New Illinois gambling cafes: innocuous place for coffee and chit chat, or gambling den of iniquity for women? (Image source:

When the state of Illinois approved video gambling machines, the first logical place for them to be located was in bars. That made sense: the clientele at these bars was similar to the target audience for gambling in general, in that it skewed a younger and predominantly male demographic. But now a new type of venue is on the rise in the state, and it has a whole new target audience: women.

New Target Demographic: Women

These new establishments are very different from the typical bars that previously made up the bulk of video gambling in the state. They tend to offer alcohol, but feature a relaxed atmosphere that’s more about coming and having a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. And, of course, to gamble a little bit while you’re there.

In the coming months, it’s expected that 80 or more such venues could be opening in the Chicago area. Meanwhile, existing chains like Lucy’s Place are already successful, with that particular one having 20 locations in southern and central Illinois. Lest you think these are some kind of Mom and Pop ventures, think again: these venues are generally owned by major gambling operators from Nevada, and even Zynga founder Mark Pincus is involved. That should be all anyone needs to know to realize that big money is expected from these predominantly female-oriented establishments.

According to the owners, these venues offer a comfortable and relaxed alternative to bars, which many women avoid. In addition, because these places aren’t centered around drinking – in fact, some have strict limits on how much patrons can drink – they don’t come with the worries about public safety that are sometimes associated with the bar scene.

Opponents Point to Dangers

But some gambling opponents see these cafes in a more sinister light. They believe that they can bring in women and others who rarely or never gamble and get them addicted to the machines. They also think that while they’re clearly gambling establishments, some cafes have downplayed that aspect in order to get approvals from local communities.

“These are labeled as country kitchens or upscale Starbucks, and that’s why they’re getting approved,” said Anita Bedell, executive director of Illinois Church Action on Alcohol & Addiction Problems. “They’re coming into neighborhoods, by shopping malls and schools, and it’s making gambling too accessible in communities.”

Town officials say that companies are usually up front and honest about what they’re providing: a more relaxed cafe atmosphere for gambling, in contrast to what patrons might find in a bar. But some gambling experts fear that that very atmosphere could create or attract female problem gamblers, as they might be looking for a comfortable, safe place to escape their troubles.

“They tell themselves they’re just popping down to get a scone or see a friend or get some time away from the kids, but what they’re really doing is engaging in the same kinds of activities as they would at a casino,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.

Some legislators say that while they’re not against these new venues – and that they may even serve a useful function in communities – they certainly weren’t what they imagined when they passed the video gambling law.

As for the owners, they say that their businesses are first and foremost about food, drinks and atmosphere, as well as providing a safe gaming environment. They certainly don’t believe they’re pushing people to become problem gamblers.

“It’s not Anheuser-Busch’s fault that there are alcoholics in the world any more than it’s our fault that there are people with gambling addictions,” said Matt Hortenstine, part owner of Lucy’s Place.