It was my third straight night at The President.

I wasn't there for the 24-hour buffet, which occasionally was my home for breakfast after a big evening. I wasn't there to smoke, or to take a twirl out on the Mississippi River, when The President actually went out on the river. I was there to try to win back the $60 I lost playing blackjack the night before.

My $40 bet would turn into $80 because, sometimes, I was able to turn around my luck. I would lose the first two hands ($5 apiece, because that's how I rolled), feel like a good one was coming, and I'd up my bet. I would land two 10s, split them, and end up with two 17s. Then the game turned away from me to the dealer, and when you play cards, you never want to watch the dealer play a game he's not afraid to lose. Don't forget, no matter how great your luck is, the house always wins.

And it won this time. The dealer rolled over a 4, then a queen behind it, and a 2. Dealers hit on 16s when you play blackjack because the odds are win them to, usually, improve their hands. They either bust, more often than not, or they dig you just far enough in the side you want to scream back at them. When he drew his last card, and turned over that 5 — that's 21 for you math majors — my night was over. Three straight nights of losing.

I walked out disappointed, depressed, and wondering when the next time I could go back would be. Pay day was at least another week away, and even if I had a good night busing tables, I'd only walk out with about 14 or 16 $1 bills. I looked more suited for a strip club than a casino, unless I was playing penny slots, or quarter slots, or, wow, slots.

I had a problem. A community college student with a little itty bitty gambling problem, but I was able to stay away. I found something else to do with myself, and didn't bother driving to downtown Davenport, Iowa, for a few days. It didn't go much further than that. I realized, for a few days at least, I was drawn to the casino, but was able to turn it off. Not everyone can do that. And we're about to meet a lot of those people.

Illinois' move toward approving sports gambling will be a financial boon. The state is expecting billions in revenue from licensing fees for betting outlets, even stadiums that seat more than 17,000 people (Saluki Stadium holds 15,000), which will surely fall all over themselves to set up shop, and they will. The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates 1% of the population in this country meet the criteria for pathological gambling in a given year. I would guess it's 10 times that.

Maybe it's all the time I spent in Las Vegas the last three years, following the Southern Illinois University men's basketball (and women's) teams.

People will bet on the Chicago Bears. On the Cubs, and the White Sox, and the Blackhawks, and Notre Dame football, and Fighting Irish men's basketball. People will bet on the Salukis, which could increase our readership, and Illinois, and, hell, Eastern Illinois, Bradley and Western Illinois. Because they're there. But there are social costs to the millions, and probably billions, Illinois will reap from opening up a casino in Chicago, one right here in southern Illinois, which will be great, and allowing people to bet on their phones.

People will lose their homes. They'll lose their jobs, their spouses, their cars, and probably not in that order. Yes, some will make money becoming professional gamblers, because don't think for one second Las Vegas has a monopoly on people who are smart enough to make intelligent bets. Now they've got the opportunity to do it from their own homes, or their own ZIP codes.

Illinois must do the responsible thing and pour 1%, or 5%, of its revenue into prevention plans. The state must invest in programs to prevent people from taking up gambling, which is sometimes hard to walk away from. It must forget, for a second, the dollars that are so badly needed for the crumbling bridges, highways and state buildings that have been so ignored over the years, and make sure they take care of the citizens that allowed them to do it in the first place.

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Todd Hefferman covers Southern Illinois University athletics for The Southern Illinoisan.


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