Texas has a long history with poker. In fact, the earliest stories of poker being played in Texas date back to shortly after the game’s introduction in the southern United States during the early 19th century.
Some of the game’s most famous players, like Johnny Moss and Doyle “Tex Dolly” Brunson, were from Texas. The World Series of Poker, now held in Las Vegas, first originated as a get-together for gamblers, most of whom hailed from Texas. And of course, the game’s most popular variant, Texas hold’em, is named after the state.
Such a background creates a certain irony when considering the current legal state of poker in Texas.
Commercial casinos are not allowed in Texas, and there is only one tribal casino with a small poker room. Nor are there any traditional, licensed, and regulated poker rooms in operation. There are private poker clubs that circumvent the law by charging membership fees rather than taking a rake. But these clubs operate under scrutiny and, in truth, in a legal gray area.
Real-money online poker is not legal in Texas, either. That means poker players only have sweepstakes-model poker sites like Global Poker as an online option.
There are a couple of different options for Texans and visitors to Texas to play live poker in the state. Here is a look at the options.
As noted, there are no commercial casinos in Texas. There are three federally recognized Native American tribes based in the state. But only one of them, the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, is currently authorized to operate a casino.
The Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino Hotel first opened in 1996, was rebuilt in 2004, and then expanded again in 2013. It resides in Eagle Pass, about 100 miles south of San Antonio, right near the Mexico border.
The casino has a Class II gaming license, meaning certain games of chance like bingo and keno are allowed. So, too, are non-banked card games, including poker. Like other Class II establishments, Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino features slot-like games that are permitted because they are technically versions of bingo.
The poker room at Kickapoo Lucky Eagle has 12 tables. Typically the room only spreads cash games and does not run tournaments.
There are also about 30 poker clubs located throughout Texas, including in and around major cities like Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.
These establishments range from small clubs with just four or five tables to large rooms with 30 or more. While most of the smaller clubs stick with cash games only, the larger ones often host tournaments, some with large fields and prize pools.
These clubs typically invite attention from authorities given how they creatively skirt the gambling law by the way they operate. Most charge fees for club membership and/or time spent in the club rather than collect rake from pots as regular-licensed poker rooms do.
In essence, in order for them to operate and remain technically legal, the poker clubs have to prove they are not profiting off of the actual games. In a way, they are attempting to present themselves as equivalent to home poker games in which the host must not earn any profit for providing a place to play.
Understandably, opinions differ over whether it is correct to define the poker clubs’ games in this way. In any event, the clubs continue to operate, claiming as they do that they technically abide by the law.
There is much less ambiguity about the legality of real-money online poker in Texas. It is not.
The law in Texas that prohibits illegal gambling is quite comprehensive. Among the many forms of gambling it explicitly forbids, the law states that anyone who “plays and bets for money or other things of value at any time played with cards, dice, balls, or any other gambling device” has engaged in illegal gambling.
Since online gambling and the first online poker rooms began appearing in the 1990s, Texas has never seriously considered legalizing online poker. General antipathy toward all forms of gambling has prevented lawmakers from entertaining the idea of legalizing any form of online gambling in the past. More often than not, whenever gambling legislation has been proposed, moral objections to gambling have helped stymie its progress.
There are other factors as well. Oklahoma, Louisiana, and New Mexico occupy most of Texas’ US-facing border, and all those states have casinos. Individuals with financial interest in those propeties have actually used their influence to prevent Texas from building their own casinos and challenging those out-of-state establishments.
Any attempt at gambling expansion in Texas has been met with significant opposition, and that includes attempts to introduce online gambling.
Because of this, it is safe to say that, at least right now, there is little chance that online poker can receive the support it would need to become legal in the state.
That said, Texas was significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and its huge impact on the state’s economy. As other states have done, the situation has caused Texas to begin exploring new sources of potential revenue. In turn, it has prompted renewed talk of gambling expansion as a possible way of addressing the state’s large budgetary shortfall.
Some were already starting to discuss the possibility of introducing commercial casinos in Texas when Las Vegas Sands Corporation began lobbying heavily toward that goal in 2020. The globally known casino and resort company built a huge team of lobbyists to argue the case for casinos.
Nothing happened on the legislative front during 2020, although in early 2021 a bill was introduced in the Senate that, if passed, would allow the construction of up to 12 casinos in the state. Also around this time, lawmakers began considering a new sports betting bill that would allow up to five licenses to offer online-only sports wagering in Texas.
