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Rupert Cornwell

Rupert Cornwell: A last, desperate throw of the dice for Illinois

Out of America: All along the Mississippi, riverboat casinos are helping deficit-hit states to balance the books

If you have a thing about great rivers, and the history that goes with them, St Louis is one of the best places on earth. The Mississippi rolls right by it. A few miles north, there's the confluence with the Missouri. And don't overlook the Illinois, no mean stream itself, which glides into the Mississippi three or four river towns farther to the north.

Cross from St Louis into the state of Illinois and drive a couple of hours south, and you arrive at Cairo (pronounced Kay-Roh) where the Ohio, a mile wide at that point, merges with the Mississippi. It all adds up to the world's third-largest river drainage basin, surpassed only by the Amazon and the Congo. If you stand on a misty day in the old town of Alton – where Abraham Lincoln and William Douglas debated slavery in 1858 – and gaze upstream, the river could be a boundless inland ocean.

The grandeur and mystery of the scene almost makes you forget about the gambling – but between Iowa and the Gulf of Mexico, 60-plus casinos grace the banks of the "Father of Waters", and there must be more than a dozen where the Mississippi divides the states of Missouri and Illinois – including one in Alton itself, the Argosy. All have been installed since around 1990, when America's other 48 states, not unreasonably, asked themselves why Las Vegas in Nevada and Atlantic City in New Jersey should have the lucrative field of legal gambling all to themselves. And no states had a more appealing historical case than those of the Mississippi littoral.

In these parts, riverboat gambling is almost as old as white settlement. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, rivers were the main trade routes through the heartlands. Trade meant money, and money meant gambling. And that gambling was largely waterborne after 1835, when the state of Mississippi summarily hanged half a dozen card sharks who had made the mistake of ripping off their prey on dry land, within easy reach of the local law.

No such danger existed on the boats. You set up your game, fleeced the unwary and disembarked with the proceeds. Even in their heyday, the old riverboats were never an American version of hushed and chandeliered Mayfair gaming dens. Indisputably, however, they had a seedy, rambunctious glamour. Today's river casinos are built in their image, but offer precious little glamour. They are garish 24/7 operations, floating mini-Vegases that feature slots, poker and blackjack, not baccarat or chemin de fer. They usually don't have captains and they never move from their moorings. But they do rake in the punters and their money.

Much ink has been spilled on the evils of gambling as a social scourge. Not so long ago, indeed, gambling was regarded as a sin and outlawed across most of this God-fearing country. But no longer. For the states, casinos – on land or water – mean thousands of precious jobs at a time of 10 per cent unemployment. In an age when deficits are everywhere, casinos offer solvency without sacrifice.

Most states, unlike the federal government with its trillion-dollar deficit, are legally required to balance their budgets. The vast majority are in the red. Even relatively well-run Missouri faces a 2011 deficit of $700m (£438m). But Missouri is an exemplar of thrift compared with the Land of Lincoln, whose chronic misgovernment and corruption has become a national joke. Illinois vies with California for the title of America's most insolvent state. For 2011, the deficit is set to reach $13bn to $15bn, nearly 50 per cent of its basic budget. Illinois has more than $5bn of unpaid bills and is borrowing against future taxes. And tax revenues from gambling last year were the lowest in a decade, despite heavy state taxes on casino and racetrack betting.

So what's the solution? More gambling, of course. In the next few weeks, state legislators are expected to authorise a terrestrial casino in the Chicago area, expand racecourse betting and open another riverboat casino on top of the nine in operation. They are also under pressure to exempt casinos from Illinois's ban on smoking in public places. Gambling competition is cut-throat between the two banks of the Mississippi – and a recent study calculated that Illinois loses $550m a year in revenue to casinos in Missouri and other river states that allow smoking. The smoking ban, the report reckoned, was the main reason for lost casino revenue, more so even than the recession.

But for fans of the great rivers and their pristine majesty, it may soon get worse still. Missouri is about to award a new riverboat casino licence, and one of the leading contenders is a spot called Chain of Rocks, just north of downtown St Louis, and site of the old bridge that once carried Route 66 across the Mississippi on its way west.

The bridge still stands, but these days it's just for pedestrians. The area is forested and unspoiled, the nearest place to St Louis where you get a sense of how the great river looked before a great metropolis arose on its banks. But if the planners have their way, it'll be just another neon theme park – and another smokers-welcome competitor for the Alton Argosy.