Card rooms gam­ble on le­gal­ity

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Front Page - By John MacCor­mack STAFF WRITER

The ar­rival of pub­lic card rooms in San An­to­nio was a life-chang­ing event for Al­fredo Ramón, a poker fa­natic known as “La Bumba.”

After decades of play­ing in un­der­ground games — where the house took a cut and rob­bery was a con­cern — or driv­ing long dis­tances to play legally in casi­nos, Ramón now can in­dulge his pas­sion for Texas Hold’em in the card rooms.

“Ev­ery time I turn around now, there’s a poker venue. The other day, I went to three in one day. I used to have to drive to Kick­apoo (in Ea­gle Pass) or Ok­la­homa or Louisiana,” said Ramón, 62, a dis­abled Army vet­eran.

Rounders, one of his fa­vorites, sits next to an Ital­ian restau­rant in a strip mall off Hueb­ner Road. A sign at the en­trance an­nounces: “Rounders is a mem­bers only pri­vate card club. Mem­bers only be­yond this point.”

“Here, they are very friendly. There’s hardly ever an ar­gu­ment. It’s very clean and I love the am­biance,” noted Ramón, who is given to shout­ing, “Bumba!” when he wins a good hand.

Card clubs be­gan pop­ping up in San An­to­nio two years ago, and there now are about a dozen, some claim­ing thou­sands of mem­bers.

In the next month, at least two clubs will hold tour­na­ments with six-fig­ure pay­outs.

But the fu­ture of the card rooms is un­clear: Only a hand­ful are mak­ing money, and the le­gal­ity of their busi­ness model — based on mem­ber­ship and us­age fees — is in dis­pute.

In Texas, any card game

where the house takes a cut from the pot, called the rake, is il­le­gal.

Au­thor­i­ties have not tried to shut down the San An­to­nio clubs, but their op­er­a­tors know that could change. Else­where in the state, clubs have been raided and closed, with charges filed against their op­er­a­tors.

“What if some­one in Austin tries to close us up, or the new DA comes in and wants to make a state­ment?” asked Eric Thomas, 36, a ma­jor­ity owner of Rounders. “We know there will be a le­gal fight at some point.”

The clubs are try­ing to nav­i­gate the le­gal and po­lit­i­cal risks while build­ing a client base and cul­ti­vat­ing a whole­some pub­lic im­age.

On a re­cent Sun­day af­ter­noon, Rounders, with its high ceil­ings, soft rock mu­sic and 15 tele­vi­sions show­ing NFL games — au­dio off — felt like a sports bar for tee­to­talers. House rules: No cussing, no fuss­ing, no smok­ing and no drink­ing.

About 70 se­ri­ous play­ers, jammed into ob­long ta­bles un­der se­cu­rity cam­eras, were duk­ing it out in an all-day $30,000 Texas Hold’em tour­na­ment.

The fo­cused looks and the ner­vous stack­ing and restack­ing of chips were the only tells.

“I got the poker bug real bad when I was 21 years old. I’ve been play­ing since I was 7, play­ing with my al­lowance from my grand­mother. My dad would take it from me,” Harry Pavasko, 32, said dur­ing the first break.

Key to the clubs’ claim to le­gal­ity is that in­stead of charg­ing a rake, they col­lect mem­ber­ship and us­age fees. Own­ers also are quick to ar­gue that they fill a pub­lic recre­ational need.

“Peo­ple have been play­ing poker for 100 years. Where would you rather have them play: In a safe place where we pay taxes, or in il­le­gal games where you don’t know who you are play­ing with and where they are tak­ing large rakes from the pot?” Thomas asked.

“Poker is as Texan as the Alamo and the ‘Come and Take it Flag.’ I don’t think any­one in their right mind would tell you poker is harm­ful,” he added.

Rounders, he said, has more than 3,000 mem­bers who pay a $20 an­nual fee plus us­age fees. About 40 or 50 mem­bers play al­most ev­ery day. Later this month, the club will host a $100,000 Texas Hold’em tour­na­ment.

