Is Wyoming warming to gaming?

Apr 26, 2013

For years, Wyoming has been timid when it comes to gambling. But things might be changing. With a casino on the Wind River reservation, an increase in poker clubs and the recent passage of a lottery bill, many are now wondering how far this issue will go. Wyoming Public Radio’s Sara Hossaini has more.

HOSSAINI: This is the Warehouse poker club in Laramie. It boasts a concrete exterior with no address in sight. When you arrive, the painted door is haloed by the tell-tale blue light of poker clubs everywhere. Inside, there are two things that might surprise you—the crowd is eclectic and the atmosphere is…rather cozy. There are a couple of pool tables, a tidy kitchenette, mounted elk heads and the Zen fish tank. Everyone that walks in gets greeted by name. They’re here because they like to play, and because they like to win. One University of Wyoming Professor says that the average take-home varies.

[Ambient Sound; player : “You can win from 100 up to 800-900.” Gabe Schwaiger: He wins 800 almost every night! Tell that to rookies]

HOSSAINI: Founder Gabe Schwaiger is a psychology student at U-W who can’t mask his enthusiasm for the game. He says he started the place two years ago because he was tired of driving to Cheyenne and wanted a convenient place to get together with the guys.

GABE SCHWAIGER: We’re gonna have everybody from college students to business owners to university professionals, PhDs, unemployed guys. There’s no predicting who’s gonna show up. When it’s in the midst of it, it’s a beautiful thing to behold. You get to see the construction worker outthink the PhD and triumph over that guy, and that’s what makes the game so great.

HOSSAINI: There are many such games, as he calls them, around the state, that tread legally, albeit cautiously. Poker clubs are supposed to be strictly social events. Though tipping is allowed, the law states that the house cannot take a rake from winnings, can’t advertise, and that all players must have a bonafide social relationship. Schwaiger says navigating that legislation can be difficult. 

SCHWAIGER: Bonafide social relationship is an ambiguous term. You know, what is a documentable social relationship. I would like to see it a little more clearcut, it’s always like I said, if it was, I wouldn’t have to be making those weekly calls to my attorney.

HOSSAINI: Nevertheless, Schwaiger hopes the casual Wyoming poker scene stays that way.

SCHWAIGER: It’s taken off, there’s an article in Card Player magazine that says Wyoming poker is some of the best in the country right now. (Hossaini: What about it?) Well, Just the niche that it provides. If you go down to phoenix or Milwaukee you’re gonna see a lot of strip mall poker rooms.

HOSSAINI: Wyoming Senator Bruce Burns of Sheridan says he supports the local poker clubs, but he’d like to see even more gaming here.

SENATOR BRUCE BURNS: The advantage would be money. And if I were suddenly emperor, there would be casinos—probably the first one would be just south of Cheyenne on the border facing Colorado, probably with a sign large enough to be seen in Fort Collins.

HOSSAINI: Not everyone agrees. Executive Director of the Wyoming Association of Churches Chesie Lee says gambling is a bad idea that hurts the poor…but she is most bothered by the state profiting from it.

CHESIE LEE: I can understand why people would want to see that as a source of revenue, but the lottery for example, only about 25% of that income is going to come back to the state, as state revenue, so it’s not really a very  efficient way for the state to raise money.

HOSSAINI: Wyoming Representative Nathan Winters of Thermopolis agrees. He says the potential for creating addicts outweighs any possible financial or recreational benefits.

REPRESENTATIVE NATHAN WINTERS: Industrialized gambling is something that we should play very careful attention to. This is where I believe it can be very damaging to our state if we pursue this very far.

HOSSAINI: Research on that subject is thin. Dr. Dean Gerstein is a researcher who led the only two nationally commissioned studies on gambling, the most recent in 1999. He says the consensus is that people of all income levels gamble at about the same rate, it’s just that poor people can less afford it. He says studies also show there is a threshold for play.

DR. DEAN GERSTEIN: When you first introduce a big increase in the level of, particularly, commercial gambling opportunities, like casinos opening, there clearly is an increase in interest and an increase in levels of gambling. And then it appears over time, people get acclimated to that level of availability, and you don’t see a continued interest as the market saturates with vendors.

HOSSAINI: Wyoming is fairly isolated, says Gerstein, but it’s not starting from zero and many people may already be travelling to play in neighboring states, so it’s hard to say how many people will become addicted once more gaming is introduced.

But, opponents Lee and Winters want answers and hope Governor Matt Mead will follow through on his promise to monitor the effects of the upcoming lottery before opening up any further gaming opportunities in the state. For Wyoming Public Radio News, I’m Sara Hossaini.