Over the past year, the state has been replacing its old video lottery terminals with new state-of-the-art machines.
Since the new machines began going in, lottery revenues climbed 10 percent.
It’s an impressive turnaround — especially for an industry that has generally suffered since the Great Recession. The improved economy may be contributing to increased revenues, but lottery officials also credit the new machines. Still, some people are concerned the new machines keep gamblers playing longer, which could be more addictive.
It’s 1 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and welder Robert Schock and his friend Harmony Welch lean over an Oregon lottery game at the Silver Dollar Pizza Company in Northwest Portland.
“We put like $5 in every week or so," Schock said. "We don’t play much more than that because we don’t usually win.”
The terminals are in a dark area, sectioned off from the rest of the bar. He says the new game are fun. "Like when they first came out we started playing that ‘Pig’n Play’ and we would win a lot, like $60 off of $5," Schock said. "But now we just lose it.”
It used to be that players put in a dollar and got four plays - so 25 cents a game. But the new machines allow you to decide how much you want to bet and the amount can be as small as you want.
“Yeah, you can bet, like, one penny and play one line and sit there for hours if you want to,” Schock said. He usually places 30 cent bets.
But whether it’s 1 cent or 30 cents, the bets add up.
The Oregon Lottery now pays about $500 million into state coffers every year. It’s used for everything from education to parks and watershed enhancement.
Oregon Lottery Director Jack Roberts attributes some of the increase in lottery money to an improved economy. But he doesn’t know whether it's also coming from people playing longer, or from new customers who try out the new machines and like them.
“We don’t have any evidentiary reason to believe that these games are addictive," Roberts said. "I know there are theories floating around that the machines are somehow addictive to people. But frankly that’s never been demonstrated and we’re not seeing any signs that people are playing longer or playing more.”
He is pleased with all the new income, though. The lottery is now bringing in about $2 million dollars a day — from both new and old terminals.
The plan is to replace all 12,000 old terminals by the end of next year.
Meanwhile, some people who help problem gamblers are dismayed. Philip Yassenoff of Cascadia Behavioral Health said playing for such low stakes is a problem.
“What that does is it keeps people in those seats longer and they tend to spend more money and they don’t realize that they’re being drawn into something that can potentially be addictive,” he said.
He said the new machines are basically computers and they're very sophisticated.
“Whereas the old slot machines for example had one line across them, with maybe three pieces of fruit or three sevens, the new machines have multiple lines that people can bet on," Yassenoff said.
He also said that breaking down the bets into smaller amounts could contribute to gambling problems.
"It has the result of giving people sometimes partial wins, so they can put in a certain amount of money and instead of losing it or making money all at once, they get a percentage of their money back," Yassenoff said. "So it feels as if they’re moving forward even if they’re losing money.”
Yassenoff estimates up to 80 percent of the people who come to see him with gambling problems are hooked on these kinds of state-owned video machines.
His boss, Cascadia CEO Derald Walker, agrees. He pointed out these are not casino gamblers who have to drive hours to play. Video lotteries are everywhere.
Walker suggests a test. Look for those little red Oregon Lottery signs with a white hand on them.
“They’re pretty much everywhere," Walker said. "They’re pretty hard to avoid and very accessible.”
Oregon Lottery Director Roberts said the state is working on a study to find out how many problem gamblers exist. He points out that 1 percent of the lottery’s revenue is dedicated to treatment, so problem gamblers can get free help.