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The game runners thought, or more accurately, hope is that this specific organization will allow card rooms to operate while maintaining compliance with the law. Though this application of the law is extremely contorted, it is possible that the card rooms are legal. However, a reasonable person might be confused as to why these gyrations are necessary.
Underground poker clubs are all over the place
Texas has a thriving underground poker scene. Every major city in Texas hosts numerous operations.
Some of these operations are card rooms that rival casinos in terms of their size and appointment. They typically operate out of rented office space, retail space, or warehouse facilities. The clubs feature professional dealers, servers, floor men, custom chip sets, and any other amenities available in a typical casino.
Others are one or two-table outfits that operate out of the runner’s house, or out of a house or apartment, he or she rented especially for the game. Even in those cases, the tables and chips will be professional quality. The only differences might be that the dealer will be the game runner and the food is chips and snacks in his kitchen.
Many famous poker players, like Johnny Chan and Sam Farha, cut their teeth in these sorts of back rooms in the Lone Star State. However, every one of these rooms operates under two main threats.
People in Texas clubs must always look over their shoulders
The two main concerns are police raids and robberies.
Police raids on poker clubs in Texas are terrible things. For whatever reason, most localities feel the need to send their SWAT teams to break up the clubs, complete with riot gear, battering rams, and automatic weapons.
The usual result is the arrest of the game runners and a ticket for the players. Under Texas law, playing in a poker room is a Class C misdemeanor, which is in the same group as a speeding ticket.
More alarmingly, district attorneys have seen fit to charge game runners with organized crime ratcheting their charges into felonies. From a legal standpoint, game runners end up lumped in with street gangs and mobsters – and most game runners I’ve met have been professionals who just wanted some extra money on the side.
Most frustratingly, these raids are great television. Local news programs are always on the scene for busts and project the faces of runners, dealers, and players out to the whole city. This last bit is a major problem for anybody who works in a straight job – pretty much everybody in these clubs.
The other concern is robbery. Robbers have hit games all over Texas in years past. In some cases, those events have led to violence, injury, and death.
Worse yet, the illegality of the clubs means that they are operating outside the protection of law enforcement. Most of the time, all that separates players from armed criminals are steel doors, camera systems, and thick bars.
Players in clubs are doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. They are usually normal citizens who otherwise follow the law. However, there are two main reasons that poker (and gambling) remains illegal in Texas.
The distance between Bibles is very short in Texas
The first reason is that Texas is still a member of the cultural South. As recently as 2010, roughly 15% of Texans identified as Baptists – far surpassing every other faith except Catholicism.
This statistic is relevant because southern Baptists are very conservative socially. For staunch southern Baptists, many activities – including gambling – are absolutely taboo. My mother, a 1965 graduate of Baylor University, recalls a strict prohibition on dancing and drinking for students, and infractions could easily lead to expulsion.
Even though the culture has shifted in the past fifty years, those beliefs continue to survive in muted forms. Older Texans are the most likely demographic to hold those sorts of mores, and older people tend to vote more often.
As a result, gambling remains a contentious issue. As of 2017, it remains off the ballot.
The distance between lobbying money and politicians’ pockets is even shorter
Opinion polls show that Texans would like the chance to vote on the issue. However, in each legislative session, bills to legalize gambling fail to pass, or even make it out of committee.
Here we find the real reason gambling never passes in Texas: money. Out-of-state casinos have contributed millions of dollars to state politicians.
Texans spend billions of dollars each year crossing state lines to casinos in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and New Mexico. Those casinos line the pockets of Texas politicians to make sure that this practice continues.
For instance, Chickasaw Nation, owner of Winstar World Casino in Thackerville, Oklahoma, has donated millions to Texas politicians over the years. Two recent recipients of Chickasaw money are Rep. John Kuempel and Rep. Ryan Guillen – the chair and vice-chair of the licensing and administrative committee, which oversees any casino bills brought to the legislature. The past two governors and the current lieutenant governor have also received money from the north.
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As a result, Texas gaming bills, like this one, never even make it to a floor vote. The legislative history always looks the same, with no more entries after the body refers the bill to committee.
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Worst of all, gambling is not a hot button issue for most people. Texas’s general prosperity means that legislators are not motivated to look for alternative sources of income.
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For now, membership clubs are the best hope we have
So, poker in Texas must remain in the shadows. With any luck, these new clubs can receive a seal of approval from law enforcement or a sanction that would render them legitimate under the law.
It seems unlikely. However, once upon a time, so did horse racing, dog racing, bingo, and the state lottery. So, we’ll just have to see.