Half a dozen people sat on bar stools at the Draft Sports Bar & Grill in Concord watching two screens, split between college football and baseball. Some were nibbling at piles of French fries and chicken wings. A few others sipped beverages as they played a casual game of pool. It was an average Thursday night.
But a staircase lined with lights almost hidden behind tables in a corner of the restaurant reveals something entirely different.
Three neon signs read “Casino.” Electronic gaming machines are displayed in rows on the wall. At one end of a long room, there’s a blackjack table, roulette wheel and poker tables covered in chips.
“It’s like our own speakeasy in here,” said owner Andy Sanborn, walking through the room decorated with metallic gold wallpaper.
Sanborn has been operating the “Concord Casino” in the basement of The Draft for three months now. In his new gaming space, he has set up an assortment of table games you would expect to see at an American casino, like blackjack, poker, Criss Cross and roulette.
Casinos and betting on casino-style games are technically illegal in New Hampshire, but businesses are allowed to host gaming nights if 35 percent of all revenue goes to charity. Players can only make bets between $1 and $10.
The state of New Hampshire is the only state in the country allows gambling through charity betting – and the business can be lucrative for charities that participate.
In 2018, people put down $26.1 million dollars down on the table at charity betting establishments, according to the New Hampshire Lottery Commission. Charities saw $9.1 million dollars of that money. The state netted $2.7 million in taxes.
However, those numbers could be even higher since charitable gaming is a cash-dominated business that operates with little auditing from the state Charitable Gaming Commission.
Concord Casino has become the twelve charity betting establishment in the state. It’s the only one that exists in Concord – the next nearest charity gaming establishments are in Manchester and Belmont – and Sanborn said he’s hoping it can bring a lot of funding to Concord charities.
“If you’re going to ask a community to embrace something, the promise has to be, ‘You embrace it and we give back,’ ” Sanborn said. “Our goal is to truly give back to those who are giving. An operation that is embraced by the community can literally give millions of dollars to charity – that’s real help.”
Sanborn said he hasn’t done any advertising for the casino yet. Customers have come in mostly from word-of-mouth, or they’ve seen signs for it in the Draft. Still, he said the business has done well so far.
At 8 p.m. on a Thursday, most tables at the Concord Casino were filled with customers.
The majority of the dealers at the tables were women – but all of the patrons, on that night, were men wearing in t-shirts or flannels, jeans and work boots. When one customer won big at “New Hampshire Hold ‘Em” game, a group of friends cheered and clapped their hands.
“Where can you go out, besides watching the Patriots on Sunday, that you get that?” Sanborn said. “This is what every night is like.”
Sanborn said he and his wife, State Rep. Laurie Sanborn, decided to open Concord Casino because they wanted to find a way to bring something new to the downtown.
“The city just invested all of this money into Main Street and they did a really great job, but it still raises the question of, ‘What do you do after 5 o’clock in the city of Concord?” Andy Sanborn said.
“In this world, you have to offer something to your customers, and we’re offering fun. There’s not a lot of things you can do to be social as an adult. We call it ‘date night’ – come in with your friends or spouse and just sit at a table and start playing and you start making friends,” Laurie Sanborn said, wearing earrings and a necklace decorated with queen of hearts playing cards.
The Sanborns said they are hoping to start gaming nights where they teach community members how to play. On Oct. 1, they are hosting their first Learn to Play night, a free event with nondenominational chips for women only. There will be a wine tasting and the dealers will be female.
Sanborn said in the short time they’ve been open, he’s heard a lot of positive feedback from customers and charities. So far, the Concord Casino has done so well he already wants to expand.
Troy Cray, of Weare, was one of the men sitting at the New Hampshire Hold ‘Em table. He said he’s played every one of the games at the Concord Casino since it opened.
“Anytime I come here, I’m impressed. They’re very professional,” he said. “They make sure they do it right. Everything is on camera and if there’s any mistake they’ll go over it again.”
