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Gambling in Utah Page all

Utah Hold ‘Em: Games of chance are illegal in Utah, but some players like their odds.

By Randy Harward
Posted // April 14,2010 - I wasn’t thrilled to be out in an April evening snowstorm, tired, edgy and rushed—the only dinner I’d eaten was the smell of my wife’s lasagna—but I got a buzz when I saw downtown Lumpy’s basement poker tables. By the time I arrived at the green felt-covered oval, with its chip stacks and fanned plastic cards, I was full-on Bob Marley jammin’.

With a hefty mug of hefeweizen, I bellied up three seats from Utah Poker Tour dealer Kevin Haraguchi. To my left, 20-somethings Chad and Jason talked mixed-martial arts, while at my right, another 20-ish guy, Jake, devoured pizza. Inevitably, talk turned to poker; we all itched to battle for each other’s chips. Once the remaining seats filled with older Jack, middle-age Carol, and three guys called Josh, Matt and Jimmy, “Guch” helicoptered cards toward us.

A discreet peek at my first two cards showed … garbage. I folded and gulped my beer. It occurred to me to call it a night and run home to reheated lasagna. But then, hand No. 2 brought me two kings—a 110-to-1 draw. Bob Marley’s mellow tones reverberated in my head, and I dreamed of winning it all. Only 20 players had braved the snow; maybe I could plow through to victory.

Bartender? Some chicken nachos, please. I’m stickin’ around.

Across town, at a strip joint on a different Wednesday night, one expects to see the B-squad, the butterface girls whom the sparse workaday crowds won’t bitch about. But tonight, the talent looks strictly A-list. “We’ll get about 50 players,” says Matt Zeller as he prepares for the evening’s festivities.

Not “playas”—this game uses chips instead of bills.

It’s poker night at Trails, and that’s no bawdy joke. Zeller’s Wasatch Poker Tour (WPT, not to be confused with the World Poker Tour) plays “the Cadillac of poker,” no-limit Texas Hold ’Em. It’s not how you’d expect to be drained in a gentlemen’s club—but then, prostitution is illegal.

So is poker. Anything fun is a no-no in our lemonfresh locale, but vice—if poker is one—exists where humans dwell. “On any given night [in Salt Lake City], there’s a poker game,” says restaurant manager Rusty Monson. It’s true: City Weekly played again on Thursday at Batters Up with the Utah Poker Tour, on Monday in Habits’ WPT game and the next Wednesday with the UPT at Lumpy’s Highland. These are just four of 25 WPT/UPT games, Sunday-Saturday, at 13 clubs from Bountiful to Midvale.

Where to play poker in Utah

That’s a lot of poker in Utah, where bureaucrats and religious leaders connect the game to crooks, degenerates and deadbeats—and that’s just the public action.

Utahns play online, too. It’s hard to quantify—poker sites won’t just give out the information—but Utah, with 105 registered players, ranks fourth among surrounding states on PocketFives.com, a poker socialnetworking Website—behind Nevada (661), Colorado (558) and Arizona (544), and ahead of Idaho (85) and Wyoming (34).

InsideORcover.jpgMany Utahns travel to Nevada—Wendover, Mesquite, Las Vegas—to play; Zeller (pictured at left) pays his rent with twicemonthly trips to Sin City. But, really, any night is poker night, somewhere.

Monson, before moving to St. George, was privy to stealthy high-stakes games where “they rent apartments and put tables in every room, and they take a rake (house cut).” City Weekly discovered a $1,000-perplayer game between physicians, attorneys and contractors. Google found valleywide low-stakes ($30-60) home games advertised at MeetUp.com Alas, the Utah Constitution decrees that lunchstakes games are as prosecutable as mortgage-stakes matches: “The Legislature shall not authorize any game of chance, lottery or gift enterprise under any pretense or for any purpose.” Therefore, the first rule of Poker Club is: Don’t talk about Poker Club.

