March 08, 2004
Poker tournaments illegal

Sorry, citizens of Lubbock. You can't play in poker tournaments that offer cash prizes.

LUBBOCK -- Do bar and restaurant card tournaments requiring entry fees and promising prize money violate state gambling laws?

District Attorney Bill Sowder says they do.

Spurred by recent attempts to hold card tournaments at Lubbock businesses, Sowder informed owners last week of his stance before pursuing criminal charges.

"The law is not designed to punish the Friday night poker game at a guy's house," he said in Saturday's editions of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. "The law is not designed to throw out the football pool at the shop."

Jake's Sports Cafe recently canceled a Texas Hold'em poker tournament when law officers questioned the event's legality.

Owner Scott Stephenson said his event does not amount to gambling.

"It's no different than a golf tournament or a dart tournament," he said. "The way we're running the game, there is no bet. We don't let people bet money in the game."

The tournament would charge players entry fees and offer prizes to the winners. Instead of money, players would wager points on each hand.

But Assistant District Attorney John Grace said that when it comes to gambling, the Texas Supreme Court says points are the same as money. And because each player's odds of winning differ with each deal of the cards, poker is gambling, he said.

Here's the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal story, which contains the following quote from Scott Stephenson, whose sports bar cancelled a Texas Hold 'Em tournament as a result of the DA's ruling.

Poker involves more skill than chance, Stephenson said, pointing out that the same players repeatedly win major national poker tournaments.

"All we're doing is determining the better, more skillful player," he said. "I think it's a game of skill. ... It's just like we determine who's the better golfer."

Far as I know, that was the rationale that got bridge exempted from gambling laws, which is why there are rubber bridge studios where you can play for money. I'd be very interested to see, now that televised poker events have become so ubiquitous, if a judge would buy that argument.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 08, 2004 to Legal matters | TrackBack

Although Bridge is requires more skill than Poker, both do have an element of chance in every hand. When played at the highest level, Poker requires skill more than luck. If the bar does not keep a percentage of the entry fees, then perhaps it would fall into the standard "Friday Night Poker Game" law that seems to be common in each state. Once it keeps a percentage for running the game, then I can see the "promoting gambling" charge being filed.

By the way, I didn't know there were places where you could play Bridge for money.

Posted by: William Hughes on March 8, 2004 10:45 AM

Be careful what analogies you use, Chuck. In San Francisco, they closed down the bridge for money game in 1998. The police, in an SF Chron story at the time, referred to it, IIRC, as "the last known gambling hall in San Francisco."

Their raid took down such known gangsters as Ron Smith and Michael Lawrence, both of whom are known dangers to society. They take out contracts all the time, and fulfill them most of the time. Danger lurks everywhere.

Posted by: Ron Zucker on March 8, 2004 11:02 AM

Ron - That's fascinating. I'd not heard about that. I am certain there was a court ruling which established bridge as a game of skill and thus exempt from gambling laws, but my Google mojo failed me (I'm also blocked from viewing gambling-related sites at work, so I can't do a thorough search right now). What happened to that case?

While he was alive, Bobby Nail ran a rubber bridge studio here in Houston. I played there once and lost $28. I thought I heard that there was a new rubber bridge studio open, but I may be misremembering.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on March 8, 2004 11:25 AM

And the Lubbock night life was beginning to show such promise....

Posted by: Norbizness on March 8, 2004 12:25 PM

I can't find the SF Chronicle story. A 1962 California case (In re Allen, 377 P.2d 280) held that bridge was a game of skill, but it was dealing solely with a Los Angeles statute, so it wouldn't have touched whatever law might have been applied in SF. Maybe it's illegal to bet on games of skill in SF? Dunno.

Posted by: kodi on March 8, 2004 2:54 PM


I believe poker rooms are legal in California. I read about Gardenia having them a long time ago, and I think there's one at Hollywood Park racetrack.

Posted by: William Hughes on March 8, 2004 3:06 PM

This happened while I was living there, probably around 98 or so. I've not found it online, but it's hard to go back that many years online.

Poker rooms are definitely legal in CA, but are regulated and allowed on a county-by-county basis. Thus, none in SF, but 3 in San Bruno just south of SF. It would seem to me that, if you allow poker rooms, you should be able to have a bridge game, but the game was in SF proper, and there are no poker rooms in SF. (An aside. A very good bridge player and math PhD student at Berkley named Bill Chen decided, when he finished his PhD to play poker for a living instead of getting a teaching job. Last I spoke to him, he haunted the Oaks in Emeryville, just north of Oakland, and was making upwards of $100K per year as a poker player.)