Sil­via Sanchez, a reg­u­lar player, said: “I feel em­pow­ered, to tell the truth. They don’t ex­pect women to play very ag­gres­sively. They un­der­es­ti­mate women.”

A few miles away, at the River City Card Room on Bab­cock Road, the ac­tion amps up in the wee hours.

“At 4 a.m., we’ve got the very heart of our clien­tele,” said Brock Lewis, 40, a part owner.

Lewis, who used to deal and run “home games,” said the com­pe­ti­tion for play­ers in San An­to­nio is “bru­tal,” and many clubs fail quickly.

“Poker play­ers are very finicky,” he said. “If you are not al­ready a ‘de­gen­er­ate poker player’ who goes out there and does heavy pro­mo­tion, for­get it. You’re not get­ting new mem­bers.”

Wait­ing on the law

The first card club in Texas opened in Austin in 2015, and there now are about 40 around the state, with con­cen­tra­tions in San An­to­nio, Hous­ton and Austin.

In April, a task force of 20 of­fi­cers raided the Wil­son County So­cial Club in Floresville, ar­rest­ing four men who ran the place, and cit­ing 11 poker play­ers.

“We think this is gam­bling. It’s still il­le­gal, no mat­ter how you char­ac­ter­ize it,” Wil­son County At­tor­ney Tom Cald­well said.

In Hous­ton, where about a dozen clubs op­er­ate, City Coun­cil­man Greg Travis like­wise be­lieves they’re il­le­gal.

“What I’ve got a prob­lem with, is we’ve got an at­tor­ney gen­eral who is not will­ing to do any­thing about it. And we’ve got a dis­trict at­tor­ney who won’t pros­e­cute be­cause the at­tor­ney gen­eral hasn’t come out with his opin­ion,” he said.

A for­mal re­quest to At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ken Pax­ton for an opin­ion on the card­rooms’ le­gal­ity stalled after a civil suit arose between two clubs. Pax­ton has said he will rule, once the lit­i­ga­tion is re­solved, if any­one still wants an opin­ion.

In Bexar County, Dis­trict At­tor­ney Nico LaHood, him­self a poker player, is await­ing that opin­ion.

“We’re tak­ing a wait-and-see ap­proach. We’ve no­ti­fied po­lice of our opin­ion. We haven’t told them to take ac­tion or not to,” he said.

Bexar County Judge Nel­son Wolff long has been a reg­u­lar player in lo­cal char­ity events, tour­na­ments in Las Ve­gas and pri­vate gath­er­ings of friends.

On an of­fice shelf is a mock tro­phy from a celebrity out­ing, show­ing a seven-card royal flush.

“I knocked Eva Lon­go­ria out of the tour­na­ment, so she gave me this tro­phy,” he said with a smile.

Wolff grew up play­ing draw and stud poker, since eclipsed by Texas Hold’em and Omaha, but said the fun­da­men­tals re­main the same.

“You’ve got to be able to read the other guy, and un­der­stand his long-term plays. These are the same things you need in a po­lit­i­cal race or in mak­ing a busi­ness

de­ci­sion,” he said.

Texas ro­mance with poker

The poker rooms are just the lat­est man­i­fes­ta­tion of San An­to­nio’s long ro­mance with a game that al­ways has been played here, of­ten il­le­gally, and of­ten by peo­ple of high so­cial stand­ing.

Decades ago, poker le­gends Doyle Brun­son, Jack “Tree­top” Strauss and Amar­illo Slim reg­u­larly passed through town to relieve lo­cal play­ers of their ex­cess cash.

In the 1930s, Vir­gil “Red” Berry opened the Turf Club, a gam­bling casino on Soledad. Much later, he op­er­ated a well-known casino in his man­sion on the East Side.

“Peo­ple who par­tic­i­pate in these games are as a whole very well-known and highly re­spected cit­i­zens of San An­to­nio,” Po­lice Chief Robert Allen noted of Berry’s op­er­a­tion in a memo writ­ten in 1952.

