market them as a taste of Sin City (“Bringing Vegas to you!” says Delta’s website).

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These places are licensed as bingo halls, but a Star investigation found that dozens of places across Ontario have quietly become de facto casinos, some containing well over 100 betting machines that look and operate much like slot machines. Provincial law bans slot machines in bingo halls and slot machines are harmless — one expert said they may actually be riskier for problem gamblers than casino slots, as they move faster , and allow users to lose money at a faster pace.

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

The OLG says 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 have been approved by the provincial and municipal governments.

But with 2,900 gambling machines (in the typical standup cabinet style of slot machines) in locations across the province, they now look more like casinos than the bingo halls of yesteryear .

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Like casinos, they have dozens of machines designed to stretch gamblers out of their money — and the odds of losing are about the same as on slot machines.

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Like casinos, they can attract problem gamblers, who themselves report poorer health and mental health than other gamblers, and account for a vastly disproportionate amount of gambling revenue.

Like casinos, they have the potential to become a target for money laundering – but they haven’t been following federal rules aimed at tracking the proceeds of crime (just this week, the U.S. financial intelligence agency Canada, Fintrac, said they should be).

It also seems to break previous promises that 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 the bingo halls.

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These modernized bingo halls did not make money for the province. In fact, according to an audit by the provincial Ministry of Finance, they were actually a loss on Ontario’s finances, although OLG spokesperson Tony Bitonti says that a new business model implemented just before the -pandemic is expected to help the program worry.

For all these reasons, some say it’s time to end slot machines in bingo halls.

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

Sitting outside Delta Bingo this summer, he says he was struck by the size of the bets you can make, the modern graphics and sound systems, and the fast pace of the games, all a mile away. from an hours-long bingo session. church basement.

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“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 clearly not set up to have slot machines. I think they should be banned immediately.”

The bingo business was already declining since the early 2000s, and as in many legacy industries, its boosters believe that technology can be saved.

At first that seemed a strange idea for a game so tied to its physical artifacts – the cards, colored dabbers and regular lucky charms placed in front of them after they said their favorite seats. And a computer would not flirt or joke with the crowds of older women.

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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 opened during the previous decade.

And then came the indoor smoking bans, first on a city-by-city basis and then Ontario-wide in 2006, which dealt another blow to the industry.

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

“The bingo halls – disproportionately populated by the elderly, the poor, and the Indigenous (though certainly skewed women) – (were) hit hard by the smoking bans,” Kate Bedford, professor of -law at the University of Birmingham, she wrote in a 2018 paper. .

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The smoking bans, said Bedford, “created incentives for the automation of gambling, through the introduction of more slot machines in bingo environments in order to recover profits.”

Two groups led the charge on that front – a coalition of bingo hall operators and an organization of local charities, now known respectively as the Commercial Gaming Association of Ontario (CGAO) and the Association of the Ontario Charity Games (OCGA).

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

By 2005, they had a model piloted in six bingo halls in five cities (Barrie, Sudbury, Kingston, Peterborough and Windsor) and in 2010, the province approved an expansion of what was called a “modernized” version. of bingo.

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Along with improving the “general atmosphere” of the halls to attract new players, this meant the introduction of computerized bingo cards so that patrons could play along with live games virtually instead of using paper cards. cards and dabbers, as well as new bingo “play-on demand” games on handheld or tabletop devices.

But they still needed municipal approvals. Lynn Cassidy, executive director of the charity association, and Peter McMahon, CEO of the commercial operators group, led an effort to get the host cities on board.

“Peter and I (traveled) around the province trying to sell the idea of, you

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