Texas is known for doing things big, and with good reason. It has the 2nd largest land mass of all the 50 US states, and the second largest population of 26,448,193 (est. 2013). As for the economy, the Lone Star State also has the highest number (tied with California) of Fortune 500 companies, and leads the nation in a multitude of industries that include aerospace, agriculture, biomedical science, computers, electronics, energy and, of course, petrochemicals. The state also generates a respectable amount of revenue from the gambling industry, which consists of a multi-billion dollar state lottery and pari-mutuel wagering. Certain forms of charitable gambling, like bingo, raffles and pull tabs, are also legal, but Texas takes no part in the regulation of casino style gaming.
Countless online poker players reside in the Lone Star State, and despite any regulatory framework from the state government, they continue to play for real money at offshore websites. Whether it’s legal or not to do so, however, is a general uncertainty for many Texans. By examining the land-based gambling industry and relative laws of the state, we hope to be able to shed some light on the topic.
Land-based Gambling in Texas
The history of gambling is Texas runs deep, but not so much from a legal standpoint. Pari-mutuel racing was legalized in 1933 to help offset the economic failings of the Great Depression, but was prohibited again just four years later. It wasn’t until 1987 that voters approved the reinstatement of betting at horse and greyhound racing tracks. Because casinos were illegal, gambling ships were already taking to the waters in the 1940’s, but a 1948 stipulation effectively stopped them by requiring ships to make port elsewhere during the voyage and not return for at least 24 hours. It took 40 years for a casino cruise to take Texas up on the offer, calling to port in Mexico, at which time lawmakers realized the absurdity of the old statute and repealed those requirements the following year.
In 1980, charitable organizations were exempted from the state’s long-standing anti-lottery position, allowing for limited charitable bingo games and ‘Instant Bingo’ pull tabs. Raffles were later added in 1989, and by 1992 the Texas State Lottery was born. In the 1990’s, the state’s three federally recognized tribes all opened bingo casinos on their respective reservations, but two of them were closed by the state in 2002 for offering games that are not legal in Texas (as per the IGRA of 1988). The only one remaining, the Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino in Eagle Pass, was established under a different federal law, therefore could not be closed down. In fact, the casino has expanded greatly over the years, now offering a massive floor of bingo, slots, blackjack and live poker action.
With poker having such a rich history in the Lone Star State (Robstown, TX being officially recognized as the birthplace of Texas Hold’em), lawmakers finally moved to allow bars and restaurants to form poker leagues in 2005, with the requisite tenet that the establishment may not charge an fee for entry to a game nor make any profit directly from the poker games.
Deciphering the Laws of Texas as they relate to Online Poker
Chapter 47 of the Texas Penal Code is dedicated to the topic of Gambling. The following citations are taken from that text as they may pertain to the legality of online poker, with a brief meaning for clarification purposes.
|Section||Text||Meaning (in re online poker)|
|10-47-01 Definitions||(1) “Bet” means an agreement to win or lose something of value solely or partially by chance.||Playing poker for real money falls under the definition of a bet.|
|(3) “Gambling place” means any real estate, building, room, tent, vehicle, boat, or other property whatsoever, one of the uses of which is the making or settling of bets, bookmaking, or the conducting of a lottery or the playing of gambling devices.||Operating a gambling device, even in one’s own home, could be construed as falling under the definition of gambling place.|
|(4) “Gambling device” means any electronic, electromechanical, or mechanical contrivance…that for a consideration affords the player an opportunity to obtain anything of value, the award of which is determined solely or partially by chance, even though accompanied by some skill, whether or not the prize is automatically paid by the contrivance.||A computer or mobile device used to play online poker might be interpreted as a gambling device if used to play online poker for real money.|
|(8) “Private place” means a place to which the public does not have access…||A person’s home would be considered a private place.|
|10-47-02 Gambling||(a) A person commits an offense if he:
(3) plays and bets for money or other thing of value at any game played with cards, dice, balls, or any other gambling device.
|Playing poker for real money or anything of value is illegal, unless… (see next definition.)|
|(b) It is a defense to prosecution under this section that:
(1) the actor engaged in gambling in a private place;
(2) no person received any economic benefit other than personal winnings; and
(3) except for the advantage of skill or luck, the risks of losing and the chances of winning were the same for all participants.
|Social poker games conducted in a private place are legal so long as no one but the players are making any profit outside of gambling winnings. Online poker is not legal under this definition if the poker site operator is collecting a rake in cash games or tournament fees.|
|(d) An offense under this section is a Class C misdemeanor.||The penalty, if convicted of playing illegal online poker, would be a fine of up to $500 (no jail time).|
|10-47-06 Possession of a Gambling Device||(a) A person commits an offense if, with the intent to further gambling, he knowingly owns, manufactures, transfers, or possesses any gambling device that he knows is designed for gambling purposes or any equipment that he knows is designed as a subassembly or essential part of a gambling device.||To own and use a computer or mobile device for the purpose of playing real money online poker might be interpreted as possession of a gambling device.|
|(e) An offense under this section is a Class A misdemeanor.||The penalty for possession of a gambling device is up to 1 year in jail and/or up to $4,000 fine.|
Is Online Poker Illegal in Texas?
Yes. Although there are no known cases of anyone being arrested and convicted for playing real money online poker in Texas, the definition of a bet clearly includes poker, and if played for anything of value in a private place where anyone stands to make a profit (outside of personal gambling winnings), it is illegal. Online poker sites collect a rake at cash games and fees for tournaments, therefore they would fall under the classification of illegal gambling. It’s not certain whether a computer or mobile device used to play online poker can truly be defined as a gambling device, since they are not specifically “designed for gambling purposes” (as per 10-47-06), but if a judge ruled in favor of the prosecution in such a case, the penalty would escalate significantly.
Is Texas working to legalize Online Poker?
Yes. In 2013 alone, a number of online poker bills were introduced in Texas, along with other measures to expand the legalization of land-based poker games. At present, each of those proposals are still sitting on the committee shelf, but Senator John Carona, Chairman of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, has promised to push for a study on poker, which could eventually benefit both live and online poker regulation in the Lone Star State.
Online Poker Players from Texas
They say everything is bigger and Texas, and that’s even true of the BIG-NAME professional poker players coming from the area. I’m talking about legends like Doyle “Texas_Dolly” Brunson and T.J. “TJCLOUTIER” Cloutier. You won’t find them playing online much these days, but you will find Texas natives like Jason “laxxxdurrraiseicall” Gooch, Greg “in a gang” / “igotsithomie” Hyman, Raymond “speckerhead2” Speck, James “suno23” Sunwoo, D. James “TexasHustler016” Martin and Andy “arobinson11” Robinson.
Land-Based Card Rooms in Texas
Due to the current stance of Texas regulations, there is only one tribal casino authorized to conduct Class II gaming (including live poker) in the state.
Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino
Location: Eagle Pass, TX
Poker Room: Yes