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Is Texas Hold 'Em Illegal in Texas?

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

It's a game that's rapidly becoming one of the most popular in the country. The Texas Hold 'Em style of poker is all over the air waves, the Internet and the nation's bars, so you'd think that the explosion in Texas Hold 'Em's popularity would be good for Texas. But as Larry Schooler of member station KUT reports from Austin, there are legal obstacles to cashing in on the craze.

LARRY SCHOOLER reporting:

The size of the crowd at Ringers Sports Bar in downtown Austin usually depends on whether there's a big game on. Recently, there was a big game on, just not on television.

Mr. MATT MOORE (Fantasy Poker League): All right, poker players. Welcome to the Fantasy Poker League, brought to you by...

SCHOOLER: Matt Moore greets over 100 players at a Fantasy Poker League tournament. At first blush, the game at Ringers might seem high-stakes. The tables are piled high with chips, but there's actually no money on the line at all. There's not even an entry fee. Moore says the players are competing for a trip to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and a chance to win some money.

Mr. MOORE: All we do is give you a chance at the world's biggest prize. It's just a seat. That's all it is.

SCHOOLER: Why not play poker for money? Well, there's some confusion around the state about whether or not it's legal. Police have been breaking up poker tournaments. They've even made some arrests. Frank Skaggs held a Texas Hold 'Em tournament at his nightclub in Texas City, which is near Houston. Players paid $20 to enter; there was a cash prize. While the tournament was in full swing, police officers and sheriff's deputies raided the club. Frank Skaggs.

Mr. FRANK SKAGGS (Nightclub Owner): Here they come like gangbusters, like it was a big, big thing, like we were criminals of some kind.

SCHOOLER: Skaggs says he checked with authorities to find out whether the tournament was legal, but never got a clear answer.

Mr. SKAGGS: Yeah, we thought it was legal. Everybody else was doing it, and they didn't seem to pay no attention to anybody else.

SCHOOLER: If Skaggs had asked Dale Rye, the assistant county attorney in Williamson County, just north of Austin, he would have gotten this answer.

Mr. DALE RYE (Assistant County Attorney, Williamson County): It is illegal to participate in a game, the outcome of which is determined primarily by chance as opposed to skill and where there's a chance to win or lose something of financial value.

SCHOOLER: Rye says it's illegal to hold a public poker tournament where there's money on the line, and charging an entry fee to compete for a non-cash prize is also illegal. Rye says that's something many charities have done for fund-raising.

Mr. RYE: Obviously, we are not seeking to crack down on the, you know, St. Ignatius Parish Festival and haul the nuns off to jail and arrest the bishop for operating a gambling place. But if we don't enforce the gambling laws uniformly across the board, then we reach a point where we can't enforce them against anybody.

SCHOOLER: Rye concedes Texas gambling law has gray areas. He and other county attorneys across the state are waiting for the attorney general to issue an opinion on poker tournaments. The attorney general's office says it expects to issue an opinion sometime in June; a spokesman wouldn't say how the attorney general is leaning.

(Soundbite of poker tournament)

Unidentified Man: All in for one.

SCHOOLER: Back at Ringers, owner Bob Gillette(ph) says existing law shouldn't stop the poker tournaments. Gillette says he's not really convinced that poker is gambling.

Mr. BOB GILLETTE (Owner, Ringers): Texas views poker as a game of chance, and I really don't think so. I mean, after viewing these people and after seeing tournaments, it's really a game of skill. The same people who are good win.

SCHOOLER: But the problem for poker players, says Assistant Williamson County Attorney Dale Rye, is chance still plays a role in the outcome of the game.

Mr. RYE: Clearly, no matter how good a poker player you are, if you never get a decent hand, you're never going to win.

SCHOOLER: The Texas Legislature is considering a bill this session that could bring casino gambling to the state, but the bill doesn't address Texas Hold 'Em tournaments. In the meantime, poker players continue flocking to tournaments all across Texas. For NPR News, I'm Larry Schooler in Austin.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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