Many bad players played in the low stakes bridge for money game, but for many years, bridge for big money was where the action was in SF bridge. Bob Hamman used to play there, as did Grant Baze. The club was on Jones Street (in the Tenderloin).

There was also an invitational bridge for money game in Oakland at which I was a regular for about a year and a half before I left SF in 2003. (For those who play bridge, it was teams, $2 an imp plus 6 imps for the match -- so a match was at least 7 IMPs -- cut for teams, with ten board matches. We'd play three matches a night. I played it because it was cheaper than lessons, and a number of top players from the area played in the game, so I got lessons.)

The big difference between Poker and Bridge as gambling games is in the speed of play. We were pretty fast and could only get in 30 boards a night. With a good dealer, you can play about twenty hands of poker per hour. Also, the house can take a rake in poker. In bridge, we just payed a flat $10 apiece to play our 30 boards.

Posted by: Ron Zucker on March 8, 2004 5:05 PM

Has anyone tried to institute a duplicate poker tournament?

I have occasionally played in bridge calcuttas which award cash prizes for high finishes.

The only other money bridge I play is a rubber bridge game with a group that, in the ten years or so I have played in it, remain confused by Stayman.

That is my kinda game.

Posted by: Dwight Meredith on March 8, 2004 5:27 PM

Ah, beautiful! Soon you shall be a poker-blogger, too!

Check out CENSORED BY MT-BLACKLIST (it's Love and C4s1n0 War in my blogroll) for the latest in Texas, laws, and popular poker rooms in Austin. I myself have played in a few legally questionable establishments mit die karden here in our Great Republic.

Naturally, the Baptists are causing us to miss out on a nice source of tax revenue by not allowing gaming/card rooms.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on March 8, 2004 7:55 PM

Update on Lubbock:

There's now a hold'em tourney at three to four bars - one every night of the week. The loophole is that they don't charge an entry fee -if the customer doesn't have any money "at risk" then it's not gambling. The bars give cash and gift certificates to the top 5. All of the managers I have talked to say that the spike in sales makes it well worth it.

Posted by: JS on July 12, 2004 12:35 PM

If a poker game for money is not allowed then no other competition for money should be either; wheather it be the owners of the 49'ers or their counterparts across the bay or the world. Because there is absolutely no clear line of difference between poker or any other competitive venture having a fiscal interest - not even business...

The exact same rules of engagement and strict principles are the same in any venture: you must have a willingness to risk; willingness to learn the enterprise, willingness to learn from mistakes; willingness to manage your money and affairs. The exact things that are not being taught by contemporary pundits. Poker will teach you a lot about life - if you are willing to learn - that is the rub isn't it?


Posted by: doco on December 3, 2004 10:28 AM

If someone with law enforcement knowledge could tell me the difference between Poker tournaments and Pool, Darts, local golf clubs that are open to the public and playing for money, and tell in in laymens terms so we can understand it then I would greatly appreciate it.

Posted by: boo on December 8, 2004 3:02 PM

The local (Raleigh/Durham) paper just noted that the same rules exist in NC, and that poker tables are illegal equipment.

Posted by: Brian on May 15, 2005 8:52 AM

Is it completely illegal 2 gamble in bars? I mean even with just 10 bucks and a few friends?

Posted by: Meli on May 30, 2005 2:42 AM


Posted by: MANNY on July 16, 2005 12:20 PM

i think the freedom to gamble is anyones choice its bullshit that a bunch of buracratit asshole tight asses make the laws when poker is actually a sport not gambling. if they ever played its more skill than anything. lubbock citizens should be able to make there choices in wheather to holdem or foldem.

Posted by: Matt D. on August 16, 2005 8:04 PM

I live in Northern California and can easily go to Reno or an Indian casino so for me and I think many people the point is moot.

Posted by: Frederick Leiserson on November 12, 2005 7:05 AM

I have a restaurant and want to have a texas hold-em tournament where I charge $60 $10.00 goes foor food & playing expenses all other money goes to the prize pool. I also have a cash bar Restaurant is Up state new york.
Is it Illegal?
Thank you TONY

Posted by: TONY GIG on April 8, 2006 2:28 PM

What about charging time rather then a rake, and possibly charging some small membership fee to make the establishment a private place rather then a public place?


Posted by: mike on May 29, 2006 9:58 PM