Texas committee hears testimony on poker club legislation

Poker chips cards and a glass of brown liquor
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The Texas House Committee on Licensing & Administrative Procedures hear testimony related to two bills related to Texas card rooms on Wednesday. The group did not vote on either of the measures but did hear testimony for and against measures designed to more explicitly legalize members-only poker rooms in the state.

Over the past ten years, these poker rooms have proliferated across the state, particularly in the Houston and Dallas areas. Under current law there is a carveout for games that do not take a rake taking place in private places such as a residence. However, various counties and cities have run into repeated issues

HB1601 wants local governments to be able to regulate TX poker clubs

One bill, HB1601, brought forth by Rep. Gene Wu seeks to create the ability for individual counties to impose regulations of their choosing. As he told SBC Americas earlier this year, “Whatever that regulation looks like, I don’t care. Having 254 regulations is better than having thousands of regulations. And what’s worse is the current system where the legality of the action changes on the administration.”

He reiterated his stance to the committee.

“The problem is that because there is no regulation, either at the state level or at the county level or city level, there’s no way to shut down the bad actors,” he explained.

A representative from the Harris County Fire Marshal’s office spoke in support of the bill, noting that some of these rooms are public safety concerns and some are havens for other types of crimes beyond gambling. Harris County includes the Houston area.

“All establishments operating in this nature really need to have proper oversight and our opinion were in favor of this bill that would authorize the County Commissioners Court to regulate the operation of poker clubs to require a license and restrict or prohibit the location of poker clubs within certain areas, which is in direct line with what we’re doing with the game we’re in right now.”

Surprisingly, one of the poker club pioneers in the state, Daniel Kebort, testified against both poker measures.

“We’re gonna have 254 definitions of the act. They don’t give any guidance on what an appropriate licensing structure should look like. They don’t have any infrastructure to enforce and potentially prosecute criminal violations of licensing code. If a dealer is palming chips out of a pot, hiding them in their sleeve, and stealing money, how does the DEA prosecute that crime? The only way these clubs can continue to exist as they are because of the complexity of what they have become is through the regulation of the state across the state,” he explained.

HB2345 wants to update criminal code to clearly include social poker clubs

This is also why Kebort opposed HB2345, which seeks to simply revise the criminal code to include members-only poker clubs in the definition of private games. It would also clarify the definition of “economic benefit” to specifically refer to proceeds from the game and not from ancillary profits like membership fees, food, and beverage, or other revenue streams.

One committee member expressed concern to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ryan Guillen, that this would encourage more poker clubs. The same member also noted how someone in his district was shot and killed at such a club.

Kebort appeared a second time to testify against this measure for the same reasons, noting that there still doesn’t create any consistent oversight for these establishments. Supporters of the bill included a recreational poker player who said she felt safer and more secure playing in clubs than some home games, a lawyer testifying on behalf of local card clubs, and Trent Touchstone, a former US Marshal and security expert who works with Champions Poker Club in Dallas.

Other than to voice some negative feelings about the bills, the committee did not have much in the way of questions for either sponsor. There was no vote on either bill, so they remain in committee pending that for now.