Card rooms gamble on legality
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.