Years later, Tom Moore ran a high-stakes il­le­gal game in Cas­tle Hills and usu­ally man­aged to avoid po­lice in­ter­fer­ence.

“The ru­mors were they had the boss game of Bexar County. And they al­ways made sure the sher­iff was there and they made sure he won,” Wolff re­called.

Berry, a state sen­a­tor, and his pal Slim Lam­bert were among those ar­rested. Two poker ta­bles and two black­jack ta­bles were con­fis­cated.

For many San An­to­nio play­ers, the il­le­gal “home games” were long the only lo­cal op­tion. The games typ­i­cally were held at apart­ments or pri­vate homes. Vis­its by po­lice were rare. Oc­ca­sion­ally, holdups by armed rob­bers made the news.

The pop­u­lar­ity of poker in gen­eral, and the num­ber of home games avail­able in San An­to­nio, ex­ploded about 15 years ago. It oc­curred after ESPN tele­vised the World Se­ries of Poker, which had evolved from an event founded by Moore in 1969 in Reno.

After mil­lions of Amer­i­cans watched poker un­known Chris Money­maker hum­ble the heavy­weights for the $2.5 mil­lion prize in 2003, Texas Hold’em be­came a rage. Soon top play­ers like Phil Hell­muth, Johnny Chan and Mike “The Mouth” Ma­tu­sow had na­tional fol­low­ings.

Clean­ing up their im­age

At the S.A. Card House, off U.S. 281 at Red­land Road, own­ers Sammy Nooner and Fos­ter Hearn have pre­pared a fact sheet to make the case that poker houses are good for the com­mu­nity.

“The big­gest thing we talk about is what we pay in sales tax: A quar­ter-mil­lion a year. How many school teach­ers’ salaries will that pay for? Hearn asked.

“We have 62 em­ploy­ees, full and part-time, and we are with­hold­ing child sup­port for 15 of them. I’ve hired four or five deal­ers who said they were mak­ing $2,000 to $3,000 a week, and never paid any taxes,” he added.

Hearn, who said his club has more than 4,000 mem­bers, ex­pects things will shake out in San An­to­nio, leav­ing just a hand­ful of poker houses.

His part­ner, Nooner, said the clubs are work­ing to clean up the some­times seedy im­age of poker games.

“Mainly, we’re try­ing to bring it out from un­der the ta­ble. We’re after the recre­ational play­ers here, not the Ve­gas grinders,” Nooner said.

Jay Roach, 51, a den­tist, is just their type of player, and has been com­ing to the Card House al­most weekly since it opened a year ago.

“I’ve been play­ing about 36 years, casi­nos, home games and I’m glad I don’t do that any­more. Here, it’s out in the open,” he said on a re­cent Fri­day af­ter­noon. “Here, it’s got a card-room-type feel. You are al­ways play­ing some­one dif­fer­ent. I feel safe. And it’s where the ac­tion is.”

On Nov. 16, the ac­tion will be in­tense as the S.A. Card House hosts a tour­na­ment with a $200,000 guar­an­teed pay­out. Hearn ex­pects it to be well at­tended.

“I had a $100,000 guar­an­teed pay­out tour­na­ment, and I ended up with $338,000 in prize money,” he said.

Peo­ple play at S.A. Card House. In the past cou­ple of years, about a dozen such mem­bers-only gam­bling es­tab­lish­ments have opened in San An­to­nio.Pho­tos by Jerry Lara / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Fos­ter Hearn, an owner of S.A. Card House, keeps an eye on the ta­bles. There is a dis­pute about whether such op­er­a­tions are le­gal, but it hasn’t been re­solved.

Chips are stacked on a ta­ble dur­ing a game of Texas Hold’em at Rounders, which bans drink­ing, smok­ing and swear­ing.

Ci­bolo res­i­dent Jake Wells plays at Rounders in a strip mall off Hueb­ner Road.

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