Utahns find ways to gamble despite it being illegal in the state — but the cost is high

Published: Friday, July 5 2013 8:35 p.m. MDT

Poker players play a game Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at Bout Time Pub and Grub in West Valley.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The costs of gambling can be high, former gamblers say

SALT LAKE CITY — A mild disagreement over lyrics to "The Gambler" breaks out as players peak at their cards and plink chips into the center of a green felt table in the basement of a Salt Lake County home on a Saturday night.

One player turns to Google on his smartphone to settle the question and a new line of banter begins among friends gathered for a game of low-stakes Texas Hold 'Em.

The Utah Jazz has long dispatched its latest opponent as part of a modest winning streak and now classic rock plays on the flat screen TV. Packages of pretzels, tortilla chips and mini candy bars lay torn open nearby along with partially consumed bottles of adult beverages.

Twenty dollars buys a seat at the table. Bets range from 50 cents for openers to several dollars as the dealer lays down the flop, the river and finally the turn. The mood is jovial. The game, friendly.

And, under Utah law, illegal.

Utah bans all forms of gambling. Yet, games of chance — poker players would argue theirs is a game of skill — occur with regularity up and down the Beehive State.

"There's so much poker going on in this state," said Chadler Cowles, a past Utah director of the Poker Players Alliance. "You'd be surprised at who you saw at a game — doctors, lawyers, dentists, sometimes bishops, active members of every church you could imagine."

State lawmakers have done everything in their power to make Utah an island in the sea of government-sanctioned gambling coast to coast. But that hasn't stopped Utahns from finding creative ways to throw down a little cash without having to cross the state line.

Cards, bingo, dice, raffles, sports, March Madness and World Series office pools are all available for those looking for some action.

And, of course, there is the Internet where gambling has never been easier or more accepted. Virtual casinos offer poker, blackjack, craps, slots and roulette to anyone with a computer or cellphone. People can gamble sitting at home in their pajamas or riding the train to work.

"It's a changing kind of environment because with electronics and everything, it's getting sophisticated in a different way," said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.

Les Bernal, executive director of Stop Predatory Gambling, said commercial gambling operations are targeting the Beehive State. The nonprofit group, based in Washington, D.C., opposed casinos and state lotteries.

"Utah has a bull's-eye on it, no question," he said. "It's in the longterm public interest of Utah to crack down on these illegal games. The ultimate goal here is to try to get Utah into the predatory gambling business."

Statistics on how many Utahns gamble — whether it be online or an illicit poker game — don't exist, making it hard to draw any conclusions about the prevalence of gaming in the state.

Bingo and poker clubs operated widely in Utah, offering video gaming and other wagering similar to that found in casinos, for a time in the mid 2000s. Owners claimed loopholes in the law made their operations legal, although many local prosecutors disagreed.

Some of those businesses closed or were shut down, but others have continued on without much trouble from law enforcement.

Not all games involve playing with money, but in some settings it might be difficult to distinguish which ones are for fun and which ones are for real.

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