August 14, 2017
HOUSTON (AP) — 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, the Houston Chronicle reports 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.
The games at Mint Poker, which opened three months ago, are played in a large, quarter-circle-shaped room lined with ceiling-to-floor windows that illuminate the club with natural light during the day. Several of the more than 20 poker tables almost always have full games going, even during the middle of the afternoon.
Its location on the banks of Clear Creek allows members to occasionally travel to the club by kayak, Eakman said.
Until now, Houstonians seeking to play poker were forced to drive across the Texas border or play at illegal “underground” poker clubs, said Eakman, 51.
Underground clubs are known for raking large sums of money from every poker hand’s pot, as well as being hotbeds for cheating, crime and drugs. Under Texas law, no third-party may benefit from a bet and all betters must have an equal opportunity to win.
The Texas Legislature has a long history of taking a hard line against expanding gambling, and there is no strong push now for more legalization. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office has not publicly weighed in on the move to expand the presence of private poker clubs in the state, and his staff declined comment for this story.
Local law enforcement officials routinely raid illegal poker games at bars, restaurants and residences when they’re discovered. A background report for the Texas District & County Attorneys Association notes that prosecutors typically do not target private poker games because “on its face, a private card game in someone’s home does not violate the Texas Penal Code, as long as the participants follow the exceptions.”
Those exceptions include doing the gambling in a truly private place, making sure no one receives any economic benefit other than their winnings, and that the chance of winning and losing are the same for all, except for advantages that come from skill or luck.
Eakman and other private poker gambling advocates say they do all they can to follow those exceptions and stay off the radar of law enforcement and the Legislature.
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.
University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus said he believes the membership poker club business model is legal but may still face an uphill battle to grow and succeed in Texas.
“It probably violates the spirit, if not the letter of the law,” Rottinghaus said. “So, in instances like that, there will definitely be a pushback where the attorney general and local law enforcement might take offense to the idea that there might be this illicit expansion of gambling, even if it’s not technically speaking illegal gambling.”
Citing Texas’ strong conservative ties, Rottinghaus said the morality concerns surrounding gambling may prevent the Republican-dominated Legislature from expanding any form of the practice in Texas.
“I suspect we’ll see the Cowboys move to Tulsa before we see full-scale gambling in Texas,” Rottinghaus said. “Trying to get around the law on this issue is never profitable. I think that’s the real danger that the people running these clubs have. You may technically be in the right, but this issue is so fraught with politics and morality that you’re unlikely to succeed.”
Despite Rottinghaus’ bleak outlook, Menendez said he believes legislators will stay away from the topic.
“Fortunately, it appears this is an issue where legislators don’t want to touch it,” Menendez said. “They understand that people want to have the freedom to do this, so they’re willing to not get into it. For now at least they’re letting these membership-based card rooms be safe places for people to be able to practice their hobbies.”
Eakman agrees, and said the Texas Legislature should be forewarned: Stay away from poker because Texans vote with their chips.
“All of these people in here vote,” Eakman said at his Houston club. “At the end of the day, they’re going to be playing poker somewhere. We think the right thing to do is to allow people to play.”