Houston Poker Room Incident Highlights Risk Of Unregulated Games

Written By Hill Kerby on May 8, 2024
Dealer shuffling cards, signifying shady dealings at Houston card rroms

A video posted online last week by professional poker player Shaun Deeb shows a dealer at a Houston cardroom shuffling a deck of cards in a suspicious manner.

The six-time World Series of Poker bracelet-winner calls out the dealer on X, alleging that most of the cards remained unshuffled.

The incident at Houston’s Legends Poker Room highlights the dangers of playing poker at an unregulated cardroom. And in Texas, they’re all unregulated.

PlayTexas reached out to Houston poker player Jonathan Tamayo to discuss the city’s poker scene and how often these incidences occur in Texas and elsewhere.

In Texas, Players Must Watch Dealers Closely, Tamayo Says

Technically, playing poker in Texas for money is illegal. The law says it’s against the law to bet money on any games “played with cards, dice, balls, or any other gambling device.” That includes online poker in Texas.

To get around the law, cardrooms in Texas operate as unregulated social clubs. Social clubs are not subject to the same regulations as legal poker rooms in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Nevada, and other states.

In fact, poker games played in most casinos and cardrooms worldwide operate in regulated environments. If you suspected a shady dealer in a licensed room, you could call the floor manager and ask them to check the cameras to confirm that everything was legit. You could even escalate the issue to a regulatory board if you weren’t satisfied with the response.

Because Texas cardrooms are unregulated, Tamayo said players must look out for themselves. Of course, the game of poker has existed, evolved and grown in popularity throughout history partly because it is a self-governing game. Decades ago, cheaters got shot. Today, they are banned from casinos or are uninvited from private games.

Tamayo said players have to watch dealers more closely in Texas. Standard operating procedures exist for a reason, including shuffling and deck-cutting methods. Savvy players can usually catch a cheating dealer simply by watching how they handle chips and cards. A dealer must be highly coordinated to execute a cheating action.

And people talk. If a dealer is suspected of cheating, word gets out, and they can lose their job and have a hard time getting another dealer job in the future.

Legends and Other Texas Cardrooms’ Shaky Pasts

The incident in Houston was not a one-off. In his post on X, Deeb said a floor person at Legends “confirmed multiple dealers were fired for messing with the decks in the past month.”

In addition to the recent cheating allegation, Legends has fallen under fire multiple times throughout its history. Literally. Multiple shootings occurred at the property in 2022.

Another violent incident occurred in December 2021 at the cardroom involving 2003 WSOP Main Event runner-up Sammy Farha. Farha had a longstanding dispute with a former dealer at another property. The two went to blows when playing a poker game together at Legends.

Interestingly, that other property was Johnny Chan’s 88 Social Poker Room, which shut down after becoming insolvent. Tamayo recounted the cardroom’s history, saying rumors of its insolvency began after players and dealers were limited to withdrawing $2,000 daily. The rumors proved accurate. Chan’s shut down in December 2021.

Prime Social, another club in Houston, still exists today but has fallen far from its heyday in 2021. Three years ago, it ran tournaments with over $1 million prize pools. Then, allegations of a rigged shuffling machine led to a player walkout, managers quitting and the room’s subsequent downfall, Tamayo said.

“In Texas, because it is an unregulated environment, Shuffle Master will not lease out its DeckMate 2. If you notice on streams for Texas games, everything is hand-shuffled. But there was one DeckMate 2 at Prime. How do you obtain a DeckMate 2? You got it on the secondary market.”

The DeckMate 2 is a professional shuffling machine with advanced technological capabilities. If the machine is compromised, information about the shuffle can be accessed and relayed to a player at the table.

Players Must Protect Themselves Regardless of Where They Play

Poker rooms have operated in Texas as social clubs for almost a decade, starting in Houston and expanding to many cities statewide. According to Tamayo, not all rooms are created equal.

“There’s only four rooms I would go to [in town]. Two Texas Card House rooms, Champions Club and one near home called The Hangar.”

You’re less likely to be cheated by the house at a larger, more established cardroom for two main reasons:

  • The cardroom has too much to lose by soiling its reputation.
  • Larger cardrooms employ more dealers, meaning you’ll see the same dealer less often during a session, which reduces the chance a dealer will cheat any one player.

Tamayo added that some smaller operations try to drum up business by advertising no door fees, large bad beat jackpots and the like. Both are illegal in Texas and can take a lot more money from players than from charging a regular membership fee like established cardrooms.

“If there’s weird boxes on the side of the table that aren’t a dealer tip box, there’s weird things going on.”

Cheating Can Happen Anywhere At Any Time

By electing to play at the largest, most legitimate rooms, Tamayo feels less at risk of falling victim to a cheating incident. In seven-plus years of playing at Houston cardrooms, he’s never seen any egregious attempts at cheating by the house.

He’s seen a few poor attempts at collusion, but each was foiled, he said.

Of course, it goes the other way as well. Tamayo said players will always try to cheat, even if the world is watching. Professional poker player Mike Postle has been accused of cheating in several televised and livestreamed games.

But there are no hard-and-fast rules for identifying cheating. Players have to use critical thinking and be aware of their surroundings.

Tamayo shared one tip: If a small room has an abnormally large game, you should ask yourself why it’s not running at a larger cardroom. Who is involved in the game?

It very well could be legit. But if something seems off, don’t play.

Photo by Shutterstock
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Hill Kerby

Hill Kerby is a proponent of safe, legal betting, and is grateful to be able to contribute to growing the industry. He has a background in poker, sports, and psychology, all of which he incorporates into his writing for PlayTexas.

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