In matters of gambling, Oregon has two personalities. The law prohibits casinos and commercial gambling, even as the state itself operates two lotteries and other games of chance. ORS 167.117 permits Oregonians to engage in social games, such as the inoffensive wagering on the roll of the dice or the play of the cards, which I occasionally enjoy in the company of others of the Laquedemimonde. What is a "social game?" The law defines the term to be (i) a game other than a lottery in a private home in which there are no house odds and no house profit, and (ii) a game in a business establishment in a city or county that has authorized social gaming, where there are no house odds, house profit, or house bank. The idea behind this statute was that small towns might allow taverns to host card games in the hope of selling more food and drink, but the taverns weren't allowed to participate in or profit from the gambling itself.
Where the camel's nose goes, the body will soon follow. Prominent Portland attorney Tom Rask, who represents cardrooms in Washington, pointed out yesterday that Portland and Multnomah County are allowing games whose scale belies the benign adjective "social." Pots of tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars are sometimes advertised, far more Hamiltons and Lincolns than the framers of ORS 167.117 envisioned.
What, then, can be done? Mr. Rask called for the city to enforce state law and its own regulations, something the city seems disinclined to do. (The city fathers and mothers prefer to place their wagers on real estate through the Portland Development Commission.) The gambling houses themselves are keeping quiet.
A government that neglects the law for social reasons -- it's hard for a local government that receives money from the state lottery to seize the moral high ground when it complains about private enterprise joining in -- might enforce the law for financial reasons. Here's where Multnomah County is missing a bet. It can make a few dollars the easy way, if it cares to read ORS 91.240 and 91.245, two statutes buried in Oregon's non-residential landlord-tenant law. ORS 91.240 prohibits landlords from renting any building, boat, or booth if they know or have reason to know that the tenant will use the premises for gambling purposes. ORS 91.245 provides an incentive for the county to enforce the law: the penalty for being the landlord of a gambling house is "twice the amount of the rent of such building or other place for six months." So if the district attorney can identify a few gambling houses that lease their space, the D.A. can chase the landlords for the penalty and turn the office into a profit center. Your winnings, sir!