Houston Hold 'Em

There are plenty of opportunities for poker here, legal and otherwise

The pub had been hosting a cash Texas Hold 'Em tournament, in which all the entry fees were to be returned to the players. Since there was no rake, the staff assumed the tourney was legal. The TABC thought otherwise and handed out tickets to 64 players.

Apparently there were actually 132 people there to play. "The tournament hadn't exactly started, so the people not sitting down didn't get ticketed," says one of those cited, who asked not to be named.

"We asked them why they weren't shutting everybody down, and they said, 'We're only responding to complaints,' " she says. "So there are bars all over town still doing the same type of tournament." Northwest Houston is a hub for these games, so another tourney is only a short distance away. And that, coincidentally, is just about how far loyalty goes.

At Jim Burrell's house, the tables are felt and the 
money's real.
Daniel Kramer
At Jim Burrell's house, the tables are felt and the money's real.

Captain Coleman says the pub was raided because it involved cash gambling in a public place -- end of story. So far, his office has read the law as follows: You can gamble for cash in a private place, such as a home, with no rake, or you can gamble for points in a public place, but at no cost to the participants. (The Yorkshire Pub now hosts weekly tournaments of the latter variety.)

The commission is otherwise hesitant to interpret the law broadly. "Unfortunately, we cannot offer general or hypothetical opinions as to whether certain programs or ways of conducting tournaments violate the Texas Penal Code," says the TABC's Web site. "Rather, we must make those determinations in the context of the specific facts as they happen to occur on licensed premises."

Such fuzzy logic irks poker enthusiasts, who would like to see a more definitive list of what can and can't be done in public places. They have questions like, What's the big difference between a game for points and a game for cash? The venue makes money from food and drink sales either way. And, What happens when a public venue is a private club?

John W. Smith, a district attorney in Ector County, in West Texas, was so overcome with questions from his constituents that he wrote state Attorney General Greg Abbott last month, looking for clarification.

"Somehow I got out in the lead of this thing," says Smith. "I'm not real happy being here, but that's where I am." He anticipates it will take the AG weeks, if not months, to produce an opinion.

Which will probably be enough time for Houston-based Stuart Slagle to get his organization, Texans for Poker, off the ground. Just over a month old, the group now has 137 members and a mission statement: "The legalization of poker, a game of skill, within the great state of Texas by educating members of the Texas legislature about the statutory ambiguity of poker and to assist in drafting new ordinances at the state level." All of which is just a roundabout way of saying they plan to do some lobbying.

But they'll have their work cut out for them. Governor Rick Perry conceded in the middle of January that there is little support in the state legislature for expanded gambling, so the best bet for Texans for Poker might be to get poker reclassified as a game of skill. That way the legislature could skip some of the constitutional difficulties of legalizing it. This model worked for advocates in California, where poker is the only casino game that's legal throughout the state. (Roulette, craps and other games of chance are allowed on Native American reservations.)

"But we're also trying to get the laws clarified as well," says Slagle, a 37-year-old jockey's agent. "Numerous county attorneys interpret the law differently."

So for now, the only place players in Texas can be sure they're okay is in the privacy of a home.

"I'm an attorney, and I looked at the criminal code," says 39-year-old David Harvey, a local player. "The games I play in are all legal, because they're private games and the house doesn't get a rake or anything like that."

Harvey has been playing poker since he was 12. "I thoroughly enjoy it," he says. "I would play three to four times a week if my marriage would survive that. My marriage won't, so I probably play once every two weeks."

And once every two weeks is just how often his buddy, Jim Burrell, hosts a Texas Hold 'Em tournament at his house in northwest Houston. Burrell, a 54-year-old computer engineer, has been playing for about two years, ever since -- you guessed it -- the Travel Channel began airing the World Poker Tour. He's been hosting tourneys for seven months.

These nights are a far cry from poker of days past, when degenerates shot each other in the back and cheating was an integral part of the game. But we're not exactly talking about a few dudes sitting around a card table in the garage, smoking cigars and drinking beer, either. Burrell takes the game seriously: Three felt tables -- one red, one blue, one green -- span the bottom half of his house. Around them gather 20 to 30 players every fortnight, all of whom have some inkling of what they're doing. After all, once you're out of chips, you're out of the game. "The most a person can invest for the night is $75, or about the amount a person would spend for a decent night out," says Burrell. "For that, they get the opportunity to win perhaps $600 to $700 for first place, with four to five places paid."

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