‘If You See Pull Tabs In A Bar, You Know They Have The Best Fried Food’

How an obscure form of hyper-local gambling has persevered in a digitized world
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Present-day Seattle is a place best known for producing and selling goods in cyberspace, not by land or by sea. But as a major oceanic port city that gave birth to Boeing, it remains home to a significant manufacturing sector, mostly situated in the city’s southwest quadrant, which encompasses the neighborhoods of SoDo, Georgetown, West Seattle, and South Park.

It is at this nexus of industry — a stone’s throw from Washington state’s last steel mill — where the Chelan Cafe and its lounge, the Ebb Tide Room, sit, attracting a robust pre-noon crowd of clock-punchers and blue-collar barons alike. 

The Ebb Tide Room featured its fair share of patrons on one Saturday morning several years back during college football season. The establishment’s co-owner, Scott Manning, remembers this Saturday vividly. It was, he recalled, “the most excited I’ve ever seen this bar.”

This wasn’t because the University of Washington was rolling over some heavyweight East Coast program in a nationally televised non-conference game, as one might assume. Rather the genesis of the collective enthusiasm, said Manning, was “when somebody won a $100 pull tab and rang the bell.”

The ringing of the bell, for those not accustomed with workaday bar traditions, is when a patron, presumably (or definitely) flush with cash, rings a small bell positioned near the bar, signaling their intent to buy a drink for everyone on the premises at that precise moment. Having been privy to a handful of such ring-a-ding-dings myself — and even initiating one at the Old Post Office Saloon in the mountain town of Leavenworth, Washington, after a rare Kentucky Derby windfall — I can tell you that they are exhilarating, unifying experiences for the strangers in their midst. Forget about trust falls and rock walls, boss — this is how you build a team.

About 20 minutes after the initial bell ringing on that Saturday morning, somebody won another relatively lucrative pull-tab prize — and rang the bell again. And then, because similar events often tend to occur in threes, Manning said, “It happened again, and people were getting out of their chairs and high-fiving — all because of pull tabs.”

Just what are pull tabs?

Thirteen years ago, Tony Czar moved from New Jersey to Washington state and took a job as a special agent with the Washington State Gambling Commission’s Licensing, Regulation, and Enforcement Division. At the time, he confessed he had no idea what pull tabs were. Shortly thereafter, he was tasked with regulating a portion of the nearly 1,000 private businesses — mostly neighborhood watering holes — and nonprofit organizations licensed to sell them statewide.

With names like “Slammers,” “Beer Brain,” “Camo Pigs,” and “Money Comes Easy,” pull tabs are a lot like scratch-off lottery tickets — only instead of scratching, you pull a tiny paper tab. The cheapest pull tab is typically 25 cents, while the most expensive tends to be $5. Jackpots are not variable — multiply the cost of your pull tab by 1,000, and that’s usually the top prize for a given game, with a fixed amount of winning tabs at descending dollar levels. 

“Not a bad return on investment,” said Czar.

In their traditional paper form, pull tabs are sold in series and placed in clear plastic “tanks,” with a set amount of winners and losers in each one. When each prize is claimed, a bartender or vendor “X”s it out on a placard affixed to the front of the tank, letting players know exactly what’s left to play for.

This means, as Wikipedia so eloquently puts it, “redemption of one losing chance actually does mean one chance closer to a winner. This opposed to, for instance, slots that operate on near-continuum probability premises, where each event is a separate activity without bearing on the next outcome and without having been influenced from past events. …  No other finite-probability-based game provides more information to players about the status of the game.”

To that end, Manning, whose favorite gambling destination is Reno, said he likes pull tabs because, unlike slot machines, “at least with pull tabs, you know what’s in there.”

While Washington’s industry is largely commercial, the beneficiaries of pull-tab revenue in most of the 20-some states where they can be purchased are charities. While there are a handful of no-hold games, house rules typically dictate that if a player spends $100 on a given game, they can reserve that game for 24 hours — meaning only they’re allowed to pull the tabs in a particular tank over that span of time, even if they’re not physically present.

