Dominic Federici was, as usual, simultaneously working two penny slot machines at PhillyPark in Bensalem.

In 45 minutes, he lost $100.

For Federici, a casino just 25 minutes from home has contributed to his regular loss of about $800 a month - a third of his pension check.

"You walk out saying, 'I'm not coming back,' " said Federici, 61, "but you know it's a falsehood."

Rudy Castillo, 63, picks up trash inside the same casino. For him, the arrival of gambling has meant a steady job at $10.50 an hour plus health benefits. And, at his urging, PhiladelphiaPark Casino & Racetrack hired 19 fellow Filipinos, including four in his family.

"They've been good to us," said Castillo, who last spring bought a four-bedroom house in Langhorne.

Two years into its gamble to open 14 casinos across the state, Pennsylvania is halfway there - and is reaping what it has sown.

As promised, slots parlors have brought stable jobs and serious revenue to the state, but the harvest has not come without a human toll.

The seven operating casinos generated more than $1.8 billion in revenue for the state between Nov. 14, 2006, when the first one, in Wilkes-Barre, opened, and Sept. 30.

Much of that has gone to tax relief for low-income seniors and to school districts, bringing down homeowners' tax bills.

Philadelphia's wage tax will drop next year, said Finance Director Rob Dubow, because of $86.6 million in slots revenue - from 4.169 percent to 3.93 percent for residents, and from 3.685 percent to 3.50 percent for nonresidents.

For those who make $50,000 a year, that's a savings of $119.50 if they live in the city and $92.50 if they just work there.

Much more is expected to pour into state coffers after seven other casinos, including two in Philadelphia, open.

"We've surpassed expectations," said Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board chairwoman Mary DiGiacomo Colins, and still have "three of the state's biggest populations to tap" - Bethlehem, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

The casinos also have created 6,500 jobs and brought additional employment, infrastructure improvements, and revenue to their communities.

And $288 million from slots (as of Thursday) has energized the state's horse-racing industry. Seven of the 14 slots licenses went to racetracks; six so far have built slots parlors.

"The tracks are attracting a higher caliber of horse and a higher caliber of horseman," said Jerry Connors of the Pennsylvania Harness Racing Commission, which oversees all harness-racing activity.

"Because the races are attractive, you could see the betting going up."

Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack now has one of the highest harness-track purses in the world - $313,172 per day.

The daily harness purse at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre has tripled, to an average of $158,000.

For many patrons, the state's slots parlors are a new, nearby source of fun, a draw even as soaring gas and food prices and a crashing stock market decimated family income and retirement accounts this year.

"I don't watch television. This is my television," said William Patzig, 57, of Ridley Township, Delaware County, as he won $184.25 at a quarter slot machine at Harrah's Chester casino last month.

Sheryl Bull, 41, of Philadelphia's Mayfair section, allots herself $100 as her monthly slots budget. "It's my play money," the housekeeper and painter said at PhillyPark.

She's now playing with $1,001 she won last summer- her "new play money."

But for all the winners, there are untold numbers of losers.

From November 2006 through Friday, slots players lost more than $2.4 billion at Pennsylvania casinos. That's an average of $249 out of the pocket of every Pennsylvania adult.

Of course, some people have gambled nothing while others have gambled sums they can ill afford to lose.

"We know damn well it's eating into our Social Security checks," said Tony Ricco, 72, a retired bus driver, who was playing slots with his wife, Mary Ann, 68, at the Meadows Racetrack & Casino near Pittsburgh. Over the last year, the couple said, they've lost at least $10,000 at the casino on slots.

"It's an addiction," said Ricco, a diabetic who needs a walker. "We shouldn't be here as often as we are."

Shirley Dennis, a certified nurse's assistant from Wilmington, said about 75 percent of her $42,000-a-year income has gone to Harrah's casino in Chester so far this year.

"You get on that chase because you want your money back," said Dennis, 58, as she played penny slots, "so you come back again.

"Money is very tight right now with this economy, and I'm throwing away my money like it's water," she said. "It is getting out of control."

Their stories represent the harm that critics say casinos bring into communities, particularly for society's most vulnerable groups.

It also enters into the debate going on in Philadelphia as the city wrangles over the pros and cons of two casinos and where to locate them.

City and state officials "don't really understand how serious the issue of gambling and gambling addiction is in many Asian communities," said Helen Gym of Asian Americans United, one of several Chinatown groups fighting a casino proposed for just blocks away. "This is something that people deeply believe will destroy a community."

There's also community opposition to a slots parlor proposed for the Valley Forge Convention Center. A decision is expected by January.

Neither the casinos nor the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, which regulates the state's gambling industry, will reveal the number of slots players or their income levels or demographics.

But the state-funded gambling help line shows that problems are on the rise.

Jim Pappas, executive director of the Pennsylvania Council on Compulsive Gambling, said calls had jumped 39 percent - from 900 calls per month in 2007 to 1,250 a month this year.

The "most problematic" calls - the type causing the most havoc for the caller - involve slots gambling. In August, 45 percent of the 132 intake calls where callers answered a survey were about slots. That compares with 2 percent for the lottery.

Many slots players appear to be white women in their 40s and 50s, a profile also typical of Atlantic City slots players.

On a recent Saturday night, Temple University psychologist Frank Farley, who studies risk-taking, did a casual gender count of slots players in several sections at PhillyPark. "My count was 2-1 women over men. . . . I noticed quite a few disabled people, several with canes, walkers and wheelchairs," he said. "There were not many young people."

How many gamblers are really hooked?

New Jersey's Council on Compulsive Gambling estimates that 20 percent of those who frequent Atlantic City's casinos - one gambler in every five - are problem gamblers, meaning that their lives, their families or their jobs have been affected.

