The Perfect Loophole
It’s not likely that lawmakers and nonplaying voters will find the “skill” argument convincing. In late 2004, then-Salt Lake County District Attorney David Yocom told the Deseret News “we’re concerned [poker tournaments are] running rampant.” He told The Salt Lake Tribune that, “These Texas Hold ’Em games are gambling. … We are, uniformly, across the county, going to start to prosecute these folks.”
In February 2005, the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) warned local bars hosting tourneys or offering poker machines that their alcohol licenses were in danger, and they could face fines up to $25,000.
In April 2005, Sandy City slapped Matt Nadeau, owner of the Sandy poker room Big SLC Poker Club, with $1,100 in fines, a 90-day suspended sentence, and 12 months probation because Big SLC charged $20 to play preliminary tables. That month, the Utah Highway Patrol seized video poker machines from businesses in Mount Pleasant and Ephraim, charging their owners with class B misdemeanors. So, Yocom and the state made good on that threat—but local poker has ostensibly gone unmolested since, perhaps because the WPT and UPT have found the perfect loophole in offering free games.
Current Salt Lake County District Attorney Lohra Miller tells City Weekly she has seen no gambling cases since the Mouse Pad and Smoke Shop & Internet Place, both Internet cafes that allegedly offered video slot machines, were closed in 2009. “As long as players don’t risk something of value, they’re fine,” says Miller. “If they’re just playing cards and winning a prize, then that wouldn’t violate the law … [It’s no more alarming] than when women get together to play bridge.” Even so, she cautions that cases must be viewed individually. If law enforcement shows her a violation, “I would prosecute.”
So should the cash game or online players worry?
Salt Lake City Prosecutor Sim Gill agrees with Miller on the case-by-case count, and says if a player within his jurisdiction is caught engaging in gambling, and the case is “conspicuous, commercial or complaint driven” and the elements of gambling are met, “it’s absolutely illegal.” However, Mark Biljanic, Miller’s spokesman, says he doesn’t know that “there’s an organized focus [to find] somebody who may be gambling at home. [But] if they break the law, they’re still gonna be prosecuted if they’re caught.” Reading into this, it seems the powers that be, if they’re going to prosecute a gambling case, would prefer the fish be of a respectable size.
One potential concern could be the UPT’s “drink chips.” Players receive two per round and can trade them, along with a receipt for an alcoholic drink, for additional chips. Earl Dorius, DABC director of licensing and compliance, says the drink chips appear to violate DABC regulations that prohibit advertisements or promotions that require the purchase or sale of an alcoholic beverage in order to participate in a “promotion, program or activity,” and giving something of value “including rebates, refunds or prizes” based upon said purchase or sale. Dorius believes the drink chips constitute pay-to-play—“They’re getting more than [the drink] … They’re getting more chips to play with.” Still, Dorius defers to the Utah Attorney General’s Office on that decision. The AG’s office declined to comment for this story.
Kopp’s attorneys assured him that since there is no monetary value for the chip, it’s not a problem. Also, he says the UPT’s nondrinking players “don’t have to spend a dime and they can still play. And if they buy a dinner, I’d [honor the] chip.”
Don’t Bank on It
As for Chaffetz and online gambling, he worries that HR2267, as well as McDermott’s companion bill, will pass. “I’m raising the red flag,” he told the Deseret News in October 2009. “I feel the imperative to get this organized before it’s too late.” Health-care reform put the bill on the back burner, and Barney Frank succeeded in delaying enactment of UIGEA rules for six months. Frank tells City Weekly the House Financial Services Committee should vote on the bill in May or June, and he likes its chances— especially since the UIGEA rules go into effect on June 1.
“The Bush administration promulgated regulations under the [SAFE Port Act] that will make banks the enforcers of the anti-gambling law,” says Frank. “They’re gonna make the banks check all these payments to see whether they’re from gambling or not. And the banks are gonna say, ‘How the hell will we know that?’ You’re going to see a lot of complaints from the banks, which is gonna add to the push to repeal the bill.”
For the poker player, however, there is a ray of hope.
Even if poker entails some serendipity, it’s not as much as bingo—and despite investigations, Utah bingo halls like Southgate Social Club remain open. Bingo halls operate by selling food that just happens to come with free bingo games—that’s how Club 90 operated its poker games until they were told to stop. And don’t forget darts and pool, says Kopp. “They pay to play, and they win money.”
Then again, the WPT and UPT already have helped poker take its place alongside darts and pool in Utah’s club scene. Considering the pace they’re setting, and Utahns’ surprisingly liberal view of the game, if the tours continue to set a good example and play by the rules, the day may come when legalized poker doesn’t look so awful. And even if lawmakers like their constitutional ace enough to go all-in against poker, they may not have the best hand, after all.
Navajo Bingo No-Go
Even Utah’s Indian reservations aren’t immune to Utah’s gambling laws.