Skip to main content
Original Issue

A truly friendly game of chance

In North Dakota, gambling quaintly reaps big bucks for local charities

Roger (Kit) Carson has that thin, weary, seen-it-all sophistication that blackjack dealers share with homicide detectives, pool sharks and White House correspondents. He snaps a card out of a four-deck shoe and slides it across one of the green-baize tables at Belle's Club, the Minot, N.Dak., strip joint where he's pit boss.

Belle's Club is the kind of place a rattlesnake wouldn't bring his mother. Women wearing little bitty black leather bikinis often sit down for a hand or two. Sometimes they wear only half a bikini. They dance here, and when they dance, the other half may disappear. "Sometimes," says Carson, "I'll be watching the dancers and forget what the deal is."

The deal is that Belle's Club is one of the state's 514 gambling sites, 270 of which have blackjack. Besides Nevada and Atlantic City, North Dakota is the only place in the United States where you can play the game of 21 legally. High rollers from Texas, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong are not yet, however, jetting into Minot, Bismarck and Rugby because the state-enforced betting limit is a heavy two bucks.

Still, there are enough two-dollar bettors to have wagered $261 million since 21 was introduced in 1981. And though blackjack fever has subsided somewhat in the last three years, $17.4 million crossed the tables in fiscal 1985-86. All this is for good—and allegedly good—causes. The way casino gambling is set up in North Dakota, charities actually run the games. They buy the cards, pay the dealers and even supply the tables the game is played on.

Prairie Public Television is the biggest blackjack operation. It took in $2.2 million last year from 15 sites. Cystic Fibrosis ran games that made $870,000, Multiple Sclerosis, $206,000, and the Drayton Curling Club, $3,000. In Fargo, the local art museum, opera house, community theater and dance company all made a lot of their money from gambling. Understandably, these days the various recipients are especially pleased with the proceeds. "The declining farm economy has lessened the impact of traditional fundraisers," says Gary Larson, gaming administrator for MS. "Gambling at least lets us begin to take up the slack. It allows us a great deal more freedom in patient support, providing wheelchairs and conducting research." Even cultural organizations in Minnesota border towns sponsor North Dakota blackjack. The Plains Art Museum in Moorhead, Minn. has run the action at the Blue Wolf in Fargo since 1982. "When we started we were almost out of business," says Sue Stangeland, gaming director for the museum. "Now we're almost flourishing."

Blackjack has sparked the only tourist trade that Lawrence Welk's home state ever had. (North Dakota is still last among states in its expenditures on tourism.) There's not much to see there; about all North Dakota has to offer between the Badlands and the Red River Valley is the world's largest concrete buffalo, a 60-ton creation you'll find not roaming through Jamestown. The only real attraction was Sitting Bull's grave. However, in 1953 some South Dakotans snatched the Sioux chiefs remains and reburied him under 20 tons of concrete. Some North Dakotans claim that the thieves didn't get the right man, but nobody comes to the state to see Sitting Bull's grave these days. Nor do they come, one assumes, to verify the existence of towns with such names as Hoople, Gackle and Zap.

Two-dollar blackjack may be be too tedious for card counters, but it has helped lure a convention or two and the national slo- and fast-pitch softball championships. When 21 was new, busloads of citizens from Duluth and Minneapolis endured the 250-mile, five-hour drive for the action at the tables in Fargo. "Then the novelty wore off," says Bob Sather, a clerk at the Fargo bus depot. "I'll bet in the last 18 months you could count on one foot the number of charter buses."

So legislators recently voted to allow such Las Vegas and Atlantic City come-ons as tip betting and hole-card no-peek. The law will go into effect on Nov. 1. And though the state legislature in 1985 voted down a measure to raise the limit to $5, an increase might be reconsidered sometime during the next year.

Fargo draws the biggest blackjack play in North Dakota. Once known mainly as the windiest city in the country, it is now called Las Fargo and Reno on the Red. Bettors can choose between 33 different parlors, ranging from Moose Lodge No. 1410 to the lately elegant Monte Carlo Casino to Cactus Jack's Saloon inside the West Acres bowling alley. The Fargo Holiday Inn's Brass Mint Casino Lounge has more tables—10—than any blackjack parlor within 1,000 miles.

The whole thing started just down Highway 10 in West Fargo. A 1977 state law allowed charities to sell pull-tabs, otherwise known as prairie slot machines. You dip your hand into a pickle jar full of folded paper chances, each costing a dollar. If you pull out one that matches the magic number you win maybe $50. A pull-tab maker suggested to fund-raisers for multiple sclerosis that the jars be put in bars. They picked West Fargo.

City commissioners accommodated them by allowing pull-tab jars in the M & J Saloon. It didn't hurt that M & J's owner, Barney Dirks, was one of the commissioners. Soon pull-tabs were popping up in taverns all over the state. Legalization of 21 followed in 1981.

Of course, gambling was always pretty popular in the Dakota Territory. In the 1880s Minot was a haven for horse thieves, cattle rustlers, gamblers and convicts on the lam from Canada. A railway conductor of the time used to call out the name of the station, "Minot, this is M-I-N-O-T, end of the line. Prepare to meet your God!"

Still, while they haven't hung a horse thief in Minot in years, a certain frontier heartiness prevails in Belle's Club. The Belle in Belle's Club is owner Clarence Lundeen, who was called Clarabelle as a kid by his friends. Lundeen has become Minot's leading impresario by using his joint to stage male strip shows, Biker Appreciation Day and Jell-O wrestling exhibitions. His latest brainstorm is macaroni wrestling, but he can't decide which sauce to use.

Blackjack, says Lundeen, has increased his business by 20%. Bettors dropped $210,000 at the club's five tables last year. Of course, Lundeen didn't keep any of that. He gets $150 a month from the North Dakota Safety Council for each table. The safety council's blackjack expert taught Carson to deal in three days. The pit boss earns $170 a week for dealing 72 brisk hands an hour.

The pace is much slower 40 miles north at the American Legion Hall in Mohall (pop. 1,049). Presiding occasionally over the only game in town is the Hon. Bob Reiser, a municipal court judge. He deals with judicial solemnity from 6:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. Canadians from Saskatchewan wait for the doors to open so they can jam in a couple hours of gambling before scurrying back home. They have to make the border by 10 p.m., when it closes for the night. Canadians from Manitoba get an extra hour of play during daylight savings time because they're in a different time zone.

The Legion casino is full of gray-heads. Milling around are lots of newly permed ladies in double, triple and possibly quadruple knits. At Reiser's table are two Saskatchewan couples: June and A.J. Rabeau, and Bertha and Leo Chicoin.

A balding man with a downturned grin, Leo rolls a 50-cent chip back and forth over his fist like a vaudeville magician. He's down eight dollars after two hours of one-dollar bets. "We won't get rich," says Bertha, "but we won't get poor, neither."

"Gimme a four, Judge," says Leo, slurping a brass monkey through a straw. He draws an eight and goes bust. "I'm losing my shirt tonight," he grouses.

Reiser deals Bertha a king and an ace.

"Blackjack!" she screams.

"My God!" shouts Leo, eyeing her buck-fifty in winnings. "That's two in a row! What are you gonna do with your money? Take me out for supper?"

Leo gets up to leave. His seat is taken by Frank Sink, a retired roofer from Florida, who's in the area to hunt partridges and prairie chickens. Frank stacks 15 purple two-dollar chips. "Holy God!" Leo says. "Look at all that loot."

It doesn't take much to be a high roller in North Dakota.



At Belle's in Minot, Carson oversees the action at the tables—or at least some of it.



Judge Reiser presides over the chips in Mohall, where he is up for reelection.