Roger (Kit) Carson has that thin, weary, seen-it-all sophistication that blackjack dealers share with homicide detectives, pool sharks and White House correspondents. He snaps a card out of a four-deck shoe and slides it across one of the green-baize tables at Belle's Club, the Minot, N.Dak., strip joint where he's pit boss.
Belle's Club is the kind of place a rattlesnake wouldn't bring his mother. Women wearing little bitty black leather bikinis often sit down for a hand or two. Sometimes they wear only half a bikini. They dance here, and when they dance, the other half may disappear. "Sometimes," says Carson, "I'll be watching the dancers and forget what the deal is."
The deal is that Belle's Club is one of the state's 514 gambling sites, 270 of which have blackjack. Besides Nevada and Atlantic City, North Dakota is the only place in the United States where you can play the game of 21 legally. High rollers from Texas, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong are not yet, however, jetting into Minot, Bismarck and Rugby because the state-enforced betting limit is a heavy two bucks.
Still, there are enough two-dollar bettors to have wagered $261 million since 21 was introduced in 1981. And though blackjack fever has subsided somewhat in the last three years, $17.4 million crossed the tables in fiscal 1985-86. All this is for good—and allegedly good—causes. The way casino gambling is set up in North Dakota, charities actually run the games. They buy the cards, pay the dealers and even supply the tables the game is played on.
Prairie Public Television is the biggest blackjack operation. It took in $2.2 million last year from 15 sites. Cystic Fibrosis ran games that made $870,000, Multiple Sclerosis, $206,000, and the Drayton Curling Club, $3,000. In Fargo, the local art museum, opera house, community theater and dance company all made a lot of their money from gambling. Understandably, these days the various recipients are especially pleased with the proceeds. "The declining farm economy has lessened the impact of traditional fundraisers," says Gary Larson, gaming administrator for MS. "Gambling at least lets us begin to take up the slack. It allows us a great deal more freedom in patient support, providing wheelchairs and conducting research." Even cultural organizations in Minnesota border towns sponsor North Dakota blackjack. The Plains Art Museum in Moorhead, Minn. has run the action at the Blue Wolf in Fargo since 1982. "When we started we were almost out of business," says Sue Stangeland, gaming director for the museum. "Now we're almost flourishing."
Blackjack has sparked the only tourist trade that Lawrence Welk's home state ever had. ( North Dakota is still last among states in its expenditures on tourism.) There's not much to see there; about all North Dakota has to offer between the Badlands and the Red River Valley is the world's largest concrete buffalo, a 60-ton creation you'll find not roaming through Jamestown. The only real attraction was Sitting Bull's grave. However, in 1953 some South Dakotans snatched the Sioux chiefs remains and reburied him under 20 tons of concrete. Some North Dakotans claim that the thieves didn't get the right man, but nobody comes to the state to see Sitting Bull's grave these days. Nor do they come, one assumes, to verify the existence of towns with such names as Hoople, Gackle and Zap.
Two-dollar blackjack may be be too tedious for card counters, but it has helped lure a convention or two and the national slo- and fast-pitch softball championships. When 21 was new, busloads of citizens from Duluth and Minneapolis endured the 250-mile, five-hour drive for the action at the tables in Fargo. "Then the novelty wore off," says Bob Sather, a clerk at the Fargo bus depot. "I'll bet in the last 18 months you could count on one foot the number of charter buses."
So legislators recently voted to allow such Las Vegas and Atlantic City come-ons as tip betting and hole-card no-peek. The law will go into effect on Nov. 1. And though the state legislature in 1985 voted down a measure to raise the limit to $5, an increase might be reconsidered sometime during the next year.
Fargo draws the biggest blackjack play in North Dakota. Once known mainly as the windiest city in the country, it is now called Las Fargo and Reno on the Red. Bettors can choose between 33 different parlors, ranging from Moose Lodge No. 1410 to the lately elegant Monte Carlo Casino to Cactus Jack's Saloon inside the West Acres bowling alley. The Fargo Holiday Inn's Brass Mint Casino Lounge has more tables—10—than any blackjack parlor within 1,000 miles.
The whole thing started just down Highway 10 in West Fargo. A 1977 state law allowed charities to sell pull-tabs, otherwise known as prairie slot machines. You dip your hand into a pickle jar full of folded paper chances, each costing a dollar. If you pull out one that matches the magic number you win maybe $50. A pull-tab maker suggested to fund-raisers for multiple sclerosis that the jars be put in bars. They picked West Fargo.