Looking Back: Riverboat Gambling Enacted in Illinois February 7, 1990

The first riverboat casino in Illinois opened in September 1991 in Alton. The original Alton Belle Casino was a three-deck, 600-passenger boat that included 296 slot machines and 22 gaming tables. Alton received the first of 10 original licenses from the Illinois Gaming Board. 

Options to gamble legally in Illinois before the establishment of riverboat casinos were limited, with bets on horse races legal since 1927 and lottery tickets able to be purchased since 1974. 

With the passage of the Riverboat Gambling Act on February 7, 1990, Illinois became the second state in the country to legalize riverboat gambling. Governor James Thompson signed the legislation into law. Gambling was approved, in part, to boost the economies in Illinois’ river towns while also rejuvenating state coffers with thousands of tax dollars and creating thousands of new jobs. Riverboat casinos were only allowed to operate on water, and gambling was not permitted until the boats left the dock. A small admission fee was also imposed. 

The Par-A-Dice in Peoria was the next riverboat to launch in Illinois in November 1991, followed by Casino Rock in Rock Island, The Empress in Joliet, and the Silver Eagle in Galena in 1992. Players in Metropolis and Northern Star in Joliet launched in 1993. The Peoria boat was moved across the river to East Peoria in 1993, and both cities continued to share in the tax revenues generated. 

The original legislation allowed that riverboat gambling licenses could be granted for any rivers in the state outside of Cook County. There was also a $500 cap on the amount a gambler could lose per day. The original five-member Illinois Gaming Board was appointed by Thompson to oversee operations and investigate license applicants. 

Riverboat gambling netted $8 million in tax revenue its first year, and it grew to $54 million the next year. The latest total adjusted gross receipts for the state’s 15 casinos, from the period of October 2022 to September 2023, totaled almost $1.5 billion. The total tax allocations during that period came in just under $400,000. The largest share, over 37 percent, came from Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. Grand Victoria in Elgin was second. 

Gambling laws in Illinois have undergone big changes over the years. In 1999, gambling was allowed to continue on riverboats while they remained docked. In 2019, new legislation allowed all riverboat casinos to move to dry land, opening up further expansion opportunities in other areas of the state, including Chicago. 

Casinos in Illinois now face stiff competition from other gambling options that have also been approved. The Video Gaming Act was enacted in 2009, and currently there are over 8,400 licensed locations in Illinois at various retail establishments, gas stations, and veterans’ establishments. Sports wagering has also exploded since the passage of the Sports Wagering Act in 2019. There are currently 13 sports books that operate in Illinois.