On his way to the State Fair on Monday, Derek Zollner and his wife were approached by a man passing out free tickets to play a game just outside the East gate.
Intrigued, they stepped up to a booth run by a group of white-haired, older gentlemen beckoning passersby with distinctly Southern accents.
The rules of the game seemed simple. Players would roll a cup of eight marbles onto a board perforated with holes each numbered one through six. To score, the marbles had to land on values that added up to a number corresponding with a chart, which listed out points. The objective was to reach 100 points to win $100 cash or a prize.
Zollner's wife lost instantly. But Zollner won with his free toss. The booth operator computed the score with lightning mental math and swept the board clean, handing Zollner a dollar bill. He was impressed. What kind of fair game pays out actual money?
The operator told him to bet that dollar for a chance to win five. Zollner had another good toss. He'd just won 50 points, halfway to the prize of a small drone, the operator said. Bet another five bucks to keep going.
Things escalated quickly, Zollner says. Rolling one high-frequency number would double the pot, so he'd have to keep betting. He found himself putting up $40 a bet for a jackpot of $700, while his points crept steadily closer to 100. When he peaked 90 points, he realized he was out $206 -- everything he had.
His day at the fair ruined, Zollner returned home to research the game. He found that it was nearly identical to the crooked game Razzle of New Orleans infamy, which is basically impossible to win.
In Razzle, the operator lies from the outset that rolls are successful when they really aren't in order to give away points and hook the player. The marbles are cleared away so quickly that the player can't double check the math, and the rest is fueled by the psychological pressure of costs sunk and a big prize.
Furious, Zollner returned to the booth on Tuesday. At first he pretended he wanted to gamble some more, recording the operators with his phone. Then he demanded his money back, accusing the men of running a rigged game.
The manager came over, Zollner said, and tried to play it cool. The manager insisted that people do win.
"And I said, 'No, this is Razzle.' As soon as I said that, they all shut their mouths and they all knew they were busted," Zollner recalls.
"I started ragging on them about stealing money from innocent, hardworking people, like 'how do you sleep at night? ... This is Minnesota. This shit isn't going to fly here."
The manager offered Zollner's $200 back as long as he didn't call the police. Zollner snatched the cash and demanded more money. They offered a prize. He suggested they give him two.
Walking away with a drone and a wireless speaker system, Zollner called St. Paul Police anyway.
Cops were busy, however. By the time they arrived, the booth was gone, according to police spokesman Steve Linders.
Betting, paying to play a game of chance for the opportunity to win money, is illegal in Minnesota. Legal gambling is limited to charitable gambling, including pull-tabs, bingo, and raffles, as well as the state lottery, horse races, and tribal gaming.
Nevertheless, illegal pop-up gambling booths have enticed surprisingly many people. When Zollner posted about his confrontation on Facebook, hundreds shared the post, and at least a dozen people recalled losing hundreds of dollars to either the same group of people or similar games set up at festivals across the country.