Prime Social’s Justin Hammer Talks How Poker Is Taking Hold In Texas

Posted By Martin Harris on April 21, 2021

Texas poker is booming right now. Clubs are expanding, tournament series are growing, and more players than ever are actually playing Texas hold’em in Texas.

Just ask Justin Hammer, Tournament Director for the Prime Social Club, one of the larger of the 30 or so poker clubs operating in the Lone Star State.

“For the last few years it’s been Vegas and L.A. and Florida,” says Hammer, referring to the growth of poker in the country and other “poker meccas” having establishing themselves.

“Now I think Texas is going to be on that map somewhere,” he says. “You’re going to see these big events that are worth traveling for, and series that are worth staying a week and playing in. And it’s going to get bigger and bigger.”

A number of factors are spurring poker’s growth in Texas, including the lifting of COVIDrelated restrictions and an increase in the percentage of individuals receiving vaccinations. Hammer spoke with PlayTexas about the Prime Social Club and its activities, what’s been happening generally speaking with Texas poker, and what the future may hold.

Million-dollar tournaments multiply in Texas poker clubs

Speaking of large tournament series, Hammer has been on hand for a couple of the bigger ones over recent months.

Last October and November, Hammer and the Prime Social Club hosted the first Lone Star Poker Series. The series resulted in guarantees doubled and even tripled throughout, ultimately awarded close to $775,000 across the 16 events. That included a $104,000 guaranteed Main Event that ultimately drew enough entries to push the prize pool to $330,000.

In February, the Prime Social Club ran the even larger Prime Signature Series. The 18-day, 17-event series culminated with a $500,000 guaranteed Main Event (with a $1,100 buy-in). With 1,079 total entries, that prize pool ballooned to a whopping $1,079,000. Timothy Gilliam of Celeste emerged as the winner, collecting $160,390 following a heads-up deal.

The club is now planning another big series for May-June. Meanwhile, the Lone Star Poker Series is making another stop at the Champions Poker Club this month. That series is advertising its series-climaxing tournament as the “Inaugural Texas State $1 Million Guaranteed Main Event.”

Technically speaking, it is the first Texas tournament with a $1M guarantee. However, it won’t be the first with a seven-figure prize pool thanks to Prime Social Club first hitting that milestone in Feb. The Texas Card House in Dallas achieved a similar feat earlier this month with a $500,000 guaranteed tournament attracting enough players to create a $1.246 million prize pool.

The clubs’ successes are no doubt inspiring to each other. As Hammer explains, if Prime Social Club hadn’t “swung for the fences” with its $500,00 event that became a $1 million tournament, other clubs likely would not have been encouraged to stage their own large-scale events.

“There’s going to be a lot more records that are set for the biggest tournament [in Texas],” says Hammer. “There will be more million-dollar events, and the biggest prize pool is going to go up and up and up.”

From Vegas to Houston: Learning the tournament ropes

Hammer started at Prime Social Club in August 2020. Though a relative newcomer to Texas, he brings many years’ worth of poker experience to the position.

Starting in 2007, Hammer worked as a dealer at the World Series of Poker for the next summers. He worked at Binion’s as well where he met Paul Campbell, now the TD at ARIA. “He was kind of my first mentor doing tournaments,” explains Hammer.

In 2011, Hammer began working at ARIA as a tournament manager. He then met another great resource for learning about how to run tournaments, Matt Savage. Eventually, Hammer began working at Commerce and helping to run World Poker Tour events. That relationship ended in 2019. Hammer continued working in California until the pandemic pushed live poker to the sidelines last spring.

As the Texas poker clubs began slowly reopening last spring and summer, Hammer spoke with Brent Pollack, a friend from his Vegas days and now general manager at Prime Social.

“I saw there was a lot of potential there,” says Hammer of the Texas poker scene. “There’s a lot of poker players there, but there weren’t a whole lot of big organized tournaments. There had been a WPT Deepstacks event back in 2018, but generally not a whole lot of tournaments.”

By October, Hammer and Prime Social Club were hosting that first Lone Star Poker Series stop. That series’ success led to more tournaments, including the Prime Signature Series in Feb. which also went especially well, although was not without its challenges.

Tournament poker heating up despite freeze-outs (literal and otherwise)

Running Feb. 11-28, the Prime Signature Series ran while following a 50% restriction on occupancy, per state guidelines.

That wasn’t too problematic in terms of seating. The club normally has 23 tables, and could even bring in a few more and fill them all without hitting that limit thanks to extra space.

However, that meant alternates waiting to enter events could not remain inside the building. That meant some had to endure unusually cold weather before being able to play. Such had to be done, however. Failing to abide by state mandates could have put the event at risk of being shut down.

