There is and always has been gambling in Texas. It has never been sanctioned by state law, though, so it has always operated on an underground basis, in private clubs and secret home games.
Texas Dolly, the late “Godfather of Poker” Doyle Brunson, hailed from the state of Texas. He famously learned to play the game when an injury upset his professional basketball trajectory. Brunson’s introduction to live poker was through underground games. He spoke and wrote about many incidents during that time when lives were at stake from robberies and freedom depended upon evading law enforcement. Brunson eventually left Texas for Nevada, as Las Vegas provided the opportunity to play poker and gamble legally and safely.
The irony that Texas Hold’em isn’t allowed to be played in Texas is not lost on poker players or fans.
Even more, Texas permits very little gambling at all. There are no casinos – commercial or tribal – in the state, nor is there any type of legal sports betting.
It goes without saying that lawmakers who stand strong against casinos, sports betting, DFS, and even simple poker rooms do not support online poker.
The first step would be for the Texas legislature to legalize brick-and-mortar casinos within the state, after which those would need to be designed, built, and opened long before the subject of online poker or online casino games could even become a topic of conversation.
The only hope for i-gaming is that sports betting is now under consideration. There were numerous bills proposed in 2023. Major sports leagues expressed support for legal sports wagering, as did online betting providers and many people in the state. Texas sports fans didn’t hesitate to tell their legislators that they wanted sports betting legalized and regulated.
However, those outspoken against sports betting, as well as casinos and any substantial gambling expansion, were loud and rich. Those forces included:
Since all efforts failed in 2023, the next chance to examine bill proposals is in January 2025. Texas operates on the biennial system, convening regular sessions only in odd-numbered years.
With sports betting several years away, at a minimum, it puts igaming (including online poker) much further out into the future.
Yes, they do.
There are three primary ways to play poker online.
First and most popular is free-play or free-money poker sites. These range from the WSOP Poker app, free for download from any app store and promoted by the World Series of Poker. It requires no money to play and teaches players the basics of Texas Hold’em.
Second is sweepstakes poker. This is a concept that has gained traction in the past decade, more so in the last several years. This model of online poker offers players the ability to purchase tokens/coins, with which they can play cash games and online poker tournaments. When they win tokens, they can then redeem them for prizes, such as gift cards or cash.
Global Poker is the industry leader in sweepstakes online poker. It launched in 2010 out of Australia due to the lack of legalized online poker there. It became popular in the United States over that following decade, gaining quite a lot of ground during the pandemic. It is now one of the leading poker sites in the US market, and it continues to grow with larger and larger online tournament series and more well-known poker players giving it a try.
Third, poker players in Texas can take their chances with offshore poker sites. These are companies based outside of the United States and often lightly regulated. The danger in playing on those sites is the lack of legal protections for players and the inability to verify company viability.
If you thought online poker in Texas was complicated, wait until you read about the live poker scene.
Technically, playing real money poker is not legal in Texas. Gambling for money – “to win or lose something of value” in any activities involving chance, per state law – is legal. Those games of chance include any game played with cards, dice, and other gambling devices. Since poker is not a game of skill in the eyes of the law, it is considered illegal gambling when played for money or prizes.
It might seem odd, then, that there are more than 50 poker rooms operating across Texas at any given time. They have cash games and tournaments, some of them offer livestreamed games, and others livestream high-profile and high-stakes games on the internet.
Let’s get into it.
For many years, live poker operated in an underground scene. People who “knew someone” could find an underground cash poker game in someone’s basement, home, or empty office space. It was an unsustainable model but one that worked in the absence of anything else.
Then, people got creative. They thought about operating a private membership club – as one might recognize an old-fashioned country club or exclusive golf club – but with poker. They could charge a membership fee to anyone who wanted to enter, and that fee would allow them to participate in poker on an hourly basis. Inside the club, they could offer poker games and tournaments, if players abided by three requirements of the Texas Penal Code (Chapter 47):
Membership clubs met the criteria. The only issue would be if the “house” (club) took rake from the pots, which would be an “economic benefit other than personal winnings.” However, the membership and entry fees eliminated the need for rake.
Many in the poker industry point to the Texas Card House as the first establishment to operate under the membership model. Sam Von Kennel opened the first one in Austin, Texas. They opened their doors as a “private poker social club” in 2014. Von Kennel knew the laws, as he had previously worked in politics. He opened the club with many televisions for watching sports, a lounge area, food, and card games like bridge, gin, hearts, spades, and…poker. They eventually acquired an alcohol license as well.
Players had the option to choose from several memberships:
Texas Card House Austin opened with four poker tables and increased to more with demand. That was the start of a trend.
