Michael Eakman, a poker aficionado from a very young age, has hosted poker tournaments from around the country, but Texas gambling laws have long shut him out of his own state and his hometown of Houston.
This year, however, he opened the city’s first restricted membership-based poker club, joining several Texas entrepreneurs who believe they have found a way to circumvent those regulations and host everything from friendly poker games to competitive tournaments.
Unlike traditional gambling houses, Mint Poker in southeast Houston does not take a share of any gambled money, referred to as raking the pot. Instead, the club and similar ones across the state charge membership fees for players wanting to play in the club, a business approach that pushes the boundaries of legal gambling.
But so far, Eakman and other entrepreneurs in Austin and north Dallas haven’t drawn any unwanted attention from the Legislature or state regulatory agencies. Their efforts are gaining enough traction that they’re looking to expand. They have formed an association to represent their interest and are hoping to establish more clubs across Texas.
“In our conversations with the city attorney here in our jurisdiction, we made everyone aware of what we were doing before we even signed the lease,” Eakman said. “I certainly don’t want to challenge anyone to bring a court case, but I think at the end of the day we’re handling this by being proactive instead of reactive is the way to do this. … There are no regulations and guidelines other than the narrow scope of a very vague law.” Bingo, horse and dog racetracks, Native American casinos and even the state-run Texas Lottery all provide outlets for Texans trying to test their luck.
At least three other membership-based poker clubs have opened in addition to the Houston business: Texas Card House with two locations in Austin, and Poker Rooms of Texas in north Dallas. They recently joined forces as the Texas Association of Social Card Clubs, and have begun working with longtime utilities lobbyist Tim VonKennel to represent them within the Texas Legislature, Eakman said.
VonKennel is the father of Texas Card House owner Sam VonKennel, and said he helped organize the Texas Association of Social Card Clubs to increase legislators’ awareness of membership-based poker clubs in Texas.
“The Legislature hasn’t really seen it yet because it hasn’t really existed,” VonKennel said. “As they pop up, I want to make sure the Lege is aware of them. What I would really like to do is get these guys to become licensed with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, and that way they’re absolutely certain they’re on the right side of the law.”
Sen. Jose Menendez, a Democrat from San Antonio, said he was involved with the creation of membership-based poker in Texas, encouraging Eakman to devise a business model that could clear the hurdles of Texas gambling laws when they met at a poker tournament.
“I think it’s a little hypocritical that we can have a state lottery or horse racing in texas but we can’t let people play poker,” Menendez said.
Basically, as far as I can tell, these things are legal until proven otherwise, which is to say until some law enforcement agency makes an arrest, or until Ken Paxton issues an opinion. The story above appeared a few weeks ago and fell into my drafted-but-never-got-around-to-publishing pile, then I saw this AP story and dug it back up. As noted, while the state has not given an opinion on this sort of thing, local law enforcement has, at least in some places.
On Sept. 7, Dallas police executed a search warrant at CJ’s Card Club on Walnut Hill Lane. Police filed a report alleging the keeping of a gambling place. The case remains under investigation. A department spokeswoman declined to release any further information.
The club has since closed, its website and Facebook page have been shut down, and its operators could not be reached.
Around that same time, Poker Rooms of Texas closed after Plano police questioned the legality of that operation. The club opened late last year in a strip center storefront on Parker Road off Independence Parkway. It reportedly attracted scores of players each night.
Its website states that it “is working with local authorities to resolve operational issues.” Its owners did not return messages.
The website for Lucky’s Card Room in Fort Worth says the club is temporarily closed while it works on a new location. And the site for TopSet Poker Club in Plano stated that its grand opening, formerly set for September, has been delayed while it considers options in light of problems identified at similar businesses.
Big Texas Poker Club opened in late August in a commercial building off Jupiter Road in Plano. Owners Fred and Heather Zimmerman said they did their homework to ensure that they would be legal. Three weeks later, they shut down to avoid arrest.
“This is a legitimate business, and it’s better than illegal poker rooms,” Fred Zimmerman said.
The couple said they were transparent about their club as they sought a city permit to open. Only after they started gaining members did they receive “threatening letters” from police stating that their business model violated the state’s gambling law.
Plano City Attorney Paige Mims said certificates of occupancy are about the fitness of a building and have nothing to do with the activity inside. As for whether a private card room can operate, she said the city does not give legal advice.
Police spokesman David Tilley declined to go into details about his department’s conversations with the poker rooms. “Gambling is illegal in the state of Texas,” he said.
In other words, if you have a favorite spot to play Texas Hold’Em, don’t get too attached to it. I should note that there was an effort in the 2009 legislative session to carve out a legal exception for poker, but it didn’t make it. If there’s been a similar effort since then, I’m not aware of it; that one had a social media/PR push behind it and there’s been no such thing in subsequent sessions. The legislator who filed the pro-poker bill back then was then-Rep., now-Sen. Jose Menendez, who as you can see still supports the idea. Like I said, I wish these guys luck. I’m not a poker player myself, but I see no reason not to let ’em play.