Legal gambling in the United States is a state-by-state patchwork — and just about every state has its quirk.
Pennsylvania’s casino parking lots, for instance, seem to be riddled with kids waiting alone in cars while their parents leave them unsupervised to play a few hands of blackjack or poker, while in Michigan, the authorities seem to have their hands full raiding illegal gambling operations.
But are such problems really more pronounced in certain states, or are these states just more aggressive and vocal about ferreting them out?
“If you were to ask me that question a decade ago, we would have been more of a hotbed at that time,” Kurt Steinkamp, deputy director of the Michigan Gaming Control Board (MGCB), told MI Bets. “Today I think we fall more into the category of effective enforcement. As it pertains to illegal gambling houses in the state, there are far fewer today than there were 10 years ago.”
Back in 2012, then-Gov. Rick Snyder authorized the creation of a special sub-unit of the MGCB that was specifically tasked with reducing the amount of illegal casinos and unlicensed, slot-like gaming machines in Michigan.
“I’m not aware of another state that has a sub-unit of this particular nature,” said Steinkamp. “That sub-unit investigates illegal gambling, and the attorney general’s office is the prosecution’s arm. The AG’s office writes and executes all search warrants. We’re just responsible for the investigations.”
When the MGCB’s sub-unit started out in 2012, it took a kid’s-glove approach, issuing cease and desist letters to violators before taking more dramatic steps.
“Some businesses complied and shut down, while others did not,” recalled Steinkamp. “The ones that did not, we referred them to the AG’s office for prosecution. If you open up an illegal gambling location today, we’re not gonna give you a warning. We’re gonna conduct an investigation and refer it to the AG’s office.”
‘We’ve been very vocal about this’
In 2022, Steinkamp said the sub-unit executed search warrants at seven unlicensed pop-up casinos, confiscating 373 machines and resulting in the conviction of 17 individuals for illegal gambling activities. State officials have not been shy about publicizing these busts, theorizing that the noisier they are about them, the less likely scofflaws will be to try their luck.
“Every time we conduct a search warrant, we put out a press release,” said Steinkamp. “We’ve been very vocal about this.”
The MGCB’s efforts includes a dedicated phone line for anonymous tips concerning illegal gambling behavior. Steinkamp said several hundred tips come in per year, not just regarding pop-up casinos, but also illicit online gambling or unlicensed machines that crop up in gas stations, bars, restaurants, “party stores” (that’s Michigander for “convenience store”), and the like.
Here, the MGCB and the state liquor board, with whom it partners on outreach to certain locations, may take a more understanding approach, as some of these more benign businesses may not be aware that the machines on their premises are illegal.
As for the businesses that are raided and shut down, Steinkamp said, “There’s always a very strong presence of law enforcement when conducting a search warrant,” which has thus far helped mitigate any violent confrontations.
Photo: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images