February 2006
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Gambling with the future: How far should a town go for financial gain?

By Phil Hall

She sits looking right at you — full frontal nudity. The only thing she’s wearing is a tiny pendant around her neck. Her hands are flat on the white floor, fingertips pointed away from her thighs. Her legs are artfully crossed at the ankles, toes pointed toward you; her lovely knees hide her breasts. Nothing is revealed, yet everything is exposed. She is not smiling, she is merely looking at you.

It’s dime ante. We’re playing the Bluff Game. I won’t tell you how to play the Bluff Game. You have to play with someone who knows in order to learn the Bluff Game. One of the guys said he taught it to some folks in Carbondale, Ill., so I guess they’re playing it there now.

We arrange our nickels and dimes on, near, around the girl and her flawless two-dimensional body. One time I put nickels over her eyes. Another time I put a dime on her toes, or just below her toes because I thought maybe her toes would bring me luck. I put a dime on her knee. Nothing worked, but she is still nice to look at.

Here in this little hamlet, on a night cold with winter frost, we play poker for fun, just as millions of other people do, around a kitchen table. We drink a little, we trade rumors, we talk about our latest trips to Mexico or Padre Island, we smoke, we play poker. We have been playing these small around-the-kitchen-table games for a long time. But now. . .

The poker craze is everywhere: on TV, on the Internet, in cellars, sports clubs, bars, churches and casinos. “National poker craze drawing attention of law enforcement” read a Jan. 18 headline in USA Today.

But one place where gambling is not experiencing a boom is Utah. So it seems peculiar that the town of Bluff recently found itself facing the dilemma of whether to rename itself “Pokershare.com” in order to gain $100,000.

Dead man’s hand

There’s a mystique about gambling in the West, this wild, lawless, and colorful place, “out there” to back- Easterners, fueled by dime novelists and yellow journalists.

James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok was shot dead in Sweeney’s Silver Dollar Saloon in Deadwood, S.D., on Aug. 2, 1876. According to “The Legend of Wild Bill Hockok” by Loren D. Estleman, he was holding aces and eights, with a queen of hearts for a kicker — forever after “The Dead Man’s Hand.”

Plenty of people in Deadwood said Hickok was just about done before Jack McCall shot him in the back of the head. He wasn’t steady enough to hold any kind of job — he couldn’t even stay on with Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, he was so drunk. They wouldn’t hire him in law enforcement any more because he sometimes killed the wrong people. And his poker game was unsteady.

Novelists and late 19th-Century newspapers loved to paint the portrait of the Western gambler, guns slung low, with his sharp blue eyes, his haughty demeanor, his cruel cunning, his incredible courage as the fire blazed from the ends of his Colt .45s. Hickok never carried a .45, but it was a .45 that McCall used to splatter Wild Bill’s brains all over the poker table and ruin a perfectly good deck of cards, along with the table. It did make good copy, though.

But I digress. Wild Bill died gambling, and once again gambling and its mystique have become popular and important — like riding Harleys.

No gambling in Utah

Gambling is not permitted in Utah. Gambling has been systematically forbidden in the Beehive State from the beginning of the Mormons’ arrival. For the longest time plural marriage was allowed, but not gambling, and now even plural marriage is (almost) extinct. There has never been any legalized gambling in Utah, and likely never will be. Unless you enjoy an abundance of outrageous scenery, Utah is not really a “fun” state.

But back in the day, Bluff was a pretty rowdy place, and people drank publicly and played cards privately, but openly. There’s no more public drinking in Bluff — the Mormons don’t like it. And since there aren’t any bars to play poker in; when people play, they play in their homes.

People do get compulsive about gambling, I guess, but not the kind of people I play with. Bluff doesn’t have any reputation as a gambling mecca. There are a few games around — quiet, private affairs — but I’ve always played the same game with approximately the same guys — mostly boatmen; guys who hunt, fish, travel, like blues music, jazz and salsa.

The modern gambling era

Three things, all of which began before the turn of the 21st Century, played important roles in the increase in gambling’s popularity: Reservation (and off-reservation) casino gambling, TV gambling, and the Internet.

Politicians in some states saw gambling as a way to increase their coffers. The state-run Colorado Lottery was approved in the 1980s, ostensibly for the sole purpose of improving public projects such as Colorado state parks and recreation, and met with such wild success that the state approved offreservation casino gambling (but only in three communities) in the 1990s.

Most of the casino gambling is done on slot machines, those loud, flashy monstrosities designed with the latest technology to methodically steal your money — and they do so with startling regularity. There are casinos on two nearby Ute Indian reservations, in Ignacio and Towoac, and the Navajos are now planning to allow casino gambling.

In addition to slot machines, most casinos also have poker tables. They have helped fuel the game’s rising popularity.

What’s in a name?

Still, Patrick McDermott, chair of the Bluff Service District Council, was surprised when reporter Keith McCord of KSL-TV in Salt Lake City called and asked an odd question: “Are you aware that someone has posted a $100,000 reward on the Internet to the town of Bluff if you will change your name to Pokershare.com?”

“I thought he was joking, and I said, no I was not aware of that,” McDermott recalled.

“Anyway, I kind of didn’t believe it, but he said, ‘Yeah, this guy said if anybody knows who to contact in the town of Bluff, this company wants to talk to you…’”

Pokershare.com was an Internet gaming site based in London. Pokershare hired Darren Shuster, a Los Angelesbased public relations firm, to promote the site in the United States. The firm made the same offer to Bluff, Pa., and a few other places named Bluff.

According to the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette: “It’s a publicity stunt. But that doesn’t mean Mr. Shuster and Pokershare.com aren’t serious. They have the money — poker Web sites are all the rage — and they’re willing to spend it to put their name on the map.”

