Coming soon to a state near you – Crack-Keno. Gamblers may be only remaining support for state budgets.

‘Crack-Keno’ has revitalized the Michigan Lottery. Is Ohio next?

M.T. Loonies, a bar just north of Toledo, draws most of its business from customers who play the Keno numbers that flash on screens overhead.
LaSalle Township, Mich. — If she had her way, waitress Heather Doom would lower the boom on Michigan’s wildly popular Club Keno gambling game.  “I can’t stand it,” Doom complained over lunch at a tavern called Trapperz in this southeastern-Michigan hamlet. “We were better off without it.” The fast-paced, saloon-based numbers game, which Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland proposes bringing to the Buckeye State, is a scourge that should’ve never been allowed into Michigan, Doom said. She calls it “crack-Keno,” and blames it for creating addicts and ruining lives. Doom suffers personally, working hard at another nearby bar to accommodate game-playing patrons who then gamble away money that would’ve been her tip income, she said. And she sees no benefit, as the region’s fiscally devastated schools — the lottery’s nominal beneficiaries — keep closing.

But a follow-up question helps to illustrate why Club Keno is the biggest thing to hit the Michigan Lottery since its inception: Does Doom play the game she despises?

“Oh, yeah,” Doom admitted without a hint of sheepishness.

She and friend and fellow waitress Michelle Mehan pool bets of about $40 a week, they said.

“It sucks you in,” Mehan said.

That’s exactly what Strickland is betting a load of political capital on, and what gambling foes warn against: Keno could create a new craze in Ohio.

Strickland, who proposed Club Keno on Jan. 31, predicts the game could pump $73 million into Ohio’s tax coffers each year and help stave off a looming budget deficit of $1.9 billion.

Indeed, Club Keno almost single-handedly invigorated a moribund Michigan lottery. Since the game’s inception in October 2003, Keno sales have soared to almost $500 million a year, accounting for almost 70 percent of the growth in Michigan’s lottery revenue, the state reports. Today, the game accounts for more than $1 of every $5 in lottery-ticket sales — and it seems to do it without cannibalizing other games’ sales, state figures show.

Stop in just about any tavern displaying the illuminated Club Keno trademark and you’re likely to find gaming enthusiasts at almost any time of the day or night. About 25 miles north of Toledo, attorney Terri Hall plays just about every weekday at McGeady’s Town Pub, a brightly lit, spotlessly clean bar and eatery on the square in Monroe, Mich.

“It kills time at the lunch hour,” said Hall, a Monroe resident. “I used to play sporadically, but now I’m a regular.”

Seated next to her, power-plant consultant Dan Craine of Monroe dragged from his cigarette and tallied up in his head an estimate of his annual Club Keno outlay: about $5,000. He wins back most or all of what he spends, Craine guessed. But it isn’t strictly about making money.

“It’s just a kind of entertainment,” he said.

Establishments that offer the game pay about $400 to set it up. In return, they get to keep 6 percent of ticket sales, and a state-paid commission on winnings of 2 cents on every dollar. That alone isn’t enough to make McGeady’s owner Lisa Wszelaki rich, she said, but the games definitely help her bottom line.

“What I find is that people stay longer and spend more because they have something to do,” Wszelaki said.

The vibe varies.

At McGeady’s, patrons socialize, eat and laugh together, and occasionally check the winning numbers that show up on TV monitors from the every-four-minutes drawings. The monitors often attract no more attention than the nearby TVs tuned to news or sports channels, and a clueless visitor may not even realize a gambling operation is constantly underway.

By contrast, M.T. Loonies exists almost entirely for Keno.

The smoky storefront bar sits a mile north of the Toledo line — ironically, in the Michigan town of Temperance. Inside, the bar and tables fill with Keno players who barely acknowledge one another as they hunch over their tickets, beers and cigarettes.

Overhead, most of the plasma-TV monitors silently display the new set of 20 winning numbers every few minutes, and show nothing else between the drawings. An automated-teller machine stands alongside a lottery-terminal counter, where a clerk does nothing but sell Keno tickets, constantly.

This is a players’ parlor that churned $1.8 million in sales in 2007 — enough to earn M.T. Loonies recognition as the No. 1 Keno parlor in Michigan.

At least 95 percent of the patrons play Keno — “if not all of them,” general manager Tiffany Clark reckoned. The state instituted the game six months after M.T. Loonies opened, and the gambling transformed the tavern from a nondescript startup to a place that often has lines out the door.

“People come here to play Keno — we’re a Keno bar,” said co-owner Michelle Bork. “If we didn’t have Keno, we may not still be here.

“Keno comes first — the drinks come second,” Bork added. “That’s what we tell people when we hire them — Keno is our bread and butter.”

It’s a lot of butter and a whole lot of bread: The bar’s commissions topped $135,000 last year on $35,000 a week in sales of Keno and instant-win pull-tab tickets.

Bork sees no downside to the games. But Mehan and Doom, the waitresses 20 minutes away, warn of gaming’s dark side.

Both like to hang out at Trapperz, a roadside joint where Monday’s lunch special was fried turtle and Friday night featured a band called 2 Dudes and a Chick. Mehan works there on Friday nights, and both tend bar and wait tables in other local watering holes.

They’ve seen Keno destroy friends and customers. One acquaintance earns $100 to $300 a night waiting tables at a nearby fine-dining restaurant. She blows it all on Keno.

“She’ll come in with $100 and by the end of the night, she’s out in her car scrounging up change,” Mehan said.

Terri Hall, the gravelly-voiced Monroe divorce lawyer, doesn’t sugarcoat the game she plays daily, either. Gambling is a “an issue in a number of the marriages” she has helped dissolve, Hall said. Her advice to Ohio?

“I’m sure you’d make money on it,” Hall said. “The question is, do you want more problems with gambling? There’s no doubt people get addicted.”

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