Like any form of gambling, pull tabs can lead to problematic or addictive behavior, with the guardrails getting flimsier with every shot or beer. But they tend to be so cheap that nobody buys just one at a time, and they’re usually passed to players in plastic baskets that would otherwise play host to a pile of jalapeño poppers.

This is fitting because, as a wise woman told US Bets, “If you see pull tabs in a bar, you know they have the best fried food.”

‘Local places where local people came’

David Trujillo served as the WSGC’s director from 2013 to 2021. He said that when he was first hired by the commission in 1992, “Washington was No. 3 in the country for gambling behind Nevada and New Jersey.”

“Gambling became legalized in Washington state in the early ’70s,” he continued. “Flash forward to the early ’90s, there was not much gambling in Canada. There was no tribal gaming to speak of, except for one tribal casino up by the Canadian border. There was really only some charitable gaming in Oregon, so Washington was it on the West Coast. 

“At that time, the big dollars were bingo and pull tabs. Pull tabs had been authorized in other areas, but it was generally for charitable gaming. In Washington, they authorized it for mom and pop establishments — the taverns, the bars, the local places where local people came. That was pretty progressive at the time.”

In Fiscal Year 1996, pull tabs led the state in net gambling receipts by type at nearly $170 million. The following year marked the last in which it would lead that category, as it was overtaken by tribal gaming and the state lottery in 1998 and house-banked card rooms in 2000. From that point forward, net pull-tab receipts have ranked fourth, plateauing at a figure commensurate with the nearly $65 million generated (commercial and nonprofit combined) in FY 2021.

The future of pull tabs

When Washington state legalized pull tabs in 1973, they were about the only game in town. The steel industry was also in better straits before the turn of the 21st century, when it was not uncommon for “the whales” to roll in from the mill up the street and “spend $1,000 a day” on pull tabs at the Ebb Tide Room, Manning reminisced.

Bludgeoned by increasingly dynamic competition, the pull-tab industry isn’t what it used to be in Washington state. But it’s far from dead — the state’s top producer, Puyallup’s Top Gun Bar & Grill, paid $36,480 in taxes on net receipts of $769,122 in FY 2021 alone — and could provide itself with a whale of a pacemaker if the state’s gambling commission would loosen up a bit.

Various forms of electronic pull tabs — be they handheld or played at a terminal — have cropped up in states like Minnesota and North Dakota, the latter of which boasted a pull-tab handle of $1.3 billion in FY 2021 and is on track for $1.8 billion in FY 2022, according to the Associated Press.

This past March, Jonathan McCoy, an attorney for Diamond Game Enterprises, went before the WSGC to ask for a rule change that would permit paper pull tabs to be dispensed in rolls from onsite machines rather than literally handed over by an employee. That’s not even e-pull tabs — that’s the equivalent of asking that vending machines be permitted to lighten a bartender’s load.

Through a spokesperson, the WSGC’s own legal staff told US Bets that “to have a phone app version” of pull tabs, “you would need to have a new law passed through the legislature.” But as for a more modest digitization of the same game, the commission’s legal team said, “A dispenser or electronic application could conceivably be authorized through rule.”

This was consistent with what they told state gambling commissioners during the March meeting, making it clear that Diamond’s petition would not constitute an “expansion of gambling.” Nevertheless, the commission voted to deny the petition, with Commissioner Kristine Reeves speaking for the majority when she said, “I think what really triggered this for me as not being a modernization, but rather a pseudo-expansion of gaming, is it is asking us to address a WAC [Washington Administrative Code] that I think is the purview of the legislature.”

Hence, for now — in Washington at least — pull-tab aficionados will have to keep on pulling. And, if history’s any indication, that’s just what they’ll continue to do — for the time being.

“A lot of the people are loyal to those local places,” said Trujillo. “They’re within a few miles of where they live. It’s where they’ve been going for 20 years, a different type of gamer than someone who goes to a destination.”

But should the WSGC or the legislature decline to pull pull tabs into the 21st century anytime soon, they could go the way of the Wurlitzer.

“Older generations tend to want to handle the pull tabs and play with the cards and chips,” said WSGC Tribal Liaison Julie Lies. “The folks who want to participate now are the ones who want to do it electronically.”

Photos: Tueres Monfueso/The Whiskey Woodsman

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