The Alaska Gambling Scene

Alaska State Seal With a Purple Casino Sign

The biggest state in the USA is Alaska, but it doesn’t have much of a gambling scene at all. Even though it’s large area-wise, the population is relatively small and located in one place – half the population of the entire state lives within a few miles of Anchorage.

Alaska’s economy is one of the smallest in the country, but the income per person there is relatively high. Over 50% of the state is owned by the federal government because of the many national parks and wildlife preserves there. The military also have a big stake there.

But what kind of gambling can a visitor or new resident to Alaska look forward to?

The short answer is, not much.

There Are No Casinos in Alaska

You’ll find no casinos in Alaska, period. The only kinds of gambling you can find in Alaska are bingo halls and pull-tab parlors. Occasional cruise ships offering casino games visit the Alaskan coast, so that’s one option for the dedicated Alaskan gambler of means.

To gamble on pull-tabs in Alaska, you must be at least 21 years old. To play bingo, you only need to be 19. The state doesn’t mandate ages for casino style gambling or real money poker games because there are no Alaska businesses offering such activities.

You ARE allowed to own a slot machine in Alaska, but not if you’re going to let people gamble on it. This means collecting slot machines is fine.

View of an Alaska Lake

Various attempts to legalize gambling have been made over the last three or four decades, but they’ve all met with failure. One of the main reasons that Native American casinos aren’t available in Alaska is because such casinos must be built on trust or restricted land.

And there’s just not much land of that type available in Alaska.

Also, the pull-tab establishments provide a lot of revenue to various nonprofit organizations. These organizations stand to lose revenue if casino gambling is legalized, so they put pressure on the government to keep casino gambling illegal throughout the state.

The same political activity also helps keep Alaska one of the only 6 states without a lottery.

Where Can You Gamble in Alaska?

If you’re not going to gamble on one of the cruise ships, your only real options for gambling in Alaska are in the various community bingo halls and pull-tab parlors in the state.

The most notable of these include:

  • Agate Pulltabs
  • Klawock IRA Pull Tab Shoppe
  • MIC Gaming Hall
  • Native Village of Barrow Pull Tabs

You can play bingo at over 30 different locations in the state, but many of these aren’t solely bingo halls. For example, several of the American Legion halls in the state offer bingo on Friday and/or Saturday nights.

How to Play Bingo in Alaska

Alaska bingo halls offer the standard American bingo variation. You play by buying a bingo card (or multiple bingo cards).

These cards have the letters B – I – N – G – O across the top, and they also have five rows of numbers – a column of numbers under each letter. The middle square is a free space, but the rest of the squares on the grid have a number in them.

The B column has five numbers from between one and 15 in the squares. The I column has five numbers from between 16 and 30 in the squares. And so on, through the letter O and the number 75.

Alaska Bingo Hall

The bingo caller gets a random letter-number combination, calls it out, and if it appears on your bingo card, you mark the spot with a dauber. The most common type of bingo pays off when you get five in a row – diagonally, horizontally, or vertically. The winner gets a payout.

It’s also common for bingo games to pay off for different patterns. One of the more common variations is blackjack, in which every square on the bingo card must get marked.

The prize money comes from the purchase of the bingo cards, so, the more players you have, the bigger the prizes. The bingo hall keeps some of the money from selling the cards, too.

As in most states, Alaska requires operators of bingo games to contribute much of the profits to charity.

How Do Pull-Tab Games Work in Alaska?

You shouldn’t mistake a pull-tab establishment with a casino. The vibe is distinct from a casino vibe.

A pull-tab game compares to a scratch-off lottery ticket. You usually pay a buck to get your pull-tab and find out whether or not you won immediately. The state requires that about 1/3 of the profits go toward charity.

A pull-tab ticket isn’t exactly like a scratch-and-win lottery ticket, though. For one thing, you don’t scratch anything off on a pull-tab ticket. The card has little flaps on it that you pull up.

Pull-tabs are printed in big batches of between 3000 and 10,000 tabs. The pull-tab operators control payouts by the ratio of winning pull-tabs to losing pull-tabs. The sizes of the prizes also affect the payback percentage.

Alaska Pull Tab Parlor

Don’t expect big casino style outfits. Pull-tab shops are usually located in strip malls or gas stations full of bins. These bins are full of pull-tabs, and they get refilled whenever the managers want to refill them.

You’ll tell the staff how many pull-tabs you want to buy and from which bin. You can sit on stools at counters while you check to see if you have winners or not.

Like a scratch-off ticket or even a slot machine, you’ll see a pay table of sorts – you get to see the possible prizes and how many of each prize are available in each batch of pull-tabs.

You can use this information to calculate the return to player for the pull-tab game in question.

An Examples of Calculating the Payback Percentage for a Pull-Tab Game

I’m not actually in Alaska right now, so I don’t have any current pull-tab games to use as an example. Instead, I’m going to use a hypothetical pull-tab game.

In this hypothetical batch, you have a total of 5000 pull-tabs with the following numbers associated with each of them:

  • 5 of them pay off at 350 for 1
  • 5 of them pay off at 250 for 1
  • 5 of them pay off at 100 for 1
  • 5 of them pay off at 50 for 1
  • 25 of them pay off at 5 for 1
  • 750 of them pay off at even money
  • The rest (4205) have no prize at all.

The first thing is to understand the probability of getting a winning ticket.

The probability of that is the number of potential winning tickets divided by the total number of tickets.

You have 795 potential winning tickets out of 5000 total tickets, which means the probability of winning is 15.9%. That’s a low hit ratio, but it’s not terribly low. If you buy a dozen tickets, you’ll probably have two winners.

You can also calculate the probability of getting each prize – that’s just the number of tickets with that prize divided by the total number of tickets:

  • You have a 0.1% probability of getting 350 for 1
  • You have a 0.1% probability of getting 250 for 1
  • You have a 0.1% probability of getting 100 for 1
  • You have a 0.1% probability of getting 50 for 1
  • You have a 0.5% probability of getting 5 for 1
  • You have a 15% probability of getting 1 for 1
  • You have a 84.1% probability of getting nothing

Calculating the return for each prize is just a matter of multiplying the prize amount by the probability of winning that amount. Add all the returns together gives you the overall return for the game:

  • 1% X 350 = 0.35
  • 1% X 250 = 0.25
  • 1% X 100 = 0.1
  • 1% X 50 = 0.05
  • 5% X 5 = 0.025
  • 15% X 1 = 0.15

Add all those expected values together, and you get an overall return to player for this game of 92.5%.

The house edge for this game is only 7.5% — 100% minus the payback percentage of the game.

This would be an exceptionally generous example with a high amount of volatility.

If you spent $100 on pull-tabs from this hypothetical game, in the long run, you’d expect to win back 92 or 93 cents. You’d lose money in the long run.

But once in a while, you’d see some short-term variation and a profit.

Conclusion

There’s not much of a scene in Alaska gambling, and there are no casinos to speak of.

But you can play bingo in Alaska, and you can also buy pull-tabs.

As you can see from the examples in this post, the probability of winning in the long run is practically nil, but that’s true of any kind of commercial gambling in any state – not just Alaska.

Will Alaska ever legalize any other kinds of gambling?

I wouldn’t bet on it.