When asked for access to the game, the doctorlawyer crowd told City Weekly “no way,” and MeetUp sent an odd e-mail announcing we’d received the boot for “inactivity.” When we tried to reactivate, promising to treat players as anonymous sources in the story, we received only a terse reply: “Sorry, but a lot of players in the group are not comfortable playing with a reporter … as part of the group.”

PlayingCards.jpgQuit Now While You Can
In a climate where gambling is a risky business on many levels, slammed doors are understandable. Poker isn’t just about fast cash and thrills; it’s a social game where players of any class, gender or orientation engage in stimulating conversation and mental combat. It’s their release, an escape from their day-to-day doldrums.

Furthermore, “Poker Is Good for You.” In an essay so titled, renowned poker author David Sklansky and psychologist Alan Schoonmaker detail how poker improves one’s study habits, math skills, logical thinking, concentration, patience, discipline, social interaction, decision making and prioritization, among other things.

Most of all, “poker is really fun,” says Jack S., who, along with his wife, Alice, is a longtime poker player and former Vegas dealer. Jack is unable to deal cards until he can afford bilateral cataract surgery, so the joy of playing local tourneys is all that remains.

Alas, the Utah Const itution portends that lunch-stakes games are as prosecutable as mortgagestakes matches. Therefore, the first rule of Poker Club is: Don’t talk about Poker Club.

The mere threat of fines, jail time, probation—or, in Jack’s case, losing his Nevada gaming license for gambling in a state where it’s verboten—justifies Masonic secrecy.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has always taken a puritanical view of gambling, disagrees. In the November 1972 Ensign, Dallin H. Oaks called gambling an “evil practice” that is not only morally wrong, but also “weakens the ethics of work, industry, thrift, and service—the foundation of national prosperity—by holding out the seductive lure of something for nothing.” In April 2005, the late Church President Gordon B. Hinckley told the General Conference flock that gaming rots one’s sweet spirit:

“The pursuit of a game of chance may seem like harmless fun. But there attaches to it an intensity that actually shows on the faces of those who are playing … [Gambling] can lead to an actual addiction … If you have never been involved in poker games or other forms of gambling, don’t start. If you are … quit now, while you can do so.”

PiperDown_Yay.jpgCongressman and Mormon convert Jason Chaffetz parrots Hinckley, telling City Weekly, “there are such negative social consequences to those who become addicted that it’s just best to avoid it at the very beginning.” To buttress his ditto, Chaffetz quotes casino magnate Steve Wynn. “[He said] he’s never seen a successful gambler. That really stuck with me.” [Note: Wynn’s actual quote was, “I’ve never met a gambler that would win a bet and retire from gambling.”] Chaffetz is battling House Resolution 2267, a bill introduced by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass, to repeal the antiterrorism SAFE Port Act of 2006, which contains the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.

The UIGEA prohibits transferring funds between U.S. financial institutions and online gambling sites. If passed, HR2267 would effectively legalize and regulate Internet gambling. A companion bill, House Resolution 2268, sponsored by Rep. John McDermott, D-Wash., would tax winnings.

In the meantime, the Justice Department continues to regard online gambling as illegal and, according to a recent Washington Post article, has prosecuted a handful of cases using a law from the ’60s directed at bookies’ use of telephone lines. The UIGEA, while not yet in effect, is designed to clear up ambiguity in the law and, according to Frank, has prompted arrests and account seizures. “It’s crazy,” he says. Many poker sites have banned U.S. players altogether.

Chaffetz feels Utah’s gambling prohibition is consistent with the state’s values and, as one of only two states without at least a lotto, “it makes us different, and it’s OK to be different. If you’re compelled to gamble, go to Nevada.”

Hyrum Strong, last quarter’s WPT champion, concurs. The lifelong poker player (and, incidentally, an excommunicated, though not embittered, Mormon) learned from his grandparents in candy games. “A lottery is OK, but I wouldn’t want to see Vegas-style gambling in Utah, ever.” Vegas, he says, “looks all glittery and beautiful” but it’s a pooch under the makeup; off the Strip, it’s ugly and dangerous. “Let’s be real—gambling’s a big reason for that.” So, Strong doesn’t mind a drive if it keeps Utah a nice, clean place to raise his children. “If I want a cash game, Wendover is 90 minutes away.”

