Vail Law: A look at social gambling in Colorado |

Vail Law: A look at social gambling in Colorado

Rohn Robbins
Vail, CO, Colorado

With the Super Bowl in our rearview and March Madness just up the road, I thought it a good time to take a peek at “social” gambling.

First of all, come clean – even you guys and gals with badges on your chests. Chances are at one time or another, you’ve dipped your toes in an office pool or slung a deck around a penny-ante poker game. What about the Colorado Lottery, PowerBall, the Irish Sweepstakes? Can you throw money after horses, dogs, or gamble a quarter for a prize when a carnival hits town? Why can you spin a roulette wheel in Black Hawk but throwing craps in your back alley is verbotten? What, I ask, is going on here?

First of all, what, exactly, is considered gambling? In Colorado, gambling may be defined as risking any money or something of value for gain based in whole or in part upon lot, chance, the operation of a gambling device, or the happening or outcome of an event, including a sporting event, over which the person taking a risk has no control.

There are exceptions, an important one of which is engaging in “any game, wager, or transaction which is incidental to a bona fide social relationship, is participated in by natural persons only, and in which no person is participating, directly or indirectly, in professional gambling.”

You’re thinking. “Whew! When I was throwing down aces over kings at the Sons of Gambling Charity Gambling Days, and piling my winnings to the sky, everything was copacetic.”

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Well, not so fast. You see, cards and wagering games ” conducted even as part of a charitable fund-raising event ” may still be considered gambling. “But what about the ‘bona fide social relationship’ exception?” you may be throwing down your cards and screaming. Well, like so many things in law, it all depends.

You see, part of the definition whereby engaging in a game or wager is excepted as incidental to a bona fide social relationship requires that the gaming take place only between natural persons and that no professional gambling is involved. In at least one Colorado case, where charity gaming was conducted at the Central City Opera House ” even though script money redeemable only for bidding power at a charitable auction was used ” the gaming was held to be illegal. The reasoning was that the opera house association’s conduct in running the games constituted a significant level of participation by other than a natural person and the association intended to derive profit from the gambling.

In another Colorado case, bar patrons entering a March Madness betting pool was held to be permissible where the betting pool was incidental to the amusement of regular patrons who had a legitimate relationship of coming to the bar for drink and conversation with friends. The bar, the court held, while not a “natural person,” did not participate in the patrons’ betting pool by safekeeping the patron’s money, making a betting “grid” with the bar’s logo, and making “incidental profits,” from the pool.

Wagering on a golf match, participated in and bet on by the participants, has been upheld as permissible on the theory that each golfer had control over the outcome by his or her play and, as such, the betting is not founded upon “chance.”

Similarly, a poker game between friends at the home of one of the players has been held to be social gambling and, as such, exempt from the strict definition of gambling.

Limited gaming in Central City, Black Hawk and Cripple Creek is specifically permitted by the Colorado Constitution and the Colorado Limited Gaming Act.

Pari-mutuel betting on greyhounds and horses (literally, “mutual stakes” betting- a system whereby the winners divide in proportion to their wagers, the total amount bet) is specifically permitted (and limited) by statute. Similarly, the state lottery is provided for in the state constitution and regulated by statute. Lastly, bingo is permitted by licensees with a laundry list of limitations.

So, the question remains, will you plunk down your hard-earned on your dear old alma mater when March Madness rolls around?

Bet you will.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He can be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins can be reached at 970-926-4461 or at

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