Idaho has two states that border it to the South representing the extremes in US gambling regulation: Utah and Nevada. Unfortunately, the Gem State’s regulatory climate more closely resembles Utah than the longtime gambling capital of the US. That hasn’t always been the case. As was common in the early days of the Western United States gambling was an integral part of the culture in Idaho dating back to the 1800’s. At this point, gambling was regulated by the individual towns and many had a very permissive attitude toward games of chance. For over a century, this symbiotic arrangement was beneficial to everyone involved—the cities and towns padded their tax coffers, the casinos had access to a steady if not overly large market and the people of Idaho had a wide variety of gambling options.
This changed quickly and dramatically after World War II due to a very apropos reason. Simply put, the pro gambling forces ‘overplayed their hand’. In 1949, Boise, Idaho (the state’s largest city and capital) banned casino table games. Rather than comply with the law an effort was made to circumvent it with the creation of a de facto ‘town’ for the sole purpose of allowing gambling. ‘Garden City’ was a 17 foot wide strip of land outside of Boise city limits that came into being strictly to offer legal gambling.
As you’d imagine, this went over like the proverbial ‘lead balloon’. This set off a regulatory barrage targeted at legalized gambling in the state. By 1954 both slots and table games were banned statewide and this prohibition remains in force today. Idaho residents did gain the ability to bet on horse races in 1963 and today it allows them to access account wagering services like TVG and Twin Spires. With that exception, there was no liberalization of gambling laws in the state for almost 40 years. In 1989, the Idaho Lottery opened for business and remains the most popular gambling option in the state.
The modern Idaho lottery offers four draw games in addition to the ‘networked’ multistate games Powerball, MegaMillions and Lotto America. There’s also an assortment of scratch off games, a few ‘InstaPlay’ games and some electronic ‘pull tab’ machines. Also available are several games defined as ‘raffles and sweepstakes’ and legal under a 1993 law expanding charitable gaming. There are no online games or ticket purchase options though the Idaho Lottery does offer several smartphone apps for checking winning numbers and finding agent locations.
There has been some very incremental additions to the Idaho gambling menu in the past few years. In 2011, simulcast horse betting became legal for off track facilities to offer. This hasn’t exactly been a huge hit and only eight OTB licenses have been issued to date. The state’s largest horse racing facility—Les Bois Park—closed down in 2016 and the Idaho State Racing Commission lists only 27 total live race dates for 2018 after offering just 24 in 2017. Betting on ‘historical horse races’ became legal in 2018.
The state has several Native American casinos but due to Idaho’s otherwise restrictive gaming laws they offer little more than Class 2 (bingo style) slot machines, pull tabs and off track betting. Live poker—even home and social games—are prohibited under Idaho law. From a practical standpoint, however, home games appear to be tolerated now. In 2011, a bust of a small stakes game among senior citizens became a PR fiasco for the state and some procedural changes were put into place to make it difficult to arrest citizens for home poker. That being said, it remains technically illegal. In an interesting twist social poker is illegal but bets among players in pool and billiard games is specifically legal under Idaho gaming regulations.
The bottom line is that the best option for Idaho gamblers is roughly the same as for Utah gamblers—head for the border. Although Washington and Oregon to the West and Montana to the East offer some limited gambling options the residents of Southern Idaho have it the best if only due to their proximity to Nevada. The small border town of Jackpot, Nevada is 43 miles from Twin Falls, Idaho and has several casinos offering primarily slot machines. From Boise, it’s a four hour drive to either Elko or Winnemuca though if you’re going to commit to a ‘road trip’ you might as well drive a couple more hours to Reno.