Norman Roberge, treasurer of the Dunbarton Historical Society, said money his organization received during their 10 days with Concord Casino will be used to help renovate and preserve a Jameson cape in town from 1785.
“Whatever we raised here, will be able to go directly into that project, with a very low physical effort from the organization,” Roberge said.
The charity of the night on this recent Thursday was Canine Commitment, a local dog rescue. The name of the organization was written on a white board in the room. Promotional posters of dogs with Canine Commitment’s information were scattered throughout the room.
Ross Norwood, who works at that organization, was looking on as people sat around tables, playing different games.
“Fundraising is hard. There’s a lot of work that goes into it, there’s a lot of competition,” Norwood said. “When you’re running a charity event, there’s a lot of advance money you put forward in hopes you get it back. Charity gambling is very low stakes for us. This alleviates a lot of that stress.”
Sanborn said he hopes the funding the Casino generates for charity will alleviate some of the unease people have around gaming.
“There are some people who think what we’re doing is bad and that there’s a darkness to it and are concerned about it but it’s just not like that,” he said.
There are still many people in the community who have concerns about gambling. At-Large Concord City Councilor Byron Champlin said he isn’t opposed to charity gambling but doesn’t like the concept of using a “good cause” to justify gaming.
“The reservation I have about charity gambling is there’s a pattern of using heartstring issues like charities or like education, for full-day kindergarten and using those to gloss over the negative sides of gambling to get people to accept introducing gambling into communities,” he said. “It’s used as a way to soothe people’s concerns about gambling by saying part of the money is going to go toward good services.”
He said another concern is that usually the customers are poorer people who are funneling their money into gaming.
“A lot of the time it’s lower-income people that end up paying for it, but no one wants to talk about that,” Champlin said. “It’s their choice and people will argue that they get to spend their money in any way they desire – but my own question is should we as a society be encouraging it?”
Sanborn said the risk is a lot lower at a place like Concord Casino than a full-fledged casino, like the casino at the Encore Boston Harbor Hotel.
“We have two entirely different demographical customers,” he said. “The maximum you can bet here is $10. At the Encore, on Thursday, Friday, Saturday night, the minimum you can bet is $50. It’s a completely different person who wants to bet $1 than someone who wants to bet $50 or $100. There aren’t people coming down here rolling out big rolls of money.”
He said even the people who don’t win any games tend to be more positive about the experience because they know any money they lose is going to charity.
“People want to do this, they want to have some fun, and they recognize that if you have a night where you lost $50, $100, that 35 percent goes to a charity,” he said. “It’s amazing how many people become more charitable at that point and you’ll hear players be like, ‘I just lost 50 bucks, but it’s going to charity.’ ”
Sanborn said there are other guidelines charity betting establishments must follow. For example, they can’t just pick any charity to spotlight. There’s a good amount of paperwork that goes into getting a charity approved. The person responsible for handling the money within an organization must undergo a fingerprinted criminal background check, for one. The organizations must have been established for two years and be in good standing with the state and federal governments.
Additionally, none of the charities are allowed to lose money by participating in charity betting. The host must absorb all the risk.
“When it comes to the risk side of it, a charity is not allowed to lose money, so if you take it on the chain, you have a week where you have a ton of good players clean you out, I eat it,” Sanborn said. “But that’s kind of the risk and reward of trying to make it happen.”
He said the benefit to local communities outweighs any small potential risk introducing gaming might pose.
“It a rare thing where you can raise money to help a charity that’s doing great things, that you can raise money for the state of New Hampshire on a taxation basis, you can take the pressure off of local community budgets – you can do all those things without making people pay taxes,” he said.
The Sanborns wouldn’t say how much of gaming revenue has gone to charity in the three months since they’ve been open.
“We’ve been able to in a significant way help these charities,” Laurie Sanborn said. “We’re hoping to do a lot more in the future.”