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

On a Tuesday night during the NBA season, a Los Angeles Lakers-Dallas Mavericks game projected on several big screen TVs drew little attention from patrons sipping beer and munching burgers. The real action was at four crowded poker tables where more than 30 people — young and old — played Texas Hold 'Em for a $150 cash prize.

Though players use poker chips, they don't lay down any money. There's no buy-in to play. Patrons simply sign up with the bartender.

"We do everything we can to stay on the right side of the law," said Patrick Beecroft, owner of the Wasatch Poker Tour and a dealer at the weekly games.

For example, the tour doesn't allow players to get extra poker chips by purchasing food or drinks at the bar. "I see it as exchanging money for chips," he said.

Beecroft said law enforcement has looked in on some of his games but generally doesn't pay much attention to them.

In 2007, former state Rep. Stephen Sandstrom unsuccessfully tried to outlaw "gambling-like" activities in establishments that hold state liquor licenses, even if the games were free. That provision didn't make it into the final version of the bill, which simply included the gambling law in the state's alcohol code.

Cowles doesn't believe poker is illegal under Utah law because he considers it a game of skill.

Bernal, of Stop Predatory Gambling, said games that offer prizes or points are designed to deliberately circumvent state law.

"This isn't social gambling, even though they describe it that way. This is a big part of their business model," he said.

Gambling crime in Utah

Law enforcement spends little time breaking up home poker games or tracking down online bettors. Gambling is a class B misdemeanor in Utah.

"Generally, the police are completely disinterested," Cowles said, adding he has seen only one case where a homeowner received a citation for hosting a poker game. He said he's aware of three other instances where police went into a home but because they determined it was a nonprofit game — the house wasn't keeping a percentage of the pot — left without writing tickets.

Unified Police had only seven reports of gambling-related crimes the past five years. Four of those were unfounded, while prosecutors considered charges in only two cases.

"We really have not had much in the last few years," said Unified Police Lt. Justin Hoyal.

Statewide, only 10 cities have handled a total of 48 gambling cases since 2008, according to Utah Department of Public Safety annual crime statistics reports.

Typically, those cases involved a commercial business such as an Internet café or an organized high-stakes gambling operation with a "rake" — meaning the house keeps part of the pot — rather than poker night with the guys.

In January 2012, Salt Lake police used a confidential informant took down a regular poker game in a Draper apartment rented specifically for that purpose. The host charged $5 per hand and made as much as $350 a night, according to a police report. He told investigators he was out of work and poker and unemployment benefits provided his only income.

Verbal threats were heard during the games and concealed weapons were common, the informant told police.

Authorities arrested six men and charged them with misdemeanor gambling crimes. All of them paid fines but didn't go to jail.

State lawmakers passed a law aimed at "fringe" gambling two years ago in response to a proliferation of Internet cafes providing credits or sweepstakes tickets for online casino-style games to customers who paid for Internet time. Players could cash out their credits at the end of a session, if they had any left. In some cases, the computers didn't have Internet connections.

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