“Even if no town takes the offer, the publicity generated might already be worth $100,000 to the Internet site,” author Dan Majors continued in the article.

Pokershare.com managed to get articles in the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune in addition to the story on KSL-TV.

Bluff, Utah, is technically not a town. It once was incorporated — called Bluff City, in fact — but locals decided they didn’t want all of that responsibility (town marshal, mayor, streets, curbs and gutters, sewer system, accountability to the State of Utah) so they voted it out. The Navajos called the place Lasiddy, and still do. Present-day Bluff is merely unincorporated San Juan County, Utah.

The only legal status it has is as a special district, with limited powers and responsibilities (recreation, water, and wastewater). The district is responsible to San Juan County and has a board of directors. McDermott was the elected chair of that board at the time of the offer.

McDermott said he didn’t reject Pokershare’s offer outright but certainly didn’t say yes.

“I never told them we’ll do it,” McDermott said. “I was looking for some way to put a spin on it, maybe get a few laughs out of it, maybe something more.”

“What do we have to do?” McDermott responded to the initial queries. “And the guy told me: ‘There aren’t any hard and fast rules; all we want you to do is change your name. It has to be a real name change; you have to change the signs and everything.’ “I started thinking about it,” McDermott continued, “and I thought, ‘this has to be a hoax,’ but I went along with it just to see.”

Stories appeared in the Utah media, and McDermott sent e-mails informing Bluff residents of the offer. The responses he got were very different.

Outraged pioneer descendants

Some responses were humorous. Said Nate Sosa in an e-mail: “I kind of like Amazon.com better than Pokershare.com. It has more of a ring to it.” He also suggested that we should auction off the name on eBay.

Another resident commented, “If we change the name to Pokershare.com, it might make it more difficult to do a town exchange with Bluff, New Zealand, and I’m still hoping for a trip there. Of course it might make it easier to do an exchange with Las Vegas, but who wants to go there?”

McDermott received calls from people all over San Juan County and around Utah, many of whom were outraged that the town would entertain the notion of changing its name for money.

“Our ancestors came to Bluff,” one caller said. “They were pioneers. You can’t change the name of Bluff.” Quoted in the Deseret News, San Juan County Commissioner Lynn Stevens asked: “Is it logical that the current residents of the city own the name?” He maintained that the current generation isn’t the only owner of the community; it belongs to future residents as well.

Bluff resident Theresa Breznau stated: “For once just about everyone agrees on what is essentially a very important issue — the health, integrity, and well-being of Bluff, for both the near and far terms. It is extremely impressive to see the descendants of Mormon pioneers, Native Americans, county commissioners, residents of San Juan County, and the residents of Bluff all echoing similar sentiments. . . creating a larger view that is held very dearly, it turns out, in common.”

McDermott received angry phone calls from San Juan County residents living outside of Bluff, especially from Blanding.

But then someone noted that Blanding, in 1914, changed its name from Grayson in return for the promise of a “library,” which turned out to be a largely-disappointing collection of unwanted books.

“The people of Blanding were disappointed with what they received in exchange for changing their name,” San Juan County writer Terri Winder said, “but they kept their part of the bargain anyway.” Grayson has kind of an elegant ring to it. Blanding?

Long-term consequences

After the dust had settled and people had more time to think about it, the questions of short-term gain and longterm consequences came to the front. What are the consequences of the decisions people make on behalf of their communities?

Radioactive waste might come into that thinking. Back in the early ’90s the U.S. Department of Energy was looking for places to store spent plutonium fuel rods, which have a “half-life” of something like 50,000 years. Truth is no one knows.

There were meetings throughout San Juan County. Two of the three San Juan County commissioners made a trip to Washington, D.C., to talk to politicians and DOE officials. The feds were making similar offers to counties out West and to Indian tribes.

The bait came in three stages. In Stage I they offered $150,000 to talk about it. The ante was upped to $500,000 to the more serious Stage II conversations and planning. Stage III was preparation and paper-signing, for a negotiable amount for actual storage.

One of the Apache tribes took the DOE all the way through Stage II, then dropped out. The Goshute Tribe, in Western Utah, took it all the way. They are now a legal repository for uranium waste.

San Juan County never got past Stage I. Navajo County Commissioner Mark Maryboy and the Utah Navajos joined the people of Bluff and a few others in the county to fight the proposal.

In the end Gov. Mike Leavitt and other Utah politicians feared the consequences to such a degree that they passed measures prohibiting the transportation of nuclear waste in the state.

But the Utes’ White Mesa Mill, in Blanding, currently processes nuclear waste from Superfund sites as far away as Buffalo, N.Y., under the guise of “reprocessing” it. On the surface it appears that they are a processing plant (the only one like it in the United States). They “re-process” waste in order to gain the last ounce of useable material — at a loss and a cost to the taxpayers.

The catch is simply this: The nuclear waste that comes to White Mesa never leaves after it has been “re-processed.” They are storing it, literally, and Bluff is downstream.

“This is the spin I finally got,” McDermott said. “There are people in San Juan County who would, for some jobs and a few hundred thousand dollars, approve the storage of nuclear waste here. The same people who are outraged that we would consider changing the name of our town are willing to sell the future of our children and grandchildren by poisoning San Juan County with someone else’s nuclear waste. And these people don’t see the inconsistency. We are willing to sell our souls and our future for a few jobs and a little money.

“White Mesa Mill is upstream from my home,” McDermott continued. “My kids play in Cottonwood Wash when it rains. The future of Bluff is very frightening. Bluff is downstream, the San Juan River is downstream, Lake Powell is downstream.

“Why not consider changing the name of San Juan County to Radioactivewaste.com?” But the name-change issue may be moot. At press time Pokershare.com's website stated that its licensor had terminated its license and closed down all customer accounts.


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