While the gambling history throughout Texas may seem rich – after all, Texas Hold’em took its name from the state – there are actually very strict laws governing all wagering activities within the Lone Star State. The name Texas Hold’em was derived from a number of now legendary poker players who brought the game to Las Vegas several decades ago, particularly Doyle ‘Texas Dolly’ Brunson and Amarillo Slim, who got his nickname from the illustrious town of Amarillo, Texas. Despite the native culture, poker games are generally outlawed across the state.
The only forms of legal, regulated gambling in Texas are pari-mutuel wagering and the state-run lottery, as well as charitable forms of bingo, raffles and pull-tabs. Social poker games are permitted in a private residence, so long as no one profits in any way other than by winning hands. There is one tribal casino in the state, the Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino in Eagle Pass, located on the southwestern border. It is the only establishment in the state of Texas that is allowed to host traditional poker games, open daily with regular Texas Hold’em tournaments presented every Tuesday and Sunday. But Texas is an enormous state, and with the only legal poker room being located so far from most mainstream cities, a large number of poker enthusiasts in Texas have chosen to play poker online.
Legality of Online Poker in Texas
There are numerous reputable internet poker sites that accept players from the Lone Star State. Online poker has been big business all across the US for more than a decade, but what many online poker players in Texas aren’t sure of is whether it’s legal to participate in real money poker over the internet. Some states have addressed the issue of online poker directly, but the majority of them – Texas included – have not. As such, deciphering the laws of the state as they pertain to gambling in general is the only way to determine whether or not online poker is illegal.
Next, we will attempt to examine the state’s gambling laws and give our opinion as to whether it’s legal to play online poker in Texas. Note that this is only our opinion, and not an official notice. We are not qualified to interpret the law with any precise exactitude. For a more accurate answer as to the legalities of online poker in Texas, we strongly recommend contacting a legal authority in your area.
Texas Penal Code – Gambling
Chapter 47 of Title 10 of the Texas Penal Code deals specifically with the definitions and criminology of illegal gambling. The following excerpts are taken directly from this chapter. Note that some text may be abridged or annotate to sustain continuity to the subject of online poker.
Sec. 47.01. DEFINITIONS
Bet: means an agreement to win or lose something of value solely or partially by chance. A bet does not include:
(A) contracts of indemnity or guaranty, or life, health, property, or accident insurance;
(B) an offer of a prize, award, or compensation to the actual contestants in a bona fide contest for the determination of skill, speed, strength, or endurance or to the owners of animals, vehicles, watercraft, or aircraft entered in a contest; or
(C) an offer of merchandise, with a value not greater than $25, made by the proprietor of a bona fide carnival contest conducted at a carnival sponsored by [an authorized, nonprofit charitable organization] if the person to receive the merchandise from the proprietor is the person who performs the carnival contest.
Gambling Device: means any electronic, electromechanical, or mechanical contrivance not excluded under Paragraph (B) 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. The term:
(A) includes, but is not limited to, gambling device versions of bingo, keno, blackjack, lottery, roulette, video poker, or similar [games]… and
(B) does not include any [device] designed, made, and adapted solely for bona fide amusement purposes if [it awards] noncash… prizes… that have a wholesale value [of no more than 10x the price to play once] or $5, whichever is less.
Sec. 47.02. GAMBLING.
(a) A person commits an offense if he:
(1) makes a bet on the partial or final result of a game or contest or on the performance of a participant in a game or contest;
(2) makes a bet on the result of any political nomination, appointment, or election or on the degree of success of any nominee, appointee, or candidate; or
(3) plays and bets for money or other thing of value at any game played with cards, dice, balls, or any other gambling device.
(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.
(d) An offense under this section is a Class C misdemeanor.
Sec. 47.06. POSSESSION OF GAMBLING DEVICE, EQUIPMENT, OR PARAPHERNALIA.
(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.
(e) An offense under this section is a Class A misdemeanor.
What does it all mean? Is online poker illegal in Texas?
Because the definition of a bet clearly includes any wager based “solely or partially by chance”, poker would certainly be included as betting. A person commits gambling if he/she “plays and bets for money or other thing of value at any game played with cards”, thus poker is illegal if it occurs in any unauthorized way (i.e. anything but social gambling or at a tribal casino). Social gambling requires no one to benefit from the game outside of collecting winnings as a player. As we know, online poker operators collect a rake in cash games and fees in tournaments, thus they cannot be defined as social gambling. Furthermore, a desktop computer, laptop, mobile device or tablet could be deemed a gambling device because it is an “electronic contrivance” that, when used to place a bet, “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”.
Despite the fact that the terms online and internet are not present in the Texas Penal Code, playing online poker could easily be construed as an illegal gambling activity. Thus we must conclude that yes, online poker is illegal in Texas.
The penalties for gambling in Texas are a Class C misdemeanor for illegal gambling (fine not to exceed $500), or a Class A misdemeanor for possession of a gambling device (fine of up to $4,000 and/or up to 1 year in jail).
Is Texas working to regulate online poker?
Fortunately, Texas has taken several strides towards the legalization and regulation of online poker. Nothing has come to fruition yet, but a number of bills have been set into motion. The most recent was S.J.R. No. 43, “A Joint Resolution proposing a constitutional amendment to authorize online poker gaming regulated under federal law.” However that bill, and all other similar propositions, requires federal regulation of online poker before it would be passed into Texas law. Simply put, Texas is fully on board with the idea of legalizing online poker, but not until it receives regulatory guidelines from the federal government, and that won’t likely occur until 2014 at best.