None of these developments would alter the current prohibition against real-money online poker in Texas. However, should other types of gambling expansion occur, that could help create conditions for online poker to come later.
Meanwhile, there is one alternative for Texans seeking an online poker option.
“Sweepstakes” online poker sites operate in the US according to the states’ sweepstakes laws. They are not exactly real-money online poker sites, but players can win cash.
Such sites utilize a virtual currency, which has no cash value but can be purchased with US dollars. Players can play poker games with the virtual currency only, which is similar to “play money” often used at online social casinos.
However, such sites also usually provide ways for players to play poker using a second virtual currency. While it cannot be purchased directly by players, this second currency can be accumulated and subsequently exchanged for actual US dollars.
The fact that players aren’t technically depositing and withdrawing cash with which they play is what enables such sweepstakes sites to operate. The process could be compared to the “loophole” that Texas card clubs exploit: not directly raking pots in order to stay within the parameters of the state’s gambling law.
The most popular sweepstakes-based online poker site in the country is Global Poker. The site is available to players in nearly every US state, including Texas.
Global Poker invites players to purchase Gold Coins and play at Gold Coins “cash” tables or in tournaments for which the buy-ins and prizes are all Gold Coins. The Gold Coins have no cash value.
When players purchase Gold Coins, as a bonus, they also receive a different virtual currency, called Sweeps Coins. These can be used to play in Sweeps Coins “cash” games or enter tournaments for which the entry fees and payouts are Sweeps Coins.
Players can collect Sweeps Coins in other ways, too, such as free-to-enter giveaway contests on Global Poker’s Facebook page. They can also simply write to Global Poker directly and ask for Sweeps Coins.
Once players accumulate a minimum amount of Sweeps Coins, they can exchange them for US dollars and withdraw the money. The exchange rate is $1 per Sweeps Coin.
Global Poker features a variety of game formats, including “cash” games, multi-table tournaments and “jackpot” sit-n-go’s in which the prize pool is determined by the spin of a virtual wheel. The site spreads no-limit hold’em and pot-limit Omaha, and even offers non-traditional variants like Caribbean Poker and Crazy Pineapple.
Since Global Poker serves most of the country with everyone playing in a single, shared player pool, the site is able to host large field tournaments and tournament series. Some of the events in these series feature buy-ins as big as 218 or 540 Sweeps Coins and feature guaranteed prize pools ranging from 40,000 to 500,000 Sweeps Coins.
If you recall how one Sweeps Coin is worth the equivalent of $1 after it is exchanged, you can see just how big these tournaments can get.
Players can register accounts at Global Poker via Facebook or Google, or they can just use an email address. Gold Coins can then be purchased by using a credit or debit card (Mastercard or American Express), or through the Skrill online wallet.
In order to exchange Sweeps Coins for cash and withdraw the money, players have to provide further information in order to verify their account. This includes submitting photo identification and proof of address.
Withdrawing cash also requires registering a bank account with the site.
Poker stories involving Texas date back to the early 19th century, when the game was first introduced.
One of the earliest involves Jim Bowie, who died alongside Davy Crockett defending the Alamo in 1836. Some years earlier, Bowie took on some steamboat card sharps in a famous poker game in which he caught one of the men cheating and killed him a duel (or so one version of the story goes).
During the 19th century, poker first spread throughout the southern and western states, including Texas. El Paso in particular was one of many cities where poker players frequently gathered at gambling houses.
Texas was also the site of the first meeting between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, a couple of poker-playing Old West heroes frequently depicted in movie westerns. Bat Masterson, another prominent Old West gambler, also starred in Texas-based tales involving both card playing and gunplay.
The 20th century saw several Texas natives figure prominently in poker’s history, among them Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, Crandall Addington, Jack Straus, and TJ Cloutier. Such players all gained fame at the WSOP, which was started in Las Vegas by another Texan, Jack Binion.
The origins of Texas hold’em are mostly clouded in mystery, although players like Moss and Brunson have confirmed they first played the game in Texas. Moss once suggested he encountered hold’em as early as 1930, while Brunson says he first played it in the late 1950s, including in underground games on Exchange Avenue in Fort Worth.
In 2007, a Texas lawmaker from Robstown passed a resolution declaring hold’em was invented in his hometown during the “early 1900s.” Even so, there exists no support for such a claim.
In any event, the popularity of Texas hold’em as poker’s most popular variant has guaranteed the state’s continued association with America’s favorite card game.