Snohomish seniors face betting ban, halting card games

SNOHOMISH, Wash. -- Step into a room at the Snohomish Senior Center and you'll find a full house.

Depending on who you ask, it's either a blessing - or a curse.

"They're in a safe, fun environment, playing cognitive games that get them thinking," said Bob Dvorak, the center's executive director. "The idea is not to come in and play for money; the idea is to get people out of their home."

Turns out, that doesn't matter in the eyes of the law. When the center applied for its annual license with the state gambling commission - to run nickel card games, dime-a-pop bingo rounds - someone there noticed that some of what the senior center was doing was in conflict with a 5-year old city ordinance banning social card games.

"It would be spelled out in the city's ordinance if they want to ban an activity," said Susan Newer, spokeswoman for the Washington State Gambling Commission, "so when we issued their license, we said, 'Snohomish has a ban on card games.'"

The center was forced to put a stop to pinochle and poker for pennies for a few weeks.

"I thought it was ridiculous. We're not betting $500. We're not going for a $1,000 prize. We're going for maybe an $8 prize," said Eileen Lopez, a senior who travels from Sultan to play games with friends. "We're not big gamblers here. We're just older people that love to play pinochle."

"I think it's insane. I don't think it's well thought out. If they look in the dictionary, gambling is defined as games of chance," added Bill Huested, an 87-year old World War II veteran. "This is a place for the seniors to come and have fun safely in nice, clean surroundings. It seems like we're getting hassled unfairly."

That was never the intent of the ordinance, said city Councilmember Tom Hamilton. He points out the law was passed in 2009 when a private business owner wanted to host card games in the heart of the city - for profit.

"We don't want to prevent non-profits from doing this," Hamilton said. "The whole council appears to be united in wanting to find a way (to fix this.)."

The council will take up the issue at Tuesday's regularly-scheduled council meeting. Dvorak is betting on one thing - a large crowd of angry senior citizens.

"I really pray they do (support us)," added Lopez, who is 70 years old. "I look at the council as being younger, but they'll get older someday. We all get my age someday."