PlayingCards.jpgBroken Record
Zeller says heading to Nevada is just good sense. “I would love it [if poker were legal here], but I’d rather drive six hours to play legally than 15 minutes to play an illegal game.” Plus, if he wins 10 grand at the Bellagio, “I won’t get jumped in the parking lot.”

Gambling is so stigmatized in Utah that even a lapsed Mormon and frequent Wendover visitor refused to give an interview, lest his still-active LDS family discover poker is his trade.

It also keeps otherwise well-meaning, nonplaying Mormon voters from supporting sure-bet, gamblingrelated revenue streams despite potential benefits to social programs and deficit reduction. This, even as the other no-bettin’ state, Hawaii, ponders whether legal gaming can solve its billion-dollar budget shortfall.

The revenue solution “doesn’t hold much water” with Chaffetz. “Some things are right, some things are wrong, and what I wanna fight for is our state’s ability to preclude it.” But a fight might not be required if he reads the fine print of the bill: “[HR2267] permits states and Indian tribal authorities to opt-out of Internet gambling activities within their respective jurisdictions.”

One must conclude that Chaffetz’s position is wholly moral, which is puzzling given Utah’s red-ink. In 2009, Utah used its slice of President Obama’s federal stimulus pie to balance the 2009 and 2010 budgets when estimates showed a $171 million plunge in tax revenues in ’09 and projected $320 million as a shortfall for ’10. This figure eventually ballooned to $700 million. In response, state Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, proposed eliminating (or making optional) the 12th grade and the Legislature cranked up the tobacco tax by $1 per pack.

So, the state would cut education—and profit from a far more dangerous addiction and health risk—before it would accept a lottery? Chaffetz says “it’s just not worth it” and plays the broken record. “I think the State of Utah is consistently and overwhelmingly in opposition …”

PlayingCards.jpgThe Moneymaker Factor
Poker’s popularity boom may someday overcome that—even in the Beehive State.

Long part of American culture, poker began its ascent in 1970, when Texas moonshiner-cum-Vegas gambler, casino owner and mobster Benny Binion hosted the first World Series of Poker at Binion’s Horseshoe.

The inaugural tournament produced poker’s first stars, including “Godfather of Poker” Doyle Brunson. In the late ’90s, online poker infinitely increased the game’s accessibility. Soon after, “hole-cam” technology turned poker into a spectator sport, allowing television audiences a peek at players’ cards. TV poker made players like Brunson, Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey into virtual pro athletes. Then there’s the Moneymaker factor.

Poker’s universality and level playing field—compared with pro sports—means that anyone—regardless of age, gender or physical condition—can become a poker champion. In 2003, then-doughy amateur Chris Moneymaker exemplified this by winning the WSOP on ESPN after qualifying in an online satellite tourney. Consequently, every wannabe with the $10,000 buy-in elected to try his hand. To quantify the boom, compare Moneymaker’s prize—$2.5 million—to 2009 WSOP champ Joe Cada’s: $8.5 million.

On average, here in Utah, the WPT and UPT events attract 40 to 50 competitors, sometimes as many as 70 to 80. Zeller plans to add an additional 12 games to the WPT schedule soon, while Kopp opts for the slow build, keeping numerous suitor clubs at bay until he has sufficient staff. The men attribute the demand to the games’ ability to draw a dedicated, drinking crowd. The bars—who pay the poker leagues like they would bands or DJs—reap the rewards. The 40-odd poker players the WPT brought into Trails on Wednesday constituted roughly 80 percent of the club’s occupants, and they enjoyed the club’s services—food, drink, and “other.”

“We bring people in [on dead nights] and keep them there for five hours,” says Kopp. He claims the UPT increased drink sales 600 percent at Batters Up on Thursdays. It also pumped up Piper Down’s slow Sundays—owner Dave Morris reported record drink sales on March 28. In a down economy, and a famously sleepy Utah club industry, that’s good.

