Professional poker player Doug Polk has taken on a new role as the face of Texans for Texas Hold ’em (TFTH), a lobby group intent on protecting poker rooms in the Lone Star State. The group has come out in support of House Bill 2345. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Guillen, seeks to legalize membership-based poker clubs. Polk is part-owner of one such club, known as The Lodge.
If Guillen’s effort were to succeed, Texas poker would no longer face the looming risk accompanying its legal ambiguity.
In a video on the front page of the TFTH website, Polk says:
There are huge threats looming over poker’s head that we have to see at every turn.
It is called Texas Hold ’em for a reason…
If we want to protect the game, as it stands today…we need to do something proactive about it.
Leaving Laws Up to Interpretation Leaves Teaxs Poker Rooms at Risk
Current Texas law forbids commercial gambling halls and casinos. The only official retail gambling properties in the state are three Indian casinos. These are authorized under federal Indian Gaming Regulations, which supersede state law.
Texas social poker rooms circumvent anti-gambling laws by not taking a share of the money being wagered. Instead, they’re members-only clubs that earn revenue from memberships, seat rentals, food and drink, and other extras. Players bet only against one other, not the house, so the house has nothing to do with the pot.
These social poker rooms have flourished. Their legality hinges on an exception in the law, providing a defense to charges of illegal gambling if parties can assert:
- The gambling occurs in a private place;
- No person experiences economic benefit beyond individual personal winnings; and
- Excepting skill or luck, the risk of losing and the chance of winning is the same for all players
Since social poker clubs started popping up in the state, they’ve done a decent job of steering clear of legal trouble. However, because their existence depends on what amounts to a loophole, there’s always the risk of shifting interpretations.
Texas Poker Rooms Face Raids, Shut Downs and Legal Fights
For example, Texas Card House Dallas is currently battling the City of Dallas, which revoked its occupancy license. Fortunately for the card room, it has secured permission from the court to continue operating during its appeal.
Other poker rooms haven’t been so lucky.
Top Shelf Poker Room in Flint, Texas, was raided and shut down in March 2022 and has remained closed.
Likewise, an October 2022 raid in Watauga permanently shuttered the Watauga Social Lounge during its Fall Classic Main Event. That bust ended in 10 arrests, fines, and the seizure of more than $200,000 cash.
That’s why Polk and his group are throwing their weight behind HB2345. TFTH membership comprises several social poker clubs, including The Lodge. The other members are:
- Texas Card House
- Champions Card House
- SA Card House
If successful, HB2345 would clarify state penal code guidelines. That would be a big win for poker in Texas.
Without Clarity, Poker Rooms In Texas Face 3-Prong Challenge
As the TFTH website points out, Texas poker rooms face three main challenges under current Texas law:
- The Texas Attorney General could issue a legal opinion against the social poker room model.
- Any of the pending legal cases could make their way to the Texas Supreme Court and result in an unfavorable judgment.
- The legislature could pass anti-poker laws to make poker rooms unambiguously illegal.
Polk suggested in the video that the most likely threat could come from a new Attorney General.
A bill recently filed by Rep. Gene Wu also threatens to “kill poker in its current form,” added Polk.
That bill, filed in December, would change the language of the first condition from “place” to “residence.” That tweak reads like a kiss of death to Texas’ card rooms since it seems to exclude non-residential properties.
While Wu intends to refile the bill with more precise language, its primary function would be to hand poker regulation to individual counties. If that happens, Texans will likely see a patchwork of rules come into play throughout the state.
In the video, Polk continues:
The purpose of Texans for Texas Hold ’em is quite simple and quite clear.
Our goal is to try and get a bill through in this legislative session that clearly defines these terms and allows us to protect the poker industry as it is today.
We are not looking to expand gaming in Texas, far from it. What we want is to protect the industry as it is today by clearly defining these terms, ‘private place’ and ‘economic benefit,’ to make sure that everyone’s on the same page with what that means and to allow for the industry as it exists today to be protected.
Proponents Tout Poker’s Economic and Community Benefits
Polk and comrades want to remind detractors of the benefits that poker rooms offer Texans
There are more than 70 social poker clubs in the state, employing over 3,000 Texans in what TFTH describes as well-paying jobs. Poker, said Polk, also generates millions in tax revenue for the state and drives tourism.
I know that at the lodge, people come to our room from all over the country. A lot of people from California or Vegas or East coast, New York, wherever it might be. And many people traveling internationally.
Besides the jobs and tourism, added Polk, poker rooms offer space for people to gather and play with others who appreciate the game. There are 300,000 members registered to poker social clubs in Texas.
Poker clubs also better their local communities by hosting fundraising tournaments for local charities.
We have so many people that come to our room daily and love to play with the other members of the club. A lot of older people, a lot of younger people. Many people enjoy the game of poker across the state.
For TFTH, the fight is about more than a card game:
We believe that poker is more than just a game – it’s a crucial part of the fabric of Texas culture. The current laws of Texas need updating to uphold this fabric. We are communicating the need to clarify these laws to legislators and other stakeholders.