Last week, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton declined to issue an opinion regarding the legality of poker clubs in the state. For the time being, the clubs can remain open for business.
In January, state Rep. Geanie Morrison had requested that Paxton issue an opinion on the matter due to the sheer volume of clubs that have opened in the last few years. Paxton’s office cited ongoing litigation as the factor for remaining silent about the question.
“When a legal matter is being litigated, the courts are generally the appropriate forum for resolving the issue,” responded Virginia Hoelscher, opinion chair for the attorney general’s office. For parties on both sides of the argument, the non-opinion felt unsatisfying.
Texas poker clubs operate legally, or at least, are trying to do so
Texas law surrounding poker and gambling is set up for gambling to fail. The statute only provides for acceptable defenses to prosecution, rather than any kind of explicit legality.
In order to remain in compliance with the law, anyone who wishes to gamble must satisfy ALL the following conditions:
- The actor engaged in gambling in a private place.
- No person received any economic benefit other than personal winnings.
- Except for the advantage of skill or luck, the risks of losing and the chances of winning were the same for all participants.
The clubs that have appeared in Texas are trying to abide by these requirements as best they can. So, they typically conduct business in the following ways:
- The clubs are private establishments with required membership criteria. Players can be banned or disallowed for violating club rules.
- The clubs do not collect rake or tips from any money in play. All tips, time charges, or any other kind of player expenditure occurs with money not in play.
- The clubs run a fair game with impartial dealers and floor personnel.
However, both club owners and concerned citizens would appreciate an opinion from the state attorney general about whether these practices satisfy the statute’s requirements. Carl Pittman, owner of The Poker Club of West Houston, said as much back in May.
“The only way we knew how to do this was absolutely legal,” he said. As Pittman mentioned later, both he and his partner, Scott Ketchum, are former law enforcement officers. They have dedicated most of their lives to upholding the laws on the books.
The legality of the clubs is at the heart of the referenced litigation
The appearance of these clubs stems from one immutable fact: Texans simply want a place to play poker legally without having to cross state lines. Even the lawsuit Paxton referenced in his deferral is regarding legal compliance.
In the lawsuit, Texas Card House in Austin accuses SA Card House in San Antonio of operating with an illegal business model and competing unfairly because of it. The suit also requests that the court clarify the law regarding policies of operation.
The facts of the case underline the absurdity of Texas’s law vis-a-vis the will of its people. When the players and room runners themselves are literally begging for legal opinions, it may be time to reexamine the statutes.
Whatever the court decides, the presence of so many clubs suggests that Texans are ready for legal poker. Let’s hope the lawmakers are listening with their ears on this one.