Gambling in Utah

Despite Utah's ban on all forms of gambling and the LDS Church's official pronouncements against gambling, many Utahns still gamble. Hard statistics are hard to find for Utah, for several reasons.
  • First if you ask them directly, people feel guilty and dislike admitting they have gambled or still do gamble.
  • Second, illegal gambling places are not going to publish statistics.
  • Finally, although casinos in Nevada try hard to get Utahns to come there, most do not have publicly available statistics about which gamblers came from where.

Nevertheless, we do know some things about gambling in Utah:


According to Gambling Magazine Utahns are estimated to spend about $6 million annually on the Idaho lottery. And the two most prolific Idaho lottery ticket retailers are stores on the Utah-Idaho border. Owners of La Tienda in Franklin and the Kwik Stop in Malad City say nearly 100 percent of their lottery sales come from people driving cars with Utah license plates.

Sports betting:

I know of no good statistics for Utah, but an informal poll indicates that many people participate in office pools and brackets. Very few of these people realize that these pools are illegal if there is any money exchanged--not just in Utah, but in most of the United States. The only places you can bet on sports legally are Nevada, and to a limited extent in Oregon (through the "lottery").

In 2003 illegal sports betting through bookies (office pools excluded) was estimated to be about $100 billion in the US (meaning that $10 billion was lost to bookies and the rest changed hands from losers to winners). For more about illegal sports betting, look at this article from USA Today.


There are at least three semi-legal poker houses in Utah: "Club Full House" in Layton, "Big SLC" (formerly in Sandy, and looking to relocate), and "The Flop House" in Orem. Big SLC was essentially shut down by Sandy City officials as of 4/20/2005, but they claim to be planning to reoopen elsewhere soon.

These places claim they are not gambling because

  1. they claim that the form of poker they play, Texas Hold 'Em, is a game of skill rather than chance and
  2. they claim that players are not paying for a chance to win--just for a chance to play. Chips are not interchangeable for money, but winners do usually win significant prizes of value.
I find both of these arguments to be questionable, but two of them are still in business for now.

There are also apparently lots of illegal poker games going on (See Matt Canham, "The State of Gambling." The Salt Lake Tribune. Salt Lake City, Utah: May 23, 2004. pg. A.1)

Private games of poker also appear to be very big all over the state. Several of my BYU students confess to having played regularly before President Hinckley's talk in April, 2005--now they claim they've quit. This was maybe 10% of those I asked, but I assume that many more are too embarrassed to admit they play or played. Those that told me about their games say that they normally did not play for money, although sometimes there was an entrance fee to play and the winner did, in fact, get much of the sum collected.

According to the Deseret News (Elaine Jarvik "Poker's popularity worries Utah officials." Salt Lake City, Utah: Dec 28, 2004. pg. A.01) Poker paraphernalia sold very well in Salt Lake City at Christmas time. "`Poker paraphernalia is about the hottest item that we're carrying this Christmas,' said Smith's Marketplace spokesperson Marsha Gilford. `It's flying out of the store as fast as we get it in.'"

Stock market gambling:

All investments have a certain degree of risk, and most investments in the stock market are legitimate. But there are easy ways to make "investments" that are very like casino gambling. The main ways to do this are
  1. Day trading, which means that you buy a stock hoping it will go up the same day and then sell it before the end of the day. Although legitimate stocks prices tend to increase over the long run (years) because the company is producing real goods or services of real value, stock prices fluctuate a lot from hour to hour due to random effects (e.g., news of a frost in Florida one morning will temporarily reduce the stock price of Dole, whose oranges might be threatened).

    I know of at least one faculty member at BYU who has large debts from day trading. And at least one of my BYU students admitted to me that he was addicted to day trading. Many of my students engage in day trading but claim they are not addicted and they believe they are not gambling because they use "skill" or have a "system" for winning.

    The vast majority of day traders lose a lot of money. In the late nineties, the SEC ran a study that estimated that 77% of day traders lost money at a time that most of the market was growing very quickly.

    Almost all of these day traders think that they are somehow special and won't be like those others--they believe that they are smarter or faster than the other traders or that they have some system that will make them rich, or that they are more lucky than others, or even that God wants them to be rich.

  2. Options and Futures trading. Options and futures allow you to make high stakes bets that a stock or a commodity or a currency will increase or decrease in price. They have legitimate uses as a form of insurance for organizations who must deal in these commodities or currencies. For example, the LDS Church can and should use currency futures to protect itself against the fact that tithing paid in dollars will have to be used to pay builders of churches who want to be paid in pesos and euros. If the dollar sinks against the peso, that will cost the Church a lot of money, so the Church can buy currency futures that "lock in" the exchange rate for the period that they care about.

    But when an average Joe "invests" in these things it is generally just gambling. He is just betting that this essentially random event will turn out the way he predicts, in the hopes that he will get rich quickly.

Stock market gambling is not illegal, but can be very addictive. For more, see the article Stock Market Gambling.


I am not sure if anyone has any idea how many Utahns go regularly to Nevada to gamble, but it is enough to support 5 casinos in Wendover--a place whose primary (only?) draw is as a place for Utahns to gamble.


As with poker, there are several Bingo parlors in Utah, including Southgate Social Center, Jackpot Bingo, and Riverdale Dinner and Bingo. These argue that they are legal because you don't pay for the bingo--it is just entertainment that comes with your meal.

In July 2005 West Valley prosecutors tried to close down a bingo parlor using the arguement that when you pay $25 for something that would cost only a few dollars elsewhere, then the "meal" is a sham to make the gambling look legal. However, in January 2006, the jury in the case sided with the defense, who argued that patrons have the option of playing without buying the meal.

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