Poker Rooms Keep Popping Up In Texas, But Are They Legal?

Steve Ruddock August 12, 2017 391 Reads
Texas Poker

Its name might be attached to the most popular form of poker, and the game’s greatest early practitioners all called the Lone Star State home, but the state of Texas has always looked at poker as an illegal activity.

For decades, if you wanted to find a game of poker in Texas you’d have to locate an underground game or card room.

Thanks to a loophole in Texas law, and a group of enterprising businessmen that is beginning change.

A handful of “legal” poker rooms have begun to pop up in Texas. Whether they remain open is anyone’s guess.

The Texas gambling laws

Texas law seemingly forbids poker, and outside of charity games and unraked home games, no one has challenged Texas’s ban on for-profit poker games.

Section 47.02 of the Texas Penal Code states, it’s an offense if a person:

 (3)  plays and bets for money or other things of value at any game played with cards, dice, balls, or any other gambling device.

But it also states:

(b)  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.

A literal reading of the law would lead you to believe, poker is a-ok, so long as:

  • you’re in a private building;
  • no one is profiting from hosting the game; and
  • the game is fair.

How the legal card rooms work

The card rooms that are popping up in Texas are private clubs that provide rake-free poker games, as well as bridge, backgammon, chess, and beyond. Instead of a rake, which would make the game illegal per the Texas Penal Code cited above, the clubs charge membership fees, and in some cases seat rentals. The latter seems to be pushing the legality envelope even further.

Michael Eakman’s club, Mint Poker in Southeast Houston is one such example.

“In our conversations with the city attorney here in our jurisdiction, we made everyone aware of what we were doing before we even signed the lease,” Eakman told the Houston Chronicle. “I certainly don’t want to challenge anyone to bring a court case, but I think at the end of the day we’re handling this by being proactive instead of reactive is the way to do this … There are no regulations and guidelines other than the narrow scope of a very vague law.”

Of course, in addition to rake or a seat charge, the sentence, “no person received any economic benefit other than personal winnings,” could cover membership fees.

Will they stay legal?

The million dollar question is: How will the Texas Legislature react to these rooms?

Another owner of a private card club, Sam VonKennel, helped create the Texas Association of Social Card Clubs to lobby the legislature.

“The Legislature hasn’t really seen it yet because it hasn’t really existed,” VonKennel told the local press. “As they pop up, I want to make sure the [legislature] is aware of them. What I would really like to do is get these guys to become licensed with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, and that way they’re absolutely certain they’re on the right side of the law.”

The problem is, the card rooms are new enough that they haven’t landed on the legislature’s radar yet, but like Daily Fantasy Sports, their success, and proliferation may end up being their undoing. Right now there are about a half dozen such clubs, but if they prove successful they’ll likely be popping up across the state.

University of Houston political science Professor Brandon Rottinghaus was quick to point out that being “technically legal” may not be a good enough argument, particularly in the conservative, and historically anti-gambling Texas legislature.

“It probably violates the spirit, if not the letter of the law,” Rottinghaus told the Houston Chronicle. “… in instances like that, there will definitely be a push back where the Attorney General and local law enforcement might take offense to the idea that there might be this illicit expansion of gambling, even if it’s not technically speaking illegal gambling.

“Trying to get around the law on this issue is never profitable. I think that’s the real danger that the people running these clubs have.

You may technically be in the right, but this issue is so fraught with politics and morality that you’re unlikely to succeed.”

Even if they’re deemed legal, I would expect the legislature to look at imposing regulations and taxation/licensing fees.