In 2013, there are more than 50 clubs operating around Texas. There are multiple private card clubs in larger cities like Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. All of them offer cash games, and many offer tournaments.
The absolute largest of them all is The Lodge Card Club in Round Rock Texas, in the greater Austin area. In January 2022, three well-known poker players announced that they collectively bought a controlling stake in the Lodge Poker Club. Existing ownership stayed, but Doug Polk, Andrew Neeme, and Brad Owen took control and make it their own. There were 60 poker tables at the time, and they wanted to make it bigger and better.
The Lodge now boasts of 82 tables, regular livestreams, a wide range of cash games from low stakes to high stakes. And players now travel there from around the United States (and sometimes beyond) for big tournaments and special events.
Beginning with the Lodge, these are the top poker clubs (by number of tables, popularity, and reputation) currently operating in Texas:
With all of these clubs in operation, one might think that the clubs have averted any legal issues and found their way to unstoppable live poker in Texas. One would be wrong.
The clubs each operate with local licenses and permits. But that doesn’t stop some members of local government from ordering law enforcement to raid those facilities now and then, sometimes shutting them down altogether.
Take the example of Texas Card House Dallas. TCH owner and CEO Ryan Crow worked diligently with members of the local city council and authorities to obtain a permit to operate in early 2020. The club obtained its permit for a small club in a strip mall. It shut its doors temporarily during the pandemic but reopened with a renewed certificate of occupancy afterward. But suddenly, in January 2022, the city revoked TCH Dallas’ permit without warning. Crow appealed to the local Board of Adjustment to keep the doors open, and then that board voted unanimously to allow the club to keep its permit.
That changed when a Dallas building inspector and several other city officials sued the Board of Adjustment, saying the reinstatement of the permit was illegal and an “abuse of discretion.” Their attorney argued that the club was merely a gambling place, something deemed illegal by state law.
The Civil District Court judge that heard the case in November 2022 revoked the club’s occupancy permit. Judge Eric Moye wrote in his decision that the decision to reinstate that permit was an “illegal decision” by the Board of Adjustment.
The club remains open as the appeals process continues, as TCH is now appealing the case up the legal ladder, hoping to bring it before the Texas Supreme Court.
Another example is the Watauga Social Lounge Poker Club, located between Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas. In October 2022, the club was hosting a big weekend tournament when the local police force raided the club with guns drawn, ordered everyone in the club to put their hands behind their heads, and showed a warrant that authorized the “search of a gambling establishment.”
The Tarrant County judge had approved the seizure of all cash, chips, financial books, tickets, receipts, gift certificates, and anything else of value. The authorities also took tables, chairs, and other equipment, all loaded into a large truck that the police brought for that purpose. In all, they took nearly $200K worth of equipment and more than $200K in cash. They also issued fines to 49 players and arrested numerous members of the club’s management team.
Nearly one year later, the Watauga Social Poker Club has yet to be able to reopen.
As mentioned, the Texas Card House owners are taking their case as far up the court ladder as possible. They are seeking a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court regarding the legality of their poker room in Dallas, but the decision will impact all card rooms across the state of Texas.
Should the Texas Supreme Court receive and accept the case, it will provide the opportunity to decide the issue once and for all. If the court rules that the club’s permits are legal as granted by local city councils, it will allow every city across the state to make its own decision. However, a ruling against TCH could force every club in the state to shut down.
The other remedy is a clarification of the gambling laws by way of a new law or amendment.
Texas State Representative Gene Wu of Houston decided to try it. He filed a proposal – HB.732 – in the Texas House of Representatives to chance the definition of “gambling place” in the current law to “dwelling.” That would make gambling houses in private dwellings or residences illegal, but membership card clubs would fall under the “private place” distinction, which would then not be deemed illegal by law.
The difference of one word in the law could change the future for nearly 75 card clubs in Texas.
Representative Wu intends to file separate legislation at some point to officially legalize poker rooms in Texas, but he knows that will be more of an uphill battle. “Poker rooms should be regulated in the larger scheme of state gaming,” he wrote on Twitter, “and not left in this weird grey area where you may or may not get arrested, depending on the county.”
While card clubs continue to operate and thrive, their future depends on the law and interpretations of it.
That is why Lodge owner Doug Polk launched a new lobbying group in early 2023 called Texans for Texas Hold’em (TFTH). The group worked with State Representative Ryan Guillen to devise HB.2345, which would officially legalize membership poker clubs. In the State Senate, Senator Jose Menendez introduced SB.1681 as a companion bill. While the House bill passed, it stalled on the Senate side.
TFTH is very likely to try again with new legislation in 2025.