Groups take chance with poker, raffles

State gambling laws often unknown

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Games of chance are a $200 million industry in Colorado, and Craig residents are taking their piece.

Locals can sit in on a bingo game on Friday night, play Texas Hold 'Em on Wednesday or buy a raffle ticket from a variety of groups -- never knowing whether what they're doing is legal. Sometimes, even the groups sponsoring the events don't know whether they're breaking a law.

"Most groups say, 'Oh, we're going to donate to a good cause, so it must be legal.' They don't understand until later the implications," said Mike Shea, director for licensing with the Colorado Secretary of State's Office.

Only nonprofit organizations can sponsor a raffle and only if they have a license. Also, the group must be able to show it owns the item being raffled, and there must be a time and date for the drawing clearly established on the tickets.

Delbert Knez, owner of the OP Bar & Grill, calls his fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club of Craig a drawing -- but it has all the elements of a raffle. To win an Arctic Cat M-7 Limited edition snowmobile, participants must donate $100 to the Boys & Girls Club.

State officials say that qualifies as a raffle.

"If they're selling the tickets, they're in violation of the law," Shea said.

The only groups eligible for raffle licenses are religious, charitable, labor, fraternal, education-based, volunteer firefighter or veterans organizations.

Shea said the OP could have assisted the Boys & Girls Club with a raffle if the club had gotten a license, but even that might have been a problem.

An organization must be in existence for five years and have a member who is certified as a games manager to qualify for the $62.50 license, which is good for only a year.

Knez doesn't think what he's doing is illegal and said he's talked to the Attorney General's Office about it.

"I don't make a dime on this," he said. "I'm trying to make a difference in the community. Who would complain about trying to help kids?"

His drawing has no end date. He plans to sell chances until he's raised $16,000. The machine retails for $10,599.

Knez said that during the past several years, he's raised $60,000 for the youth in the community.

"Unfortunately, a lot of people do that without talking to our office," Shea said. "Illegal gaming is a criminal violation. It could result in a pretty serious fine and some jail time."

Holiday Inn General Manager Mikki O'Brien said she's not going to risk her liquor license for gambling, which is why she had several conversations with her corporation's attorney, the state Attorney General's Office and the Secretary of State's Office before offering twice weekly Texas Hold 'Em poker tournaments.

Three elements must exist for a game to be considered gambling -- payment, luck and prize.

If there is no fee, buy-in or other money required from the participants, a poker tournament isn't considered illegal gambling. Or if there is a fee, but no prize is offered, it isn't illegal.

"Our players don't pay any money, which is why it's not gambling," O'Brien said. "You don't have to purchase any food or beverage, either. There are a lot of people who play on a regular basis, but don't buy anything from me."

Similarly, when The Memorial Hospital offers poker, blackjack and other casino games at its fundraising victory celebration this month, they'll likely be within the confines of the law.

Don Burmania, communications director for the Colorado Division of Gaming, said there's a gray area as to whether asking for a donation is considered a buy in to play.

"If you have to pay to play and there's a prize associated with it, it's illegal," he said.

He thinks the plan to recommend a $25 donation at the event could be construed as paying to play.

Craig Police Department Capt. Jerry DeLong disagrees.

"With what the hospital's doing, there's no mandatory buy-in," he said.

And what he says matters.

Violations of the state's gambling statute are handled on a local level.

"Enforcement is at a local level," Burmania said. "There's no state enforcement office that has jurisdiction. It's how much the local authorities want to pursue it."

DeLong said reports of illegal gaming are something they would look into, but "it's one of those things that doesn't happen all the time."

Fourteenth Judicial District Attorney Bonnie Roesink said her office would look into whatever information local law enforcement agencies brought to them.

"It would be looked at just like any other illegal activity," she said. "We are responsible for prosecuting any violation of the criminal code."

That doesn't mean that Friday's poker night should be canceled.

Social gambling is still legal as long as all the participants have an established social relationship based on some other common interest outside of gambling.

And, as long as the host doesn't take a cut.

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