Numbers Game began as the 2020 project of the King’s Investigative Workshop, an advanced class for graduating students of the four-year and one-year bachelor of journalism programs.

Some of the most important findings had their origin in a simple spreadsheet, comparing VLT locations in Nova Scotia in 2010 to those in 2019. Quickly, patterns emerged. Some locations were getting a lot larger, becoming almost mini casinos, while others shrank or disappeared. The Dooly’s pool hall chain had become a VLT powerhouse. Machines seemed to be moving around from one place to another, and ownership of existing locations sometimes changed. There even seemed to be new locations that hadn’t existed before.

All of this was puzzling because it was official government policy that VLTs, long known as a particularly risky form of gambling, were to be removed from service when the businesses in which they were located shut down. We quickly dubbed what we discovered “The VLT Shuffle,” and set out to figure out what was going on.

A student team dug into the numbers, visited VLT bars and started calling owners. We found people affected by the machines and the people trying to help them. And we dug into the history and complexity of provincial gambling policy and law. The computer lab was buzzing with activity. Then COVID-19 hit, the world changed, classes were halted and students went home early.

But the story didn’t die.

Over a year and a half starting in the summer of 2020, King’s student (now graduated) Josh Hoffman dug into the patterns the workshop had discovered. We filed access requests to the gaming corporation and various government departments and updated our VLT data. A picture began to emerge of an attrition policy that wasn’t quite what it might have seemed and VLTs that could move from place to place.

All of this work led to the package you are reading now.

Because of the time that passed, we went back to everyone we had interviewed earlier to see what might have changed and update if necessary. We also redid the original analysis that had compared 2010 to 2019, instead comparing early 2012 to late 2021. This more closely aligned with the period the gaming strategy unveiled by the NDP government has been in effect and took COVID shutdowns into account. The patterns turned out to be pretty much the same.

The original project was intended to be an update, 10 years later, to the landmark 2010 King’s Investigative Workshop project, VLTS: Nova Scotia’s Billion Dollar Gamble. Circumstances have turned this into a 12-years-later update, and maybe that’s a good thing because COVID-19 dealt the VLT business a temporary blow, with businesses that hosted the machines forced to close for long periods because of COVID restrictions and revenues plunging. With life returning pretty much to normal, this is a good time to check in.

The name of the series is a bit of a double entendre. VLTs themselves are a numbers game, with the outcomes entirely determined by randomly generated numbers. And the VLT business in Nova Scotia has turned out to be about numbers too, numbers of machines removed from service, numbers of machines moved around, numbers of businesses and numbers of dollars.

Maybe most important are all the people who are still hurt by VLTs. The issue has disappeared from the public discourse, perhaps because it seemed to have been solved. But despite all the talk of online gambling, which was being discussed as the next problem even when we published the original series, VLTs have remained at or near the top of the gambling heap, and people still get hurt.

One thing we aren’t talking much about in this series is VLTs on First Nations. As the number of VLTs under the control of the province has slowly declined, First Nations VLTs have held steady or grown in number. New gambling centres have been opened. They are the same kind of machines, connected to the same Atlantic Lottery network with the same effects, but open for longer hours. But they are not included in attrition, or in the various policies that allow VLTs to be moved around. Indeed, they operate under a completely different regime and so fall outside the scope of this package.

Original 2020 Investigative Workshop VLT project team:

Alix Bruch
Amy Brierley (co-deputy editor)
Benjamin Elliott (photographer and reporter)
Dominique Amit (co-deputy editor)
Ellen Riopelle
Julie Lawrence
Kate Woods
Kristin Gardiner
Madeline Biso
Michael Trombetta
Salam Shuhait
Tobias Stock
Fred Vallance-Jones (Instructor, editor)

Additional reporting and writing 2020-2022: Josh Hoffman

Special thanks to Brian Ward, Paul Schneidereit and Pam Sword at the Chronicle Herald and SaltWire, who have been involved in this project from the beginning.

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This story is part of the 'Numbers Game: Video lottery keeps on spinning, and Nova Scotians keep on getting hurt' series.
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