Several forms of gambling are legal in Montana, as any visitor to the state will instantly notice—many old-time bars, taverns, clubs, and lounges have all become casinos. Gambling is regulated by the state, which takes 10–15 percent of the proceeds from the various games—and makes about $300 million a year in the process.
While card rooms have always been legal—or at least tolerated—in Montana, electronic gambling has been legalized comparatively recently. Other forms of gambling, such as pari-mutuel and video-link horse racing, calcuttas, and shake-a-day dice games, are legal as well. Montana also participates in three multistate lotteries.
In the back room of many an old-time bar is a well-burnished green felt table, usually watched over—with hawklike vigilance—by sharp-eyed denizens. At some cue—perhaps the arrival of a newcomer with fresh money, or the advent of a lucky omen—the game begins, often lasting long into the early hours of the morning.
All traditional forms of poker are legal; stud and draw are the favored games. There’s a $300 pot limit. To play, you need to buy chips from the house; if you’re lucky and win, you cash out your chips from the house. The house will keep its—and the state’s—share.
Blackjack, pan, pitch, and other card games in which the players bet against the house are not legal in Montana. Neither are most dice games—including craps—or “beat-the-house” games, such as roulette.
Keno, a hopped-up version of bingo, is legal, both as an electronic game and in its original form—as a barroom diversion. If you’ve ever wondered what that large checkered game board on the wall of an old bar is, you’re probably looking at a lighted keno display.
While it’s permissible to watch strangers play poker in the back rooms of bars, remember that there is frequently a lot of money at risk, tempers can be short, and often liquor has flowed liberally. Keep your mouth shut and act reverential. Don’t do anything that might break the concentration of the players or that may be interpreted as interaction.
Video poker is by far the most popular of the various kinds of electronic gambling in Montana. The whirring, ringing, and beeping of the machines have all but eliminated the gentle buzz of conversation in Montana watering holes.
To play video poker, you put a coin—usually a quarter—in the slot. A random five-card hand appears on the screen, and you decide which, if any, of the cards you want to keep. Press the corresponding buttons, then press a different button to receive replacement cards. The machine will let you know if you have any combination of winning cards. Should you win, don’t expect a cascade of small change. Winning combinations earn points (which usually equal quarters). You decide whether to use your points to play more hands or to cash them out by contacting the bartender or game-room manager.
Pari-mutuel horse racing is popular at summer fairs. Some bars and clubs offer a more cutting-edge method of betting on horseflesh—video broadcasts of live horse races. You get racing forms, track conditions, lines at the betting booth—everything but the dust and the smell of horse sweat.
A more distinctly Montana form of legal betting is the calcutta. Usually held as a charity event, a calcutta involves auctioning off the performance of a sportsman, usually a rodeo contestant or golfer. If the cowboy you “buy” wins his event, then you get a share of his prize money, while the majority of the money raised from the auction goes to the charity.
As in other states, Indians on federal reservations have opened casinos that feature games not otherwise allowed by Montana state law. Under the confusing laws that govern activities on reservations, Native Americans can bypass restrictive state laws by invoking federal laws that recognize reservations as sovereign entities. Nevada-style casinos are present in several locations on Montana reservations.