PlayingCards.jpgNothing for Nothing
If the crowds at
Trails, Habits and Batters Up are any indication of what Utahns want, the law may be unable to keep up with the scene. More telling is a 2005 Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll by Dan Jones and Associates that found Utahns’ attitude toward gambling shifting.

Lumpy_s_whatshegoingtodo.jpgFour percent think gambling is “harmless entertainment.” Thirty-eight percent think it’s “acceptable” entertainment that “could present danger if not monitored closely.” Eleven percent consider it “acceptable for others.” Meanwhile, 43 percent regard gambling as “unacceptable,” potentially harmful.

Of course, playing a game of chance is still illegal, a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. So, how does so much poker go on in Utah without rankling authorities?

Piper Down owner Morris spent two years chasing a legal opinion. Bottom line, the state statute requires three elements must be present to prosecute: 1. people must risk something of value; 2. to play in a game of chance; 3. to receive something of value. So, Morris figured “keeping it free” made it kosher—no risk, no gamble, right? He, Kopp and Zeller separately consulted attorneys and all of them said it’s a gray area, but if nobody pays to play, the games are on the up-andup. “That’s why I try to stress ‘free’ in our advertising,” says Kopp, who launched the UPT two months ago.

This enables the poker tours to not only operate but also to offer nightly prizes ranging from swag to gift cards to cash, and monthly/ quarterly prizes like championship bracelets and seats in bigger tournaments. And although players go in for the competition and camaraderie, the prizes are nice—and cash still seems to be a primary motivation. WPT champion Strong even opted to cash out his prize, a $1,000 seat at the World Series of Poker: “Mama raised me that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

Since players receive these somethings for nothing (not counting optional dealer tips), poker still fits the LDS Church’s definition of a game of chance. Kopp begs to differ. “[Nobody pays] to play or is forced to risk anything … [and] this really isn’t a game of chance.”

PlayingCards.jpgBluffing Is a Skill
That’s the rub: Is poker a game of chance, as popularly perceived and defined by gambling laws? Or does skill determine the outcome?

In Texas Hold ’Em, players are dealt two cards, face down, and try to make the best five-card hand from these plus five community cards, revealed on the “flop” (first three cards), “turn” (fourth) and “river” (fifth). Players bet at each stage and can choose to go “all-in,” risking everything.

At Trails I, my strategy was to bet aggressively and steal pots. I finished 11th in a field of 40, so the tactic worked reasonably well. That’s skill. However, at Lumpy’s, I pulled pocket kings (a 110-to-1 occurrence) twice in the first six hands, and got them a third time before the game was over. That’s luck, but so is losing big each time and still finishing ninth.

Then there’s Strong’s winning WPT hand. He held a weak 2-4 of hearts against opponent Terry Huffman. The flop helped neither player, although Strong picked up a heart. His best outcome was to hit “runner-runner”— consecutive hearts on the turn and river—to make an unlikely “backdoor” flush. The skill in bluffing is to stoically stick to the lie, convince your opponent you’re stronger than him. Strong went all-in.

It backfired; Huffman called instantly, showing ace-9 offsuit. With high-card ace, he was a 3-to-1 favorite. “Well, I’m caught,” Strong said before making a birthday wish and dedicating the hand to Zeller, who likes to bluff with 2-4. “It was totally out of my hands … all about luck.”

The hearts hit; Strong won. The consensus among poker players is that the game involves luck, but mostly skill. That’s why Monson and his buddies spent years poring over poker books and videos on Tuesday nights, delving into mathematical probability, psychology and game theory. “It’s no different than the darts and pool leagues found around town,” says Jack S., in that billiards and darts players use geometry and physics to gain a competitive edge. Kopp and Zeller agree. “I’d be willing to bet that if I played 10 of my games that I’d make the final table five of those times,” says Kopp.

“Any given night someone can be lucky or unlucky,” says Zeller, “but over time, the ability to consistently win shows skill.”

PlayingCards.jpgThe 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.”

Habits_ForgroundChips.jpgSo 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.

Where to play poker in Utah
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