About one gambler in every 20 is a "pathological gambler" with psychiatric diagnoses such as impulse-control problems or anxiety disorders.

A losing streak

The day after Federici lost $100 at PhillyPark, depleting his gaming money for the month, he was back again, working his two slot machines.

The morning mail had brought a windfall: a $75 consumer rebate check.

"Having a gambling addiction is just as bad as being on drugs or any other addiction," said Federici, who tried Gamblers Anonymous two years ago. "I definitely want to stop . . . but I can't."

Federici for three decades gambled on the ponies at the former Garden State Race Track in Cherry Hill, then became a regular slots player at Harrah's Resort Casino in Atlantic City. By 2007, he had switched to PhillyPark, nearer his home in Maple Shade, Burlington County.

With credit-card debt of $100,000, mostly from slots gambling, the longtime disability-claims investigator declared bankruptcy last spring. In July, he retired from his $58,000-a-year job.

Now, each month the bachelor puts aside two-thirds of his $2,500 pension check: $870 for rent; $600 for utilities, food and gas; and $150 to pay off his bankruptcy.

He gambles the rest.

Within an hour, he'd lost $60. He left PhillyPark with only enough money to buy gas to get home.

The state wins

Along with reviving the state's horse-racing industry, a major aim of the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act was statewide property-tax relief.

So far, that goal is being met.

Last year, using its 55 percent share of total slots revenues, the state expanded a homeowner and renter rebate program for low-income seniors.

The program raised the maximum rebate for eligible senior homeowners and renters from $500 to $650, which about 600,000 seniors are expected to get this year. In the five-county Philadelphia area, more than 25,000 seniors had their school property taxes eliminated, the state says.

Slots money also gave the state a new mechanism to lower homeowner property taxes.

In April, the state Department of Education was allotted $613 million in gambling revenue to distribute to 501 school districts statewide. The higher the property-tax burden, the more relief a school district - and its residents - got.

This year, when 3.1 million Pennsylvania homeowners opened their property-tax bills, they saw a slots deduction passed on by their school districts.

The average was $190 per homeowner. The amount ranged from $54 for homeowners in the Dallas School District in Luzerne County to $623 for those in the Chester Upland School District in Delaware County.

Philadelphia decided to use its share for a wage-tax reduction instead.

"As long as the money goes to where it's supposed to - to help senior programs and for property-tax relief - then [gaming's] good for the state," said Troy Yoder, 42, a factory worker from Leola, Lancaster County, who said his property-tax bill went down about $114 this fall.

But what benefits Pennsylvania is hurting New Jersey. Atlantic City slots revenues dropped more than 6 percent for the first eight months of the year, largely because people like Yoder are gambling closer to home.

He visited Hollywood Casino, near Harrisburg, for the first time this month.

"I pay my taxes to Pennsylvania, so I might as well put my gambling money" here, he said.

Pennsylvania gaming officials estimate that when all 14 casinos are open, general property-tax relief will grow to an annual average of $300 per homeowner, and property taxes will be reduced by $1.1 billion statewide.

"The reaction overall has been tremendously positive for one simple reason: We are providing true property-tax relief," said Michael Race, spokesman for the state Department of Education. "Before, tax reform always revolved around tax shifting, but this isn't tax shifting. It is a new source of revenue that never existed before."

That new slots money is going to communities, too, in the form of "local share."

Bensalem Township, for one, has received $15.6 million since December 2006, when PhillyPark opened. About $4 million has gone this year to township homeowner grants. Much of the rest covers new policing around the casino, including 19 officers, and expanded police facilities.

"It hasn't been all the negatives that we thought and heard about," said Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo.

Crime has been mostly petty stuff in the casino parking lot - car break-ins, purse snatchings and the like, said Fred Harran, Bensalem's director of public safety.

But Harran noted that PhillyPark is not near homes. The other six casinos are also in relatively remote locations - the Chester one is three miles from Philadelphia International Airport, on former shipyards.

Harran said traffic, parking and crime could be more difficult in a congested, urban setting.

"It will be different in Philadelphia," Harran said.

Meanwhile, jobs for locals keep growing. PhillyPark has hired 500, and next fall it will open a bigger facility with 30 percent more slots and 150 more workers.

"A lot of the jobs are not real high-paying jobs, but they're sustainable, and they've put a lot of people to work and we anticipate more," DiGirolamo said.

Among them are Castillo and 19 other Filipinos.

Two years ago, Castillo was working at a Langhorne Burger King for $2 an hour less and no health insurance.

"It's a stepping-stone," said Castillo, last spring's Employee of the Quarter, who cleans the casino and its grounds.

"I tell management, 'If you need more hardworking people, I can give you more,' " Castillo said with a laugh. "We like the jobs."

The $450 million Chester casino and racetrack had promised 800 to 900 jobs. It now employs 1,100, a fourth of them from Chester.

Jerome Stanton, 51, was hired in September 2006 as a security officer for $9 an hour while the casino was being built. He is now a security supervisor at $42 an hour, overseeing 22 officers.

"So many people in Chester are working here," said Stanton. "It's a second chance for a lot of people."

The cycle continues

For six days, Dominic Federici hunkered down in his tiny one-bedroom apartment, too broke even to drive.

But on Oct. 1, like clockwork, his pension check landed in his bank account.

By 10:30 a.m., he had withdrawn $100 and was back working his favorite penny slots game, Hot Hot Super Jackpot, at PhillyPark. Actually, two of them.

Also burning a hole in his pocket was a $10 promotional slots coupon from PhillyPark.

"I have to use it today," he said. "It's no good tomorrow."

Federici spent 51/2 hours at the two machines, without a meal break.

He went home with $130 in his pocket, this time a winner.


Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley
at 215-854-2594 or