Is Poker Legal In Texas?

Let's answer the question: is poker legal in Texas? Well, the state named for the most popular form of poker, Texas Hold Em, still has laws about whether or not you can play poker legally in the state. Whether it's a home game or online poker, we'll cover the basics and the detail.

Table of Contents

There’s quite a bit of complexity to the Texas law but we’ll start with the one most likely to impact the person reading this and then get into the more complicated laws.

Are Poker Home Games Legal?

Home games, private poker games played in a private residence, are legal in Texas. This is among the few exceptions in Texas Gambling Law. The key focus of the law is targeting whether you are a “gambling establishment.” Where establishment is thought of as a destination where the entity makes money not as a result of skill or luck. In other words, someone is making money that is not one of the players.

Are Poker Tournaments Legal?

Similarly, if the poker tournament is being held at a private residence then you’re probably fine so long as the house is not taking a cut. For example if a group of ten friends buy in $20 and the winner gets $200, you’re fine. If you advertise a tournament, charge an entry fee and take some cut, you’re now in dangerous territory. This will bring us to membership poker clubs which targeted a perceived loophole in the Texas gambling law.

Membership Based Poker Clubs: A loophole in Texas poker law?

As an article by the Texas Bar discussed, private poker clubs have emerged that charger a membership fee in exchange for the ability to gamble legally. The loophole being attacked by the process is the question of whether or not the house takes a vig (a cut of the proceeds). The law says that if gambling occurs in a private place and the only economic beneficiary of the wagering is the winner, then it’s legal. This is where the loophole comes in where institutions have sought to create private poker “clubs” that are membership based.

The Harris County Situation

In early 2019, a series of raids on private poker rooms made news when Harris County officials attempted to put an end to this so called loophole. Believing these poker clubs were a nuisance to the community and attracting the wrong type of crows (this will be important later) and potentially contributing to organized crime. The situation attracted much interest from neighboring Texas counties about what would be the outcome of the prosecution. Let’s start with the beginning.

The Poker Room Raids

In May of 2019, police in Harris County raided private poker rooms and, instead of charging the operators of the establishment with misdemeanors, prosecutors added on additional charges of money laundering and organized crime. If you remember from our piece explaining Texas Gambling laws, the charge here would only be a class C misdemeanor which is merely a fine (up to $500) and comes with no jail time. The prosecutors wanted to add on additional charges in order to send a message that this type of behavior would not be tolerated.

Charges Dismissed

Roughly two and half months later, July of 2019, the charges were suddenly dropped by prosecutors. At the time, both owners of the establishments (there were two separate establishments targeted) and employees, were being charged. Why were the charges dismissed? Perhaps in one of the great ironies of recent Texas law, the charges were dismissed due to the fact that many members of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office had frequented the clubs.

Texas Establishments Where You Can Play Poker

Outside of private home games and online play, the law specifically targets the aforementioned gambling establishments, at least on state land. Recent Bills, which we’ll get to, have sought to create casinos in vacation spots near the water to boos tourism. With neighboring Louisiana, many Texas beach towns have had trouble luring tourists to come in lieu of the short trip to New Orleans.

Indian Reservations in Texas

As the USA Today noted, Texas was once a state home to hundreds of Native American tribes. However most of these tribes were eradicated via war or forced to move off their land in one way treaties. Now there are only three federally recognized tribes in Texas and their ability to offer gaming on the premises has been the subject of a tremendous amount of legal scrutiny both at the federal and state level.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (passed October 17, 1988) made it federal law that Native Americans are allowed to conduct and regulate gaming on their own lands. However to what extent the gaming is allowed is still a point of contention. As of right now, Indian Reservations are fighting bitterly to have full blown Vegas style gambling allowed on state lands. Unfortunately, federal courts have been siding with the state. Therefore Indian Reservations in Texas are only allowed to offer electronic bingo type games.

Private Home Games

As noted above, private home games remain a legal way to play poker in Texas. Remember to avoid getting too carried away with advertising the game and, if you’re the host, never take a cut just for hosting the event (much less a rake).

Online Poker

This is going to come down to how the law is interpreted, but as poker sites will tell you, online poker is not “illegal” in Texas, at least for the players point of view. You can play poker on sites like Bovada, but you are not allowed to create, run, or facilitate play on your own website or mobile app or anything of that nature.

Recent Laws Targeting Poker

Most of the recent laws having to do with poker involve either native american lands or vacation gaming bills. Particularly, in the case of the vacation bills, HB 2257 which sought to “legalize operation of casino’s in certain state coastal areas.” That bill failed to make it out of committee.

Additionally SJR 41 dealt with the touchy subject of the Kickapoo tribe and their relationship between the state, the federal government, and their rights as a federally recognized territory. This bill failed to make it out of committee.

We’ll update this section with historical information and new laws as they come in. The federal government, federal courts, and state courts are constantly jockeying for position.