It's five o'clock on a drab Friday afternoon in Blooming-ton, Ind., when John, an Indiana University senior, casually suggests to his friends A.J. and Bill, two juniors, that they take a road trip. The destination: the Par-A-Dice Riverboat Casino in East Peoria, Ill., where two weeks earlier John and a fraternity brother. Adam, had gambled for seven hours and walked away with winnings of $350 apiece. Buoyed by the images of his friends' windfall, A.J., who characterizes himself as a perpetual loser when it comes to money, agrees to the idea. For lack of a better alternative, Bill, who usually doesn't gamble, decides to go along.
The three of them scramble for betting money before they can change their minds. A.J. grabs $J 10 he had stashed in his desk drawer. Pleading poverty, John hits up A.J. for a $200 loan, money that A.J. had set aside to pay his $600 rent. Bill pulls a crumpled $10 bill from his pocket and then calls his mom, who gives him permission to withdraw $30 from a cash machine for wagering purposes.
Energized by their spontaneity, the three guys bound into A.J.'s 4x4 and stop off to pick up Adam, who has scrounged up $200. Harboring delusions of impending wealth, they race through the darkness toward Peoria.
Adam, A.J. and John had been gambling hundreds of dollars weekly on sporting events, but in recent months they have switched to casino betting. "Sports betting became too dangerous," says Adam, 22, a senior who wants to go to law school. "I could just pick up the phone and bet. I didn't need the money up front, and I never thought I'd lose. But at casinos I go in with the cash and will only lose a certain amount."
Moored on the east bank of the Illinois River, which is frozen on this February night, the riverboat (above) operates gambling "cruises" every three hours from 9 a.m. to midnight daily. The four Indiana students are racing to get to the casino before the doors close at 9 p.m. because no one is permitted on or off the boat again until boarding for the next cruise begins at 11:30. These restrictions keep the boat from being classified as a land-based casino, which is illegal in Illinois. But the guys miss the boat, arriving at the Par-A-Dice casino's glass doors at 9:05.
According to Rick Mazer, the casino's vice president of marketing, Par-A-Dice attracts 2.1 million customers a year and takes in $95 million in gross gaming revenue. He estimates that customers between 21 and 25 years of age account for about 4.5% of that revenue. Clad in baseball caps and an assortment of flannel shirts and sweaters, the Indiana kids are easily the youngest bettors in this evening's crowd, which appears to be mostly 35 and older. In fact, at 20, A.J. and Bill are under the legal age (21) for gambling in Illinois, but they easily pass through the riverboat's neon-framed entrance when it opens again at 11:30. Just outside those doors is an advertisement for Proctor Hospital in Peoria—which contains the only comprehensive gambling treatment center in Illinois.
Adam and John change $100 into chips and stand at opposite ends of a craps table, shouting out bets. A.J. also gets $100 in chips and heads for a $5 blackjack table. When Bill tries to withdraw $30 from a cash machine, he finds it spits out money only in $50 denominations, so he reluctantly accepts one crisp $50 bill and then buys $20 in slot tokens.
Within 20 minutes Adam is up $30 and John is down $50 at craps, A.J. is even at blackjack, and Bill has changed another $10 into slot tokens. John picks up his remaining $50 in chips, moves to a blackjack table and quickly wins $125. Feeling lucky, he puts $75 on one hand, is dealt 13. takes a hit and busts. Inexplicably, he places the rest of his chips, $100, on a single hand and loses again. He changes the rest of the $200 he borrowed from A.J. and heads back to the craps table.
"Betting seems like such an easy way to make money." says John, 22, a pre-med major who works part-time in telemarketing. "It takes hours to work for what I can make in minutes." Sure enough, he is soon pumping his fists jubilantly, up $375 after his third consecutive winning roll. Already broke, A.J. slinks over and. seeing John on a hot streak, dejectedly remarks, "Some people are lucky, others are more like me."
But John's luck makes another sudden about-face, and he winces as his fortune dwindles to $100. Accepting defeat, he blows the rest at a blackjack table. By then Bill is scraping together 50 cents in nickels and dimes for two last slot tokens. Adam is still in the same spot at the end of the craps table, bent over it as if his stomach aches. At 2 a.m. he cashes in the $20 in chips he has left. The others arc penniless.