House Bill 2345, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Guillen, is a social poker bill that seeks to better define the terms “economic benefit” and “private place” in the Texas Penal Code to give private poker clubs legal standing.
Texans for Texas Hold ’em, an organization founded by The Lodge Card Club owner Doug Polk, drafted Guillen’s bill with the purpose of making Texas poker rooms clearly legal under the law.
Dozens of private poker clubs exist throughout the state, but, due to legal ambiguity, they are under fire from city officials and have even been raided by the police during high-profile tournaments.
Legal action against poker clubs in Dallas
Even though Texas has a long history with poker, card houses that feature poker games operate in a gray area of Texas law that does not specifically ban them but does not clearly define the requirements for operation.
HB 2345 seeks to remove the legal ambiguity and make them legal once and for all.
More than 70 card clubs are operating in the state, according to estimates. They’re primarily in the four metropolitan areas of Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin.
As the game’s popularity grows, the clubs’ legality has been questioned. That has resulted in action being taken against Texas card clubs. Two clubs in particular, the Texas Card House and Shuffle 214, are being targeted. The Dallas City Attorney’s Office is trying to revoke their permits to operate less than a year after giving the same permits.
The clubs, however, remain open pending the legal outcome. The city has also brought a similar suit against the Poker House of Dallas.
A need for clarity around key terms
The laws in Texas that allow poker rooms to operate are convoluted, to say the least. The bottom line is that gaming in Texas is illegal unless it is social gaming. This means the business hosting the games may not take a rake, a cut of the winnings. The participants only wager among themselves.
Texas Penal Code Chapter 47.02.b makes gambling permissible if:
- The gambling occurs in a private place;
- No person receives any economic benefit other than personal winnings;
- Except for the advantage of skill or luck, the risks of losing and the chances of winning are the same for all participants.
The wording causes some ambiguous interpretations. For instance, there is no clear definition as to what constitutes a “private place” or what exactly is meant by “economic benefit.”
Even more problematic is that the Texas Penal Code specifically provides a defense to prosecution for gambling offenses and keeping a gambling place. The trouble is the phrase “defense to prosecution.” This wording makes it difficult for business owners of social clubs to operate as the burden of proof of legality automatically falls on them, yet the language of the law does not provide an easy way to prove their legality.
New wording would make private poker clubs legal in Texas
HB 2345, therefore, wants to make amendments to the Penal Code.
In Section 1. Section 47.01, this phrasing would be added:
Subdivision (2-a) “Economic benefit” means direct winnings from a game of skill or luck. The term does not include a benefit received before a game commences or after payment of the direct winnings from the game.
(8) “Private place” means a place to which the public does not have access without a valid membership, special invitation or prior grant of permission, and excludes, among other places, streets, highways, restaurants, taverns, nightclubs, schools, hospitals and the common areas of apartment houses, motels, office buildings, transportation facilities and shops.
In Section 2: Points out that the change in law made by this Act applies only to offenses committed on or after the effective date of this Act. Offenses committed before the effective date are subject to the current laws.
In Section 3: States that the Act takes effect on Sept. 1, 2023.
HB 2345 lands in House Licensing & Administrative Procedures Committee
Guillen’s campaign received $25,000 from the Las Vegas Sands PAC last year. It was hoped the lifelong Democrat who recently switched parties in 2021 due to redistricting would become a key supporter of legalized gambling during this legislative session.
Guillen’s bill has been referred to the House Licensing & Administrative Procedures Committee, a nine-member standing committee.
The House Licensing & Administrative Procedures Committee is a good fit for the bill seeing as some of its functions already include oversight of subjects concerning the gaming industry:
- Businesses, industries, general trade and occupations regulated by the state;
- The regulation of greyhound and horse racing and other gaming industries;
- The Texas Lottery.
House Licensing & Administrative Procedures Committee makeup
- Craig Goldman
- Sam Harless
- Ken King (chair)
- Jared Patterson
- Matt Schaefer
- Matt Shaheen
- Ana Hernandez
- Abel Herrero
- Tracy O. King
- Senfronia Thompson
- Armando Walle (vice chair)
Poker rooms provide economic benefits
Poker brings significant benefits to Texas.
As stated on the Texans For Texas Hold ’em website:
“The 75+ social poker clubs currently operating in the state employ more than 3,000 Texans with well-paying jobs. These clubs annually raise money and host tournaments for local charities such as food banks, Toys for Tots, and Operation Blue Santa.
“Special events at Texas social poker clubs bring thousands of visitors to the state each year, bolstering local economies and tax revenues. Additionally, poker players who would move or travel out of state to play now opt to stay put in the great state of Texas.”
The House Licensing & Administrative Procedures Committee has not scheduled a hearing for HB 2345.