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Know the West

The nuts and bolts of Western gambling


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Gambling: A tribe hits the jackpot."

Americans spend more money on games of chance than movies, concerts and theaters combined. In 1994, Americans lost $40 billion of the $482 billion they wagered. Since state-sponsored lotteries and video gambling started the current gambling craze in the 1980s, it has spread nearly everywhere.

Here's a sample of what gamblers find in the West: Wyoming gamblers must hold out until summer. The state's only legal gambling occurs at the horse races between Memorial Day and Labor Day. In Nevada, on the other hand, gambling has been a virtual free-for-all since 1931, except in Boulder City where gambling was outlawed in the mid-1930s. As legend goes, town patriarchs worried immigrant dam workers there would squander their paychecks at the poker table.

In Montana, gamblers take their chances on video poker and keno machines that sit in almost every bar. South Dakota, another Western state addicted to video lotteries, takes a 50 percent cut from the net revenue of 8,000 privately operated machines. Tax-averse Colorado has 12,239 private gaming devices in three historic towns, but takes in less than Deadwood, S.D., which only has 2,310 devices. Washington state government doesn't tax gambling at all.

In kinder, gentler North Dakota, non-Indian gambling is run by nonprofits such as volunteer fire departments and public radio stations.

New Mexico has been a late and argumentative arrival to the Indian casino craze. The state supreme court voided all tribal compacts signed by the governor in 1995; a federal district court will decide the legality of those compacts this summer. California has a similar situation with 30 tribes illegally operating casinos with slot machines. As for Utah, it doesn't have gambling, and the best bet is that it never will.

Gambling Glossary

Video Lottery: Sometimes called the crack cocaine of gambling because it is highly addictive, video lottery offers games like keno and poker on a video screen. Players either deposit money into the machine or buy a plastic debit card.

Keno: Played on a video machine or "live," keno players select a set of numbers. If enough numbers match the numbers drawn by the casino or machine, the player wins.

Pull-tabs: Pull tabs are instant-win lottery tickets often sold at bingo halls.

Class I, Class II, Class III: According to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act there are three types of gaming: Class I includes traditional Indian games and is only regulated by the tribes. Class II, including bingo, pull tabs and poker, is regulated by the tribes with federal oversight. Class III, including video gambling, slot machines, blackjack, roulette, craps, and horse and dog racing, is regulated by a compact negotiated between the tribe and the state.

Compacts: The often-contested agreements between states and tribes that govern Class III (casino-style) gaming. They are the creation of the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which was passed after some tribes opened bingo halls in defiance of state laws on the basis of their tribal sovereignty. Under the 1988 law, tribes who want to open Class III gambling operations have to negotiate an agreement with the state. There are now 126 such compacts in 24 states. But they are controversial: Califonia, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and other states claim they only have to allow tribes to carry on the kinds of gambling that already exist. They say they don't have to permit slot machines, the Class III game the tribes want most. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed, but most players are waiting for a precedent-setting Supreme Court decision regarding Florida's Seminole tribe this fall.