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

Assistant attorney general Thom Roberts, the state's resident expert on gambling laws, didn't want to comment on specific activities such as weekly poker or bingo nights at sports bars and restaurants, but in general he said if nothing is risked, it probably isn't illegal gambling.

Under Utah law, gambling means risking something of value in a contest where the outcome is based on an element of chance with the understanding that someone will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome.

"There are three elements to illegal gambling. To the extent you have all three, you probably have illegal gambling. To the extent you're missing one of those, you probably don't," Roberts said.

Bingo night

"We have a bingo," the caller says at Southgate Dinner and Bingo in Salt Lake County. It's a phrase she will repeat 25 times over the course of an evening. Winners walk away with anything from $50 for a game of straight bingo to $500 for an end-of-the-night coverall game.

On this night, about 60 people — mostly 60-ish looking women — plunk down $28 for cafeteria-style baked chicken breast and rice pilaf and "free" bingo cards. Some play on computers, which automatically mark each box. Others blot out numbers on a paper with a marker. A few do both.

Owner Frank Diana says newcomers to his place typically have two questions: Isn't that gambling? Isn't that against the law?

Diana, whose business card reads, "If you thought all the fun was at the border, think again!" says the answer to both questions is no.

"We're a restaurant," he said. "What we do is sell dinner and we play free bingo."

Diana, who has 36 years in the dinner/bingo business, said it's no different from a kids' pizza parlor providing tokens with the purchase of a pizza.

"This isn't something that's bad," he said. "It's a social activity."

Authorities in Riverdale didn't see it that way a few years ago. Police moved to shut down Riverdale Dinner and Bingo, which Diana also owns.

"On the surface, we considered it a form of gambling. That's the position we took initially," said Steve Brooks, Riverdale city attorney.

Two lawsuits and months of negotiation later, the restaurant reopened under a new name, Frankie's.

Brooks said Diana made some concessions so "it wasn't just upfront gambling."

In 2008, the Riverdale City Council granted Frankie's a business license with stipulations including having to ask patrons if they want to play bingo whether they buy a meal or not. The council also required the restaurant to take bingo out of its name and restricted games to four nights a week. The restaurant also must charge the market rate for snacks.

Brooks said he has heard no complaints about Frankie's the past few years.

But whether bingo is legal remains open to interpretation.

"It cuts close," Gill said. "You have the classic bingo parlor … where somebody pays $25 for a hot dog and a drink and they get, supposedly, a free card. But really you're paying for that card in a different way."

Know when to hold 'em

The Wasatch Poker Tour puts on games every night of the week at 15 Salt Lake Valley pubs and sports bars. The tour has about 1,200 registered participants who compete for cash prizes and points without risking any of their own money. Top players may advance to a quarterly tournament that offers a $3,000 prize. Winners may also qualify for spot at the World Series of Poker, a series of annual big-money tournaments in Las Vegas.

One of those weekly games is at The Break, a sports grill in the Daybreak area of South Jordan.

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