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Gambling in Utah

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


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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, a poker socialnetworking Website—behind Nevada (661), Colorado (558) and Arizona (544), and ahead of Idaho (85) and Wyoming (34).

Many 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 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.”

Quit 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.”

Congressman 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.”

Broken 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 …”