There once was a time—t’was ugly, ‘round about when folks believed in a thing called “Manifest Destiny”—whereupon the farther into the “Wild West” one went, the higher the stakes became.
Those who parked in the Upper Midwest declined to play those games of chance. They cashed out, calling it good enough in this land of #blessed plenty, fed by crystalline waters reminiscent of their Scandinavia of yore.
Meanwhile, the true gamblers kept going, hedging their bets that colonizing a new frontier was better than what they held in-hand. Some called it quits at shady card tables amidst John Ford’s brutal backdrop of thirsty deserts. Others went farther, clinging to craggy peaks lacquered more in snow than gold. This later wave of settlers, with an air of invincibility fueled by the recklessness of the atomic age, rode a wave of crime disguised in flashing neon and sequins to the in-between lands.
To this day, such big, braggadocious gambits remain largely outside Minnesotan culture. Clocking in at 30th out of 50 in terms of statewide gambling addiction, we remain oxen in our passions. Even with a bill on the table to legalize sports betting, Minneapolis will never be a second Vegas, and the Iron Range will never rival the Sierra Madres. Doubtless, no one here is upset about this. Instead, we have our own (some might say milder) way of eliciting that particular feeling which only lighting money on fire can produce.
Ours begins with Charity. Yes, that’s right; every single “lawful” form of gambling regulated by the State makes its way back to kids’ sports, veterans and the like, hinging upon the betterment of others. Literally, all the ways to become a hundredaire, or a thousandaire in the neon-lit bar glow, guzzling pints of Premium, is cloaked in a do-gooder ordinance dating back to 1945. Because even when we’re “bad,” we’re still kinda always decent at heart.
From the outside, this seems insane. But maybe it’s just different. And since your March Madness bracket bets have probably already busted, why not join in our charitable fray, basking in that moment where currency sublimates into something else entirely? Into a human experience? Some might call that feeling “hope.”
Here are the best local joints to experience firsthand the way Minnesota converts cash into chaos—“for the greater good.”
For anyone new to the region, the mention of a meat raffle seems like the punchline of a witty ninth-grader’s joke. But stumble into any number of dive bars on a weekend, particularly Friday, 5 p.m.-ish, and find pool tables lined in egregious quantities of shrink-wrapped, donated flesh, waiting to be scored. Hole-in-the-wall gem Dusty’s Bar in Northeast has a classic throw-down each week, as does Half Time Rec, St. Paul’s perennially underrated gem with bocce in its lumpy basement.
There, your long-lost aunt takes a turn about the room, carrying a server tray decorated with white paper tents, each bearing a number. Trade her $1 per piece of paper, each of which bears a number and therefore a chance at the winning draw. Sky’s the limit on how many times you can buy into a single drawing! The winning number is called from a microphone, which is promptly given back to the evening’s musician, and the newly minted Captain Heart Attack saunters over to claim their prize. A bowling ball’s worth of hot dogs? A t-bone spread fit for a family of six? Enough hamberders to feed ten?
(And if you're looking for a complete map of MN meat raffle locations? That exists.)
Rippies. Cardboard Crack. Paper slots. Everyone has a pet-name for the lynchpin of Minnesota’s gambling empire. Sometimes found in vending machines, but most charmingly sold by attendants barricaded into a corner behind transparent PVC boxes teeming with potential, these little squares provide a satisfying sensation of pop-pop-pop when tearing away their three strips to reveal (ideally) matching cartoons and a red stripe denoting cash prizes that can be upwards of $500 in a single play. At places where people pull like they mean it, paper husks of sorrow litter the floor in stacks, like a Texas peanut bar.
We’re not exaggerating: $1, $2, or $5 at a time, Minnesotans played $1.5 billion-worth of them last year alone. And that’s not counting the take from pull tabs’ electronic version tasked with footing the bill for the extraordinarily spendy US Bank Stadium, whose popularity rose so much in the past year that they’ll pay off construction bonds ahead of schedule if they stay the course. Looking to get your fix? Go outside. Walk three steps. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a pull tabs vendor. While the floors at Nordeast’s 1029 can reach ankle-high, we’re partial to warmer locales with manned booths. Try Bull’s Horn in Minneapolis’ Ericsson neighborhood, due to its legitimately perfect burger and delightfully crispy-crunchy KFC wings. There's also Lowertown's Dark Horse, among the only places in the Cities where one can be a fiscal idiot while also eating steak and sipping on a dram of fine, peaty scotch—like the Caol Ila Cask—or any of their 120-plus whiskey options.
Described by a server at Northeast’s 1029 Bar as being “easy, like Russian Roulette!” the Wheel is actually quite milquetoast and has a near-zero chance of killing you. On the other hand, it looks pretty complicated and requires a bit of explanation, and the vertical spinner has a bunch of nail-like things sticking out, which makes it seem a liiiiittle tetanus-y? The basics involve a fixed buy-in: $5 in the case of the 1029’s game, though there are other variations of the “paddlewheel” at establishments like Gabes on the Park, etc. One then claims a set of color-coded numbers corresponding to those on The Wheel from a slotted table. Dive-bar Vanna White gives dizzy a spin, and depending on where the needle stops/how bets were placed, someone gets a (proportionate, albeit fixed) payout, up to triple your principle.
Anywhere else in this fair land, Bingo is the domain of blue-haired biddies and their fourth husbands. Here, this is no exception, though they leave room at their table for the rest of us to join them. At spots like Northeast’s quintessential dive-with-a-fish tank, the Knightcap (Tuesdays!) and Southside’s favorite not-sports sports bar the Cardinal (Saturdays!), a diverse neighborhood crew of regulars have found that showing up week after week, lucky daubers in-hand, not only justifies turning a bar habit into a hobby, but also exponentially increases the number of grandparents in one’s life.
The Daily Shake
Research has suggested this game may *actually* (gasp! Here in Minnesota!!) not be entirely “lawful,” and will in no way benefit The Children. Therefore, at the risk of outing one of our favorite establishments, we conclude this guide with a quest to find the Daily Shake without us telling you exactly where we play.
(Hint: it’s not-not on the West Bank.)
Upon locating the Daily Shake, the rules are simple: One dollar, one roll per person, per day. The gambler needs only roll five-of-a-kind. Any kind. Do so, and a shoebox of cash is forked over, which has accumulated since the last lucky son-of-a came through and rolled Yahtzee.
As with all things in life, the Fates assure no one deserves any of the above, and prizes will vary. Surge of adrenaline, however, is foretold.