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The history and legality behind pull-tabs in Wisconsin tavern culture

Patrons enjoying a pull tab game
Matt Hass
Milwaukee Magazine
Patrons enjoying a pull-tab game.

If you’ve ever been to a corner bar in Wisconsin, chances are you’ve seen a pull-tab machine. They’re a staple of tavern culture in the state and a form of light gambling that brings together families and friends while they share a pitcher and complain about the Packers.

Writer Tea Krulos explores the history and legality of pull-tabs in an article for this month’s Milwaukee Magazine.

Pull-tabs charge money in exchange for game pieces that can be unzipped or pulled to reveal cash prizes. However, not all game pieces contain prizes. While the common prize amounts are typically smaller, the maximum is $250. The tabs are legal because of how they're designed and set up. The creators of the pull-tab machines navigate around Wisconsin state statute 100.16, which addresses gambling laws in the state.

While each game piece doesn't contain a cash prize, they each have a collectible component, so the patron buys the collectible while also receiving a chance for larger prizes. Through that specification, the pull-tab machine offers a tangible, valuable item and is then not susceptible to legal action from the state.

"So, it is actually a sweepstake you can write to the company, and they will mail you a game piece. But of course, most people prefer to play it at a bar while they're enjoying a beer. The other thing is if you can attach your thing to something of value, and this is why if you've ever played like McDonald's monopoly, that's legal is because you get some French fries along with your game piece," Krulos says.

Krulos warns that every pull-tab machine in the state may be operating in a different capacity. "I mean, so other pull-tabs that you see out there are probably not legal because, you know, they don't have that collectible feature. You also have to keep records of certain winnings," he says. "You have to clearly state the odds on your game piece. There's a lot of like little details that you have to follow, and some of those other companies are just kind of making like knock-off pull-tabs, I guess I would call them."

Despite not being exclusively found in Wisconsin, Krulos is well aware of the impact that pull-tabs have on tavern and social culture in the state. "They do exist in other states — they usually have a different name that's more of like a localized thing. But yeah, it's a big part of the tavern culture here [in Wisconsin]."

Editor's Note: This story was originally published on March 16,2023.


Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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