Texas has been a hotbed for poker for many years, and after all, the world’s most popular form of poker is called Texas Hold’em. The game is said to have originated in the town of Robstown, Texas, in the early 1900’s, and eventually spread throughout the state (1). Although this story doesn’t really have much historical documentation to back it up, what is widely acknowledged is that Hold’em was first widely played by Texas road grinders in the early ’60s and perhaps late ’50s.
It wasn’t until the game was brought to Las Vegas in 1967 that the game become known as Texas Hold’em, as prior to that it was just called Hold’em. Although played primarily in Texas, it had also spread to surrounding states.
The stories of the Texas road gamblers, such as Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim and Johnny Moss, are the stuff of legend as they traveled from town to town making their living playing poker. Many of the best poker players and the early winners of the WSOP were from Texas.
There are also plenty of stories of these games being broken up by law enforcement. This would not be the case today under existing laws, at least not in the private games anyway, but in spite of Texas’ fame as the birthplace of one of poker’s great games and many of its famous players, it has always been a pretty conservative state as far as gambling goes.
Poker Laws in Texas Today
It is generally believed that all forms of gambling in Texas other than those specifically authorized, such as participating in the state lottery or betting at an approved racetrack, are contrary to state law.
Things aren’t always as clear as they may appear as far as the law is concerned though. It is certainly true that the Texas Penal Code makes gambling illegal in general. Betting for money on card games is specifically mentioned as constituting an offense (3). Anyone found guilty of gambling has committed a Class C misdemeanor, which incurs a fine of up to $500. There’s no possibility of jail time for individual bettors or players. For some of the more severe infractions related to running a gambling enterprise, there are higher fines and jail sentences prescribed.
The interesting thing is that it is a defense to a charge of gambling if the following conditions, listed in the Texas Penal Code, Title 10, Section 47.02(b), are satisfied:
“(b) It is a defense to prosecution under this section that:
(1) the actor engaged in gambling in a private place;
(2) no person received any economic benefit other than personal winnings; and
(3) except for the advantage of skill or luck, the risks of losing and the chances of winning were the same for all participants.”
We see that (1) permits betting that occurs in a private place, meaning that things like home poker games would be excluded from running afoul of this law.
To be exempt from this law, there is also the requirement listed in (2) above that no persons receive any economic benefit from the gambling other than their personal winnings. It could be argued that the intent of this is to allow people to gamble in a friendly way with their friends while still preventing persons under the jurisdiction of Texas law from benefiting by running a gambling business.
Finally, a game must give each participant the same chances of winning and losing apart from “the advantage of skill or luck” as explained in (3) above. This is likely an attempt to make cheating illegal even if the other two conditions for defending against a gambling charge are met.
Live Poker in Texas
There is only one venue offering indisputably legal live poker in Texas, and it also happens to be the state’s only casino. In spite of Indian tribes being pretty active in operating casinos in other states, they have met with more difficulty in Texas.
At one time there were three different Indian casinos operating in the state, but state authorities were successful in shutting two of them down, and only one remains today, the Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino and Hotel in Eagle Pass (2). Its poker room features $3/$6 limit and $1/$2 no limit Texas Hold’em every day with higher stakes spread on weekends and upon request. There are also low-buyin tournaments a few times a week.
Membership Poker Rooms
After examining the three stipulations laid out for gambling to not be illegal, a few Texas entrepreneurs had a clever idea. Beginning in 2015, they started to open up membership-based card rooms that they claim are in full compliance with the law.
These poker rooms don’t charge any rake. Instead, they charge daily, weekly, monthly or yearly membership fees from anyone who wants to play. This membership model serves a dual purpose. Because these businesses are not open to the public at large but rather restricted to members, management can claim that the gambling is taking place in private rather than public. Also, because the membership fees aren’t derived specifically from the money on the gaming tables, there’s an argument that these facilities aren’t deriving any economic benefit from gambling. (4)
Some of these poker rooms supplement their revenues by selling food, requiring players to pay a rental fee on their seats at the tables and through various other mechanisms. Many of them offer additional amenities, like lounges, televisions and pool tables, to support their argument that they are social clubs with gambling as just an additional attraction.
Of course, there are those who feel differently. They contend that gambling is the main appeal of these card rooms, and it is the reason why anyone pays for membership in the first place. Thus, the owners are clearly gaining an economic benefit from real money gaming.
Although the attorney general’s office has been asked to render an opinion on this matter, there has been no answer as yet. Confusing matters further are the questions of whether food and beverages can be sold, whether daily membership available to anyone who walks in the door really counts as “private” gambling, whether hourly seat rental charges are OK and other similar concerns. Each of these rooms generates its income in slightly different ways, so there are plenty of elements that can be attacked as being potentially illegal.
The ability of these card clubs to operate depends heavily on how local law enforcement feels about them because, even if it would be hard to achieve a conviction in court, raids and shutdowns by the police can really interfere with the continuing operations of a location. This has actually occurred in Dallas where local officials closed down two of these card clubs in 2017.
Today, Texan membership poker clubs dot the state in such cities as San Antonio and Austin. Houston has even begun licensing them at the municipal level, spurring the creation of such businesses as the Post Oak Poker Club and the Prime Social Poker Club within the city. We still await a final resolution as to the legal status of membership card rooms, but for now, live Texas poker appears to be booming.
Online Poker and The Law in Texas
As is often is the case, existing law does not really contemplate internet poker, and the thrust of the law here is directed generally at people profiting from running gambling operations in the state of Texas, which isn’t really the case with playing online.
The view though is that since people aren’t being prosecuted for playing online poker, online poker players in Texas aren’t worried about this at all, nor are offshore poker rooms that serve Americans, since none of them have a problem with allowing Texas residents to play on their site, unlike players in some states.
It’s extremely likely that people enjoying poker games played across the internet have an ipso facto defense from being subject to illegal gambling prosecution under Texas law unless they’re doing something really unusual. The three factors of taking place in private, not profiting other than as a player and not cheating appear to apply fully to online poker in Texas. The only conceivable ways that someone could get into trouble for internet poker in Texas would be if they’re playing in public, attempting to run their own poker site or cheating in some way.
In any event, the state of Texas has taken a hands-off approach here, and it is very likely that if this changes, it will require laws more specific to online poker for this to be prosecuted, which doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon. So online poker players in Texas can continue to be pretty comfortable here.
Recommended Online Poker Rooms For Texans
Ignition Poker: This is the newest and most popular player in the online poker industry. They have come in hot in 2016 after acquiring the Bovada Poker software and re-branding into both a poker site and an online casino. The site offers a 100% bonus up to $1,000 should you decide to play for real money.
This site has some of the best cash games in the world, huge MTT guarantees, great SnG selections and of course have amazing promotions to keep players interest piqued. Check out our review for Ignition and find out why it’s one of the fastest-rising rooms in the iGaming field today.
Americas Cardroom: This fairly popular poker room has a Texas connection of sorts. When Doyle Brunson’s online poker room closed down due to pressure from the authorities, their players were all moved to Americas Cardroom.
They continue to welcome Texans and all Americans with open arms, and have up to $1000 in bonus money sitting there for you to welcome you as well. So if you haven’t experienced this poker room before, just click here and you will be on your way to doing just that. Visit our ACR Review today for more info.
(1) Texas Hold’em
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