Texas Poker Laws Frustrate, Infuriate Many

Just don't try to play Texas Hold 'em in Texas.

Texas Hold 'em is sweeping the country, with high dollar tournaments featuring players of the poker game being held in bars and casinos around the country, and grabbing big ratings on cable TV networks. Just don't try to play Texas Hold 'em in Texas.

A series of reports on 1200 WOAI news this week highlighted the problems facing players, law enforcement officers, and prosecutors when it comes to state laws governing poker in bars and other public places.

"Not unless you want to see a vice squad officer," Bexar County District Attorney Susan D Reed says.

In the state where outlaw John Wesley Hardin became notorious for gunning down foes at bar room card games during the late 19th century, the poker craze is running smack into Texas' notoriously uncompromising laws prohibiting gambling.

"One you assign value to poker chips, once you start making the chips worth money, or giving out big prizes, you're gambling," says Cliff Herberg, Chief of the White Collar Crimes section of the Bexar County District Attorney's office, the section that oversees gambling.

And under Texas law, "large prizes" are defined as anything over $25, possibly a 'large prize' in Hardin's day, but a penny ante pot in 2005.

Police in San Antonio, Lubbock, Odessa, and elsewhere have raided bars staging Texas Hold 'em tournaments. The District Attorney in Ector County, which includes Odessa, has formally requested the state attorney general to clarify the laws regarding poker.

"On its face a poker tournament is probably considered gambling because it is a game with cards, dice, balls, and other gambling devices," Ector County D.A. John W. Smith wrote. "But an argument can be made that the payoff at the end of the evening is the payment of a prize, award, or compensation who win an actual competition for the determination of skill."

Using that logic, Chuck Williams, President of the lobbying group Texans for Poker," any promotion that carries a prize should be declared illegal.

"That means radio stations are affected by this interpretation of the law, McDonald's is affected by this interpretation of the law when they give away prizes," he said.

Texas is generally considered to be one of the most unfriendly states in the country toward gambling. A former Attorney General fought for years to shut down casino gambling on a south Texas Indian reservation, even though Indian gambling is covered by federal law. Lawmen regularly break up bars and convenience stores featuring what are called 'eight liner' machines, low rent slot machines which are usually used to award plush toys and other prizes. The Texas Republican Party, which controls the governor's office, both chambers of the legislature, and every other statewide elected non judicial office, recently denounced an attempt to set up video poker at several locations around the state as 'an assault on Texas families.'

Despite this, Williams remains optimistic that Texas Hold 'em can find a home in Texas.

"You've got guys who are 18 years old and they have purple hair and you have guys who are seventy years old, and they're sitting together at a table having a good time. I don't see anything wrong with that."?

Except, Reed says, for the fact that if they're playing poker, they're breaking the law.

"You play it in your home. You do not offer large prizes. It's got to be a personal kind of thing. Anything else, and it's illegal."

But they would probably not face as stiff a penalty as Hardin suffered. The outlaw was gunned down by El Paso Constable John Selman while playing poker at the Acme Saloon. His last words were "four sixes to beat."

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