Lucy's Place a gambling cafe in Springfield just opened more storefront operations for business including one in the Capital City Shopping Center. The Lucy's Place older location on Denver Drive is already a popular destination for gamblers.

A wave of video gambling establishments catering to women is starting to sweep across Illinois — cozy, well-lit spots with names like Stella's Place, Emma's Eatery, Dotty's and Betty's Bistro.

They're a far cry from the stereotypical male-dominated corner tap. In fact, at Lucy's Place, they'll cut a patron off after four drinks.

Owned in part by a pair of Springfield lobbyists, Lucy's Place has 20 locations in southern and central Illinois. And in coming months three new chains could open more than 80 cafes, most of them in the Chicago area, according to public records.

They're backed by heavy hitters, including veteran operators of gambling cafes in Oregon and Nevada. Another influential player is social gaming visionary Mark Pincus, one of the founders of Internet gaming giant Zynga.

Representatives from several of the companies said the venues provide a comfortable place for customers to gamble and are a positive addition to communities, bringing in revenue without the public safety headaches sometimes associated with bars.

But critics say the cafes prey on women and could exacerbate the plight of problem gamblers by making gambling even more accessible.

"Because of the stigma ... many women don't go into bars," said Anita Bedell, executive director of Illinois Church Action on Alcohol & Addiction Problems, an anti-gambling group.

"But these are labeled as country kitchens or upscale Starbucks, and that's why they're getting approved," Bedell said. "They're coming into neighborhoods, by shopping malls and schools, and it's making gambling too accessible in communities."

In northwest suburban Bartlett, officials have issued liquor licenses to two cafes, and two more are seeking approval. The village already has four bars or restaurants that offer video gaming, but Jim Plonczynski, director of community development, said he was impressed with what the companies had to offer.

The companies "are very upfront about the target demographic: women who don't want to go to bars and want to go out for drinks or a sandwich and gamble," he said.

Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said that while his organization does not advocate for or against legalized gambling, the seemingly innocuous cafe setting raises concerns.

"They tell themselves they're just popping down to get a scone or see a friend or get some time away from the kids, but what they're really doing is engaging in the same kinds of activities as they would at a casino," he said. "It's just a different setting, but we know that setting can make a difference."

Further, they provide something experts say female problem gamblers seek — a safe, comfortable place to escape the stresses and worries of life.

The public needs to be aware that there may be some additional risk of problem gambling at these cafes, Whyte said. The evidence is not clear, but they may exacerbate gambling addiction among women, he said.

One of the architects of the state's video gambling rules said he did not anticipate these new gambling venues when he was crafting the legislation.

"I didn't take the position that these things were inappropriate. It was just something I didn't think about," said Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie. "I think maybe there is a place for these facilities."

Illinois Gaming Board officials have the power to intervene if the cafes improperly exploit the law, Lang said, adding that local governments can use zoning, planning and inspection rules to ensure conformity to community standards.

The Pincus factor

As part of its pitch to Bartlett officials earlier this year, Des Plaines-based Laredo Hospitality Ventures LLC provided a glossy handout showcasing three cafe concepts.

One of them, Stella's Place, is billed as "a neighborhood cafe and gathering place for adults to enjoy a light meal and gaming." Another, Maxine's, was described as "a contemporary take on the Rat Pack era," while Shelby's projects the feel of a small-town diner.