New House Bill Threatens Legal Poker In Texas

Written By Rashid Mohamed on December 1, 2022 - Last Updated on December 5, 2022
New Texas House bill would shutter legal poker rooms

Poker room operators across the state of Texas are anxiously keeping an eye on a House bill. If ratified, it would spell doom for some of them.

‘Private clubs’ are allowed under Texas law

There are no commercial casinos in Texas, so most poker rooms in the state operate as private clubs with membership fees. House Bill 732, introduced by Houston Democrat Rep. Gene Wu, aims to clarify the language of the law pertaining to poker rooms.

Texas adheres to a strict no-gambling policy with very few exceptions. Buying lottery tickets, some forms of small stakes bingo and betting on horses and dogs represent those exceptions. There is, however, a loophole in the state’s penal code (Chapter 47) which tacitly permits “private poker clubs” to operate without running afoul of the law.

To operate within the parameters of this gray area, clubs must meet the following three criteria:

  • The gaming happens in a private place.
  • Everyone has an equal chance of winning.
  • The club generates no economic benefit from the gambling itself, meaning it takes no house rake.

Texas has a long history with the game of poker. Its popularity is steadily rising. For the last decade or so, poker rooms have been popping up all across The Lone Star State. There are reportedly 61 poker rooms throughout Texas, of which 19 can be found in the Houston area alone.

‘Private place’ would become ‘private residence’

Those who oppose poker rooms have always maintained the law was never meant to apply to businesses. They assert that a “private place,” as the name implies, ought to refer to a home or residence rather than a commercial operation.

Consequently, lawyers in Dallas are eager to close down these establishments on the grounds that they should not be classified as private places considering the number of people that frequent them. Ultimately, it appears the issue might only be resolved in the Texas Supreme Court.

Filed on Nov. 16, the new legislation would simply replace the term “private place” with “private residence,” effectively stripping poker rooms in Texas of any legal defenses.

The House bill defines a private residence thus:

“(It’s) a dwelling to which the public does not have access, and excludes, among other places, streets, highways, restaurants, taverns, nightclubs, schools, hospitals, and the common areas of apartments houses, hotels, motels, office, transportation facilities and shops.”

Wu, who has spoken out strongly against casinos and gambling in the past, maintains that the legal defenses embedded in the penal code were there to serve private gaming and not commercial enterprises.

Wu’s bill missing “a few lines” that may save commercial poker clubs

Though Wu’s bill spells out a clear difference between residence and business, he doesn’t intend to wipe out commercial rooms with a single piece of legislation.

In a conversation with the Dallas Observer two weeks after pre-filing his bill, Wu made it clear that the bill was meant to include “a few more lines.” These will eventually be added, he explained, and their effect is essentially to soften the impact on commercial clubs.

Without giving the specifics, Wu explained that the added lines would give counties the authority to decide how to police poker rooms.

“If a business is in a county and the county just says ‘All we want to do is take your picture, give you a license and charge you $10’ so be it. But I think the important part of that is if there’s a way for counties to say ‘No. You guys are consistent bad operators. You’re a consistent bad actor. We’ve had so many complaints. We’ve had so many drug busts and so many prostitution busts at your operation. We need some way of shutting you down.’ And right now, there’s basically no way of shutting them down.”

The reason Wu has left the power to the counties is because, though he believes it to be the right path, he doesn’t think the legislature would support a statewide ban on commercial poker rooms.

How would measure affect poker in Texas?

Leaving the authority to shut down card rooms to the counties would obviously have dire consequences for participants in those counties opposed to such business.

First off, it could put a lot of people who work in these establishments out of work. The Texas Card House alone employs 200 people. In addition, it has spent $20 million in construction and other operating costs.

While some rooms may have the capital to pack up and move to another county, many may just leave the stae. That also goes for operators, who would probably move their businesses to Oklahoma or Las Vegas. In a worst-case scenario, the bill would send games underground throughout Texas.

Ryan Crow, owner of the Texas Card House, doesn’t want to see this happen. He’s currently working with several poker clubs to establish an association. It would represent the interests of poker players in Texas.

Crow already has a couple of bills in the offing that would counter HB 732. He also plans to talk to legislators. He wants to make them understand the bill would cost thousands of workers their jobs. It would also force poker players underground into illegal games.

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Rashid Mohamed

Rashid Mohamed is an international journalist with a special interest in sports writing. He contributes regularly to PlayTexas, focusing on both the pathway to gaming legalization and the underground market in the state. He is a Poli-Sci graduate of Ohio University and holds an A.A.S in Journalism. He has worked in a number of countries and has extensive experience in the United Nations as well as other regional, national, and international organizations. Rashid lives and writes out of Denver, Colorado.

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