May 21, 2005
Poker tournaments: Still illegal

Poker may be very popular these days, but as the Susan G. Komen Foundation found out recently, poker tournaments, even for charity, are still illegal in the state of Texas.

Despite proceeds expected to near $300,000, Houston police and the District Attorney's Office said the event as it was structured would probably be considered illegal. Last week, fearing potential snags or embarrassment, organizers cashed out, prompting calls for the Legislature to spend less time debating cheerleaders' gyrations and more clarifying the state's sticky gambling laws.

"There are quirky laws on the books of every state," said Assistant District Attorney Marc Brown, who worked with Houston police to investigate the Komen tournament. "This is just high profile because it involves a very popular and worthwhile charity."

The Phil Hellmuth Poker Challenge, named after a World Series of Poker champion who was slated to participate in the daylong events, was to be a glitzy $500-a-head affair at Reliant Park, featuring an open bar, a live band and an evening-long, no-limit poker game.

"(Poker) is a hot issue because of the World Poker Tour and the popularization of poker now that it's televised every day," said Markus Kypreos, research attorney for the Texas County and District Attorneys Association. "But just because something has become popular doesn't mean it's necessarily legal."

Responding to a complaint from a Colorado lawyer, the Houston Police Department and the District Attorney's Office investigated the event and decided that because it was being held in public and because four winners would receive trips to the World Series of Poker, it would likely be illegal.

Everybody involved says they're okay with this ruling, and it does seem pretty clearcut based on the existing laws. The question then becomes, why shouldn't this be legal?

Kypreos, citing a Dallas charity tournament that was canceled in March, said it is likely authorities will continue to keep a watchful eye on poker fund-raisers.

"This is less to do with charity and more to do with gambling and Texas Hold'em," he said. "If you don't have a 100 percent grasp of Section 47.02 of the penal code, I wouldn't do it."

He added that although there are many bills in the Legislature proposing to expand the scope of gambling including one that would make charity poker tournaments legal in bingo parlors it is unlikely that anything will happen before the end of the session.

"When are they going to pass a gambling bill? When they decide they need money for other things," Kypreos said.

State Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, said there's a reason that the many gambling bills that have come before the House this session haven't passed. He said that while he is "100 percent for charity," the expansion of gambling hurts the state more than it helps.

"It's just like the little frog you put in a cold pan of water, put him on the stove and slowly turn it up," he said. "All of a sudden he's boiling ... , and he never really realized it until it was too late."

Howard said instead of hosting poker tournaments, charities should consider events such as dances, car washes and book sales.

"There are a jillion ways to raise money for charity," he said. "I just think there are better ways to do it. We don't need addictive gambling in our state."

Organizers of the now-defunct tournament have posted a petition on the Web at hoping to spur legislative action. Meanwhile, they're refunding tickets and trying to unplan the event.

My opposition to an expansion of gambling in Texas is primarily rooted in the purpose of such an expansion, which is to fund education and other budget items. As gambling provides an unstable and historically unrobust source of funding, creates other societal costs, and is borne by a narrow slice of the population, I believe it's a wholly inappropriate vehicle for generating state revenue. That said, I think there's room to allow some forms of gambling, such as charity poker tournaments. I agree with Rep. Howard about gambling's propensity to grow if left unchecked, but I'm willing to draw the line a little farther out than he is.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 21, 2005 to Legal matters | TrackBack