Houston’s newest poker room, River Room Social Club, began operations on Dec. 10. Its opening late last year comes as the future of poker in Texas hangs in the balance.
Court cases originating in Dallas as well as legislation filed in advance of the 2023 legislative session indicate that Texas poker rooms, which already exist in a legal grey area, may be squeezed out of the state.
Poker is popular in Texas, but its future is uncertain
Despite poker being technically illegal in Texas, nearly 60 poker rooms can be found across the state. With Texas Hold ’em being the most popular poker game nowadays, it’s hard to overlook the game’s connection to The Lone Star State.
Texas is also home to some of the legends of the game, with the likes of Doyle Brunson, T.J. Cloutier and Sam Farha leading that list.
Over the years, the state has become a top location for poker players to play. Successful poker tournaments are routinely held in Texas cities such as Dallas, El Paso, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Austin and Houston.
Lead-up to grand opening a success
The River Room Social Club at 2730 Fondren Road is Houston’s newest luxury destination for big poker action. A soft launch took place over the weekend of Dec. 10 for poker lovers to get a feel for the new venue.
River Room CEO Haig Papaian and his team spent the better part of 2022 preparing for the opening. Papaian said the goal was to provide the best possible gaming experience for players in Texas.
General Manager Jeff Faber told PlayTexas the club has been pleased with the turnout so far.
“Guests got to see the dealers and employees in action. We wanted guests to get a feel of the new place – the kitchen, signage, all stayed open with no closure. We had two tournaments that weekend which was a lot of fun, with many winners.
“A few more things need to be finalized. By the 23rd of January, we should be ready, and the grand opening will be a few days after that.”
Club made donation to local charity during soft open
One of the club’s goals is to change the negative image of social clubs in the state by encouraging a clean and elegant environment to play in.
The club features 60 tables, each with an automatic shuffle machine. There is also a VIP room and a variety of large-screen televisions. Arcade games and other amenities can be found in the lounge and dining area.
Poker tables at the club are world-class and feature various games and tournaments.
During the soft opening, the club held a no-limit Texas Hold ’em tournament that featured a $350 buy-in. Players were given the opportunity to enjoy a $10,000 premium and limitless rebuys. The following day, the club held a no-limit Hold ’em tournament with a buy-in of $5,000 and an optional $100 add-on.
The first customers to join the club during the soft launch were also able to help out a local charity. For every member who joined during the opening weekend, the club donated 50% of its fees to the Houston Blue Santa Program, which provides gifts to underprivileged children. The club matched all donations up to $10,000.
The club is now open 24 hours a day seven days a week.
Texas gambling laws are convoluted
Despite the overwhelming popularity of poker, betting on card games is technically illegal in Texas. Gambling laws in Texas are generally strict. They only specifically allow residents and visitors to bet on horse and greyhound racing.
A few exceptions to the rules exist, however. Social gambling (such as office pools), bingo, charitable raffles and private card games are legal.
Under the “private card games” rule, social clubs believe they have the right to operate in the state. They contend that if the house doesn’t take a cut of the proceeds and instead requires players to pay admission or a membership fee, they are legally operating in the state.
Under the law, gambling must take place in a private place. Pending legislation from Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, aims to clarify the language of the law to exclude commercial poker rooms or social clubs.
Upcoming court cases against poker clubs could shutter them or send them underground.
Club GM is optimistic his business will remain open
Faber said he thinks the law is on the side of clubs.
“We are strictly a social club that makes its money from admissions and membership fees. We never take a cut. All we do is provide a safe and comfortable place for guests to enjoy themselves.”
He’s less optimistic that sports betting will become legal in Texas.
“I grew up in the Houston area and I don’t believe gambling will be legal here anytime soon. But honestly, that’s not something we are too concerned with at the River Room because according to Congress, poker isn’t considered gambling.”