One of the cruelest of life’s ironies (for gamblers, anyway) has long been that one could not legally play Texas Hold’em in the state of Texas. However, a small group of card clubs around the state seek to remedy that fact.
I recently sat down with the owners of the newest of these clubs, The Poker Club of West Houston. The club, which will open for business on May 7, seeks to become the example for legal poker in Texas.
It’s not easy to gamble in Texas
Texas law on gambling is rather austere. Except for lottery, bingo, and live racing carveouts, Texans must go to one of two Native American operations or travel out of state to gamble.
Otherwise, they are breaking the law. Or are they? There is a section of the code that proves relevant to the issue:
It is a defense to prosecution under this section that:
- (1) the actor engaged in gambling in a private place;
- (2) no person received any economic benefit other than personal winnings; and
- (3) except for the advantage of skill or luck, the risks of losing and the chances of winning were the same for all participants.
It is within these exceptions that The Poker Club of West Houston seeks to exist.
“The only way we knew how to do this was absolutely legal,” said Carl Pittman, President and CEO. Mr. Pittman and his business partner, Scott Ketcham. They spoke at length about their efforts to abide by the narrow spaces in the law that would allow them to offer poker to clients.
How poker clubs may thread the needle in the law
The easiest part to satisfy is the clause about risks of winning or losing – they simply need to run a fair game. However, they must conduct business in a specific way to satisfy the other two parts of the defense.
To qualify as a private place, the club will require potential members to complete an application, submit an initiation fee, and play through a 30-day probation period before they are granted full membership.
“We don’t want everybody to be a member of this club,” said Pittman. “That (makes the club) no different than your country clubs.”
The portion of the law about receiving economic benefit forbids raking the pots in any way. The Poker Club of West Houston plans to charge an hourly seat fee, which will avoid the problem somewhat.
Also, the amount of the fee will not change regardless of the level of game, meaning that the club has no preference for one type of game or another. In fact, the payment for the hourly fees will remain separate from any activity on the table – all to remove any appearance of the club deriving economic benefit from the outcome of games.
So, to say they have no interest in breaking the law is to put it very mildly. Pittman and Ketcham also pledge to report cash transactions above the $10,000 threshold to the IRS, in accordance with Title 31 of the Code of Federal Regulations.
They even have self-exclusion forms for problem gamblers to bar themselves. Both men are committed to maintaining the highest standards of conduct with any club business.
As Ketcham said, “Our goal is to be a benchmark standard.” Those standards also extend to safety and security concerns.
How to keep the games safe?
Both Pittman and Ketcham are former law enforcement officers with nearly 45 years of experience between them. Though both are extremely friendly, they assured me that their experience would guide them in keeping players and personnel safe.
To that end, I noticed cameras all over the walls at the The Poker Club of West Houston. The cashier cage is an actual cage with key-coded doors.
Pittman and Ketcham also mentioned that armed security will be onsite during games. The club will also offer valet parking and shuttle parking to cut down on parking lot incidents.
The two owners also said the club would allow players to carry concealed weapons, as per Texas law. The idea behind these efforts is to reduce the club’s status as a soft target for thieves.
Success depends on the community
Ultimately, the success of The Poker Club of West Houston will depend on the community response. The two owners say that they have had tremendous interest so far – hundreds of inquiries and/or site tours since the marquee sign went up just over two months ago.
They also said that the nearby neighborhood response has been positive. In fact, neither Pittman nor Ketcham could recall any negativity from interactions with the community whatsoever.
Still, there are detractors within this mostly conservative state. This past week, Houston city councilman Greg Travis declared this kind of poker room to be illegal under state law.
That said, this new club will be the sixth of its kind in the Houston area. Their growing popularity is evidenced by the fact that a WPTDeepstacks event will come to Houston in September – the very first major poker event in Houston’s history.
For their part, Pittman and Ketcham hope their caution and good faith efforts to remain compliant with the law will lead to success and permanence. With any luck and their help, poker is here to stay deep in the heart of Texas.
I plan to attend the grand opening on Monday. Be sure to look for my trip report in Part 2 of this story.