Legal Gambling? Private Poker Clubs Try Their Hand in North Texas

Most forms of gambling are prohibited in Texas, but a growing number of private poker clubs popping up across the state believe they've found a way to do it legally.

Several clubs have opened in North Texas, particularly in Collin County, amid increasing scrutiny over their legality.

Under state gambling laws, poker and other casino games are allowed if they meet three very specific conditions. The gambling must occur in a place wo which the public does not have access, no one can receive economic benefits except for personal winnings and the risks of losing and chances of winning must be the same for all participants.

Jody Wheeler, who owns FTN Poker in McKinney, insists his business model abides by those guidelines. His club is only open to members, he doesn't allow members to tip his staff and he takes no rake or other cut from individual games or tournaments.

Instead, Wheeler's revenues come from memberships and hourly service fees.

"We're doing everything we can to follow the laws," he wrote in an email to NBC 5. "We're happy to comply with any changes that are recommended by the State, the City of McKinney, or Collin County. I care very much about the City of McKinney and the community residents. It's my desire to provide a safe and secure place that our community can enjoy games of their choice or just hang out in our private club."

In Plano, two clubs have opted to shut their doors while they try to iron out concerns the city has raised.

On its website, Poker Rooms of Texas posted a message that reads, "Poker Rooms of Texas in Plano is working with local authorities to resolve operational issues so we remain a private, social, card club. While going through the process, we have closed our doors to ensure the safety of our members and employees. We will keep you updated on the process. Thank you for your continued understanding and support."

The owners of another club called Big Texas Poker Club recently posted a video to YouTube, stating they closed their business because they received "threatening letters" from the Plano Police Department expressing their membership poker club model is in violation of state gambling laws.

In the video, she says, "Throughout this process of opening our business, my husband and I have been transparent with the City of Plano and the police department as we applied for and received our Certificate of Occupancy...They have not responded to repeated requests to meet and discuss these allegations. We need your help fighting this battle so that Texas poker clubs can continue to operate across the state, offering a safe, convenient, and legal place to play."

NBC 5 was unable to reach owner Heather Zimmerman for further comment.

In question is whether the membership and service fees the clubs collect should be considered economic benefit from gambling.

In a statement, Plano Police spokesperson Officer David Tilley wrote, "Our position is gambling for an economic benefit in the state of Texas is illegal according to the Texas Penal Code (with a few exceptions such as the state lottery). We look at each situation independently to determine if the person or business is engaging in illegal activity and if so, we will take the appropriate enforcement action."

Tilley said he is unable to comment on any specific situations involving any businesses in Plano.

The City of Plano says receiving a Certificate of Occupancy simply indicates that a business has met zoning, building and fire code requirements — and is "completely separate from what the police department does in investigating possible criminal activity."

In a statement, city spokesperson Steve Stoler said, "If it meets zoning requirements, the CO is issued. If criminal activity takes place once a CO is issued, the police department is responsible for investigating and taking appropriate action. The police department is the enforcement arm regarding gambling, not Building Inspections."

NBC 5 also reached out to the Texas Attorney General's Office for comment. An official acknowledged that they've had discussions regarding private poker clubs, but stopped short of definitively saying whether they're legal or illegal. Instead, they highlighted state statute and the requirements it lays out for allowable gambling.

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