Speaking of cold weather, we all remember the devastating Texas deep freeze that hit the state in mid-Feb. Hammer certainly won’t forget it.

“The series started on a Thursday, so we had that opening weekend,” says Hammer. While most of the events featured re-entries, the one that first Sunday was a freeze-out allowing just one entry.

“I have done more since, but at that point, I had run exactly one freeze-out in Texas since I had been here,” says Hammer. “The first night that everything froze over was the night that I ran my first freeze-out, just one of those weird cosmic coincidences. We were joking that it was my fault that it froze.”

The freeze and extended loss of power across the state caused considerable damage and loss to many. Meanwhile, at the poker club, it certainly hampered the series’ early momentum. The club was without electricity for one day and had pipes burst. Roads to the club weren’t passable.

But by mid-week, the club and series were getting back on their feet. Finally, by Friday, everything was more or less back to normal. That enabled momentum to rebuild in time for the series-ending Main Event which as mentioned eclipsed the million-dollar total prize pool.

Just days after the series concluded, Gov. Greg Abbott made his dramatic announcement it was “now time to open Texas 100%.” Starting March 10, all capacity restrictions and mandates to wear masks or facial coverings were lifted.

In other words, the reopening of Texas came just after the series had ended. “There were a lot of bad beats there,” laughs Hammer.

Since then, clubs have adopted various approaches. As Hammer reports, wearing masks is now optional for players at Prime Social. Nor is the club using dividers or limiting the number of players at each table.

“But all of the employees still have to wear masks and sanitize,” says Hammer. “We’re still doing all the things on our end to try to make the environment as safe as possible.”

The letter of the law: Clubs continue amid legal uncertainty

This remarkable growth of poker in Texas is taking place amid what remains a somewhat uncertain legal landscape.

In other states where casino gambling and/or poker rooms are legal, there exist gaming control boards to issue operators’ licenses and oversee the games. However, in Texas, poker clubs might operate according to the letter of gambling law, though not everyone necessarily agrees with the clubs’ perspective.

A big difference between Texas poker and what players encounter elsewhere is the absence of a rake in cash games. In order to comply with a restriction against the house taking a percentage of each pot, clubs generally charge a membership fee (usually $10). Many also charge a daily fee (also often $10), then also an hourly fee (usually $12/hour) to play.

Hammer notes how such a system actually often creates deeper-stacked cash games than happens when there is a rake. “Since they’re not raking the pot and you’re paying [to play] basically out of your pocket and not out of the pot, those chips stay on the table. So it creates a much deeper game as it goes.”

As noted, however, the legality of the games has been questioned by some. In May 2019, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg declared “Poker rooms are illegal in the State of Texas.” Ogg made that statement while bringing charges of money laundering against operators of the Prime Social Club and another Houston room, the Post Oak Poker Club.

The clubs were shut down and equipment and money were seized. But two-and-a-half months later the case fell apart. In part because of conflicts of interest in the DA’s office, prosecutors dismissed the charges. Officials returned the clubs’ money and property, and Prime Social Club was able to reopen in Sept. 2019.

That the 2019 case was flawed does not preclude the possibility that further, perhaps better-informed challenges to the clubs’ legality may come in the future. “It’s just something that could happen somewhere down the road,” says Hammer, summing up the clubs’ general awareness of the situation.

Hammer notes that without regulations, players need to be mindful about where they play. In particular, players should know whether clubs in fact follow guidelines such as are required of licensed and regulated poker rooms elsewhere.

“I would always recommend doing your research on any club that you were going to play before going there,” says Hammer. “You’ll sometimes see things that you would never see in a place that does have a regulatory board,” Hammer points out.

In fact, the owners of Prime Social Club view future regulation as a desirable development. As Hammer says, they “operate under the assumption that there will one day be a regulatory board.”

For tournaments, that means conducting them according to accepted rules and guidelines found in other jurisdictions. It also means following other recommended practices with accounting processes and the operation of the business.

Getting ready for the summer

For now, Hammer’s focus is on the upcoming Prime Social Summer Series, scheduled to run May 20-June 6. The series features 16 events, with two preliminary no-limit hold’em events featuring guarantees of $200,000 and $300,000, respectively. A pot-limit Omaha features a $100,000 guaranteed prize pool well.

And yes, unsurprisingly, the $1,100 buy-in Main Event scheduled June 2-6 comes with a $1,000,000 guarantee.

The club has introduced live updates incorporating an automated chip counting system for its tournaments. Prime Social also has a Twitch channel featuring streamed cash games and final tables, further enhancing players’ experience.

“The goal is just to make it better all around,” says Hammer, who like others with experience in Vegas and elsewhere have contributed significantly to the growth of Texas poker of late.

It will be interesting to see just how big the games can get under the current system, as well as what other developments may result from Texas poker’s increased profile going forward.

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