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It's Friday night at the bustling VFW in Crystal, and the beer and conversation are flowing. So are sales of paper pulltabs, card-sized games of chance that are stacked on customers' tables.
The VFW sells a whopping $3 million a year in pulltabs. Tearing open the three strips on the tickets to check for a win is a barroom tradition that is quintessential Minnesota. As Minnesota grapples with the slower-than-expected rollout of the electronic pulltab games slated to fund the Vikings stadium, sales of the humble paper tabs hit $920 million last year.
Longtime players say the electronic games are having a hard time competing because the paper games are more "fun,'' complete with their own rituals and superstitions.
"Everyone has their own system for playing,'' explained Helen Branby, of Brooklyn Park, sitting with a stack of pulltabs and a couple of friends at the VFW. "I only open the center [tabs] and then lay down the cards until I've gone through the whole stack.
"Some people, if they're not having good luck, will get off their chairs, walk around it counter clockwise, and start again,'' she added. "Lots of little things. You can't do that with the electronic games.''
Minnesota is the national champion of pulltab sales. Nearly $5 billion were sold here in the past five years. It was the remarkable popularity of these games that prompted lawmakers to project that their high-tech cousins could fund the state's $348 million share of the Vikings stadium.
Minnesotans have spent about $6.6 million on the new electronic pulltabs since they were launched in September. By comparison, they forked over nearly $500 million during the same period for little cardboard games with names like "Up Nort Dere,'', "Jitters'' or "Cowboy Up.''
Gambling leaders expect that will change as the electronic games spread. They are only available at 57 bars and restaurants so far, compared to about 2,800 sites for the paper games. And they've been available just six months, instead of 30 years for paper. But the high-tech games will always face some steep competition, they say.
For decades, paper pulltabs have been a staple at bars and restaurants across the state. Run by charitable organizations, they've funded everything from youth hockey to fire department equipment to student scholarships.
"I've bought a lot of hockey equipment,'' joked Pat Tebben, a regular player at Jethro's Char House & Pub in Mahtomedi.
A family affair
For families such as Tebben's, pulltabs are part of life. The retired resort owner tore open a stack of pulltabs at the bar recently with her daughter Tracy Stone. Stone wound up working for several years as a gambling manager for a St. Paul charity. Stone's son also plays pulltabs, she said.
Like all players, Tebben starts her evenings by buying tickets at the pulltab booth, typically a small corner of the bar with several clear plastic boxes stacked with tickets from different games. Behind the counter, charts are posted showing how many prizes have been won from each game. Knowing what's left in the jar, and the odds of getting a prize, are another reason longtime players favor the paper games over an iPad.
"People take pride in knowing how a game is sitting,'' said Karen Wirkus, gambling manager at Jethro's. "They don't have that option with electronics.''
Sue Yunker, of Plymouth, said trying to guess the odds of winning is much of the fun in playing paper games.
"I was really excited when [the electronic games] first came out,'' said Yunker, sipping a drink at the Golden Valley VFW last week with a handful of tickets. "I even won $300. But they're not any fun. You just press a button and it's over. Here you can play at your leisure.''
A social magnet
While winning "the big one'' is clearly a goal, the opportunities for socializing may well be the biggest draw for the paper games.
Darlene and Darrel Burkstrand, for example, come to the Crystal VFW every Friday night for "date night." The retirees buy about $60 in pulltabs, sit at their favorite table -- next to the meat raffle -- and keep their fingers crossed.
"It's a social game,'' said Burkstrand, a retired school district worker, sipping her drink. "People are friendly. You say hi, maybe talk about the weather. And I like the challenge of opening them up. It's like, 'Oh darn. I didn't get anything tonight.'''
While folks such as the Burkstrands have no interest in trying their luck with the video pulltab games, Branby was ready to check them out. She heard that the prize payouts are higher on the electronic games. The improved odds of winning were meant to lure more players.
But to really lure -- and keep -- more players, the electronic games will need to build their own traditions, say players, because gambling alone isn't what drives Minnesota's mega pulltab sales.
The other trick to boosting sales will be to convince gambling managers that the electronic games are worth the investment, even if customers aren't clamoring for them. Cathy Getty, the Crystal VFW's gambling manager, expects to introduce electronic pulltab games in the months ahead.
But Steve Young, gambling manager at the VFW in Golden Valley, which sells nearly $2 million a year in pulltabs, is taking a wait-and-see approach.
"I've talked to gambling managers,'' said Young. "Some are warming up. Others are waiting for the market to improve. Our plans are to wait until the rollout continues, until the bugs have been ironed out.''
Ultimately, the hope is that electronic games will draw a new generation of younger players -- lifting the humble pulltab into the 21st century and building a Vikings stadium in the process. But that will take time, say fans of the paper games, who are in no hurry to abandon their hobby. Said Yunker: "I'll take my cardboard any day."
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511