Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcap Pulltabs
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The unofficial lottery
Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcaps skirt the legal line
The top payout for a Wisconsin Sourvenir Milkcaps card is $250. Although the games look official, they’re not part of the Wisconsin Lottery.
When the Ohio Tavern reopened as a taco lounge in the fall of 2016, the pull tab machine hanging up on the wall spit out a rare $250 winner — the maximum payout. Problem was, the new business hadn’t even made $250 in sales yet. Pull tabs are supposed to be paid out on the spot, in cash.
“It was actually a friend of mine, so we were able to pay him a couple days later,” says Josh Swentzel, the owner of the Ohio.
The Ohio’s pull tabs look like an official lottery. The machine is precise and clean. The cardboard pieces are decorated with iconic slot machine images and spell out your (meager) odds. Even the satisfying resistance as you tear open a game piece seems engineered to please in a way only state-sponsored gambling could manufacture.
But the lottery doesn’t do IOUs. So what are they?
We’re “inclined to agree” that pull tabs — technically known as Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcaps — are “a thinly veiled [illegal] lottery,” the Milwaukee Circuit Court wrote in 2000. The state has blamed this unofficial lottery for siphoning off millions of dollars from legitimate lottery funds. But Wisconsin courts have twice upheld pull tabs as legal under the same statute that allows McDonald’s to run Monopoly promotions.
That legality hinges on the 1990s game Pogs, and whether the cardboard pieces themselves, the ones ripped up and thrown away by the dozens every night at bars like the Ohio, have any value.
Although state officials gripe about the game, bar patrons around the state continue to play it every night. They’re available in all 72 counties and sold locally at numerous taverns, including the Ideal Bar, One Barrel, and the Caribou. Wisconsin’s unofficial lottery seems here to stay.
When Walter Bohrer started Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcaps in the late 1990s, he was inspired by his childhood. “When I was a young lad my parents were immigrants and they had grocery stores in Milwaukee,” says Bohrer, now 87. “And that’s back in the days when they delivered milk bottles door-to-door and they had cardboard milkcaps on the top of the bottles.”
Bohrer held on to his collections and eventually resurrected the game. He considers it primarily a hobby. But it became a matter of principle in January 1999, after Milwaukee police raided his offices, confiscated milkcaps and shut down operations.
So he sued for relief and won in circuit court. Then-Attorney General Jim Doyle appealed. “It cost me quite a bit of money just to fight the state. That’s a David [and] Goliath kind of story,” Bohrer says. “They kept saying to my attorneys, ‘does he know how much money this is gonna cost?’ And of course my attorneys told them ‘he’ll sell the firm, he’s going to go all the way, so don’t use that against him.’”
While Bohrer’s milkcaps resemble the state lottery’s pull tabs, he designed them to meet Wisconsin Statute 100.16. The statute provides exemptions in the anti-gambling laws for “in-pack chance promotions” — all the “no purchase necessary” sweepstakes you might find on a bag of chips or under a soda bottle cap.
To meet the statute, a promotional game piece has to be available free upon request; accurately spell out winning odds; have an end date; and accompany something that has value, not simply be a chance to win money or prizes. The milkcaps ostensibly sell a game piece for the game Pogs, which can be cut out of the center, at a dollar a piece. Only incidentally does the pog come with a chance to win cash.
The courts never questioned that the milkcaps have value as collectible game pieces.
However, the state argued that the statute didn’t define “in-pack chance promotions” and then claimed that milkcaps didn’t meet that missing definition. The court said this “argument, circular at best, makes no sense.” The appellate court also took the state to task for asserting a new claim at the time of appeal.
The matter was settled. Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcaps are legal.
Retailers pay $350 for a stack of 3,600 milkcaps. After all the payouts, they net $770, significantly more than the $225 a retailer would make for selling the same number of official $1 pull tabs. In 2008, a state lottery audit blamed unofficial pull tabs for reaching into the state’s gambling territory at a cost of $23 million a year.
The state Department of Revenue, which oversees the lottery, says that both legal and illegal pull tabs draw money away from their offerings, but does not have updated estimates of the damages.
“Any Lottery market share diverted to pull tab games, whether operating illegally or legally, is money that does not go toward property tax relief,” communications director Patty Mayers wrote in a statement.
Bohrer disagrees that he’s a direct competitor with the lottery. Rather, he insists they have a common enemy.
“I tell [the lottery] over and over again, you know, we actually should both go after the illegal pull tabs because there’s no oversight,” says Bohrer.
Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcaps donates portions of its proceeds to charities, including to cancer research at UW–Madison. At least one widely available game piece specifically advertises its support of breast cancer research. Bohrer declined to share how much his company has donated over the years or its annual sales.
He’s also vague about how many places sell his game, other than to say they’re available in all of Wisconsin’s counties.
Bohrer’s belief in the value of milkcaps as collectible game pieces seems sincere, even if it’s also a convenient legal justification. He is still upset that Milwaukee never returned milkcaps he had in his office when they were raided. His website even offers to buy milkcap collections.
But not all players value milkcaps as collectibles, including the buzzed patrons in bars who quickly trash losing pieces.
The state and Bohrer seem to have reached a détente. Bohrer says he has had no legal problems since 2001. And a video on the business’ Facebook page shows Bohrer being embraced multiple times by Gov. Scott Walker at the 2017 State Fair, where Bohrer bought an animal and donated the meat.
Last generation’s legal troubles might even burnish the business’ reputation now.
“Unlike ANY OTHER pull-tab retailer, Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcaps proved in court that its product was 100 percent legal,” its website advertises. “There was an appeal to the case, and yet again, Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcaps won.”Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcaps look like an official lottery, but state officials have spent years fighting its maker in court. The game has become an institution at bars around the state — even though the game’s legality depends on a dubious claim. ]]>