Politicians want to regulate bar bingo

Popular game offers huge jackpots

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) -- A popular bar game that promises big cash payouts is coming under the scrutiny of politicians who regulate gaming laws in the state capitol. 

"I'm considered a gaming guru in the Senate," said Terry Link, a Democratic State Senator from Waukegan. 

Link and his Republican counterparts on the Senate Gaming Committee want the Attorney General and the Illinois Gaming Board to investigate small businesses who host bar bingo games. 

"Somebody said we can't do anything to these bars," Link said. "Oh yes we can, we can take their liquor license away from them and put them out of business if they want to do this kind of stuff that's illegal."

"It's something that has to be looked into both by the Attorney General's office and the Gaming Board," said Senator Dave Syverson, a Rockford Republican. "If it's considered bingo, right now bingo is limited to not-for-profits in Illinois." 

One company says it found the narrow loophole to play the game legally. 

"We actually wrote the book on bar bingo," said Lou Villanueva, the Director of Operations at Free N Fun Bar Bingo, a company based out of a small strip mall in Crestwood. The upstart group is rapidly expanding to new locations in Champaign, Springfield and Rockford, with plans to take the game statewide. 

"It obviously hasn't been done before because the state wasn't totally sure what to do with us," said founder Ron Larson. 

Larson started the company after several years struggling to make ends meet as a mobile DJ and karoake host. He says his bar bingo company operates within the confines of the law because it's actually a sweepstakes game, not a traditional bingo game. 

Illinois state law prohibits bingo players from paying any amount of money to enter a bingo game to win prizes. Instead, Larson's company collects a flat rate of roughly $200 from the participating bar in exchange for organizing, promoting and hosting the bingo game. Larson's company markets the event on social media, draws people to weekly bingo games, and sets aside a portion of the revenue into a prize fund. 

With each new bar that signs up, the prize fund - and the prizes - get bigger. The company has paid out at least one jackpot of $10,000 and is now promoting a monthly giveaway of a Harley Davidson motorcyle. Bars can benefit from the increased foot traffic and all the extra food and drink sales accrued during a two-hour bingo game. 

Bingo players can also win smaller prizes, from tickets to a comedy club or a baseball game to a certificate for an appetizer or small dinner to be redeemed at a return visit to the bar. In this respect, Larson sees his company as a person-to-person marketing engine.

"Our marketing monster hasn't even started yet. We are going to develop that as we go."

His business storefront promotes a "Bar Bingo University" where he recruits "regional managers" to help his expand downstate, to Indiana, Wisconsin and Florida. 

"We don't franchise. We don't sell what we do. We involve everybody," Larson said. 

He's also hiring people to call bingo games for an hourly rate of $35. 

"It's not really a pyramid scheme because we don't charge people a dime for people to do this," he said.

"As a matter fact, we give them [resources]. 'Okay, you want to start doing this? Let me send you five laptops. Let me send you a few boxes of prizes. Let me send you some bingo cards and some dobbers.' And there's no investment on their part. And there never will be." 

Because the bingo game is run on a software program, some skeptical players have asked if the odds can be manipulated. 

"This particular program, no it cannot," Larson said. "We get this from the U.K. It's a random number generator and it is all random. If we could control the numbers that were drawn, we would have to try and control the 60 to 70 bingo cards out there. I don't care who wins." 

"If they are willing to deal with the consequences lose their liquor license, then that's their prerogative," Senator Link said. "I think that this warning should be out there very strongly that you're playing with fire and you could get burned."


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