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Judge to Dallas: Leave poker business alone while appeal happens

At a Monday hearing, a judge said the city cannot shut down Texas Card House while it awaits an appeal decision.

By Everton Bailey Jr.

Texas Card House
Texas Card House, a poker club, in Dallas.(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

A Dallas poker business will stay open while it continues to challenge the city’s efforts to shut it down.

Dallas officials can’t force Texas Card House to close or interfere with its ongoing business pending a final ruling on the poker club’s appeals of the city revoking its certificate of occupancy, according to a court order signed by District Judge Eric Moye on Monday.

The decision stems from an April lawsuit from the city’s top building inspection official against Dallas’ citizen Board of Adjustment, which disagreed that Texas Card House should lose its certificate after city attorneys and building officials changed their minds on whether poker businesses can legally operate in Dallas.

Moye last month said he found the city was justified in revoking Texas Card House’ certification and agreed with the city’s current stance that the business violates Texas’ ban on gambling. Attorneys representing Texas Card House also filed notice Monday that they plan to challenge Moye’s ruling with the Court of Appeals for the Fifth District of Texas.

Texas Card House is one of at least three poker businesses operating in Dallas. All three are facing legal challenges from the city seeking to shut them down. Meanwhile, proposed state legislation has been filed earlier this month in an attempt to legalize gambling in Texas as well as close a loophole in the state’s gambling ban that has been used to permit poker businesses.

Brian Mason, an attorney representing Texas Card House declined comment, citing the ongoing litigation. Dallas City Attorney Chris Caso didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Shuffle 214 also had the city’s decision to revoke its certificate of occupancy reversed by the Board of Adjustment, leading to Chief Building Official Andrew Espinoza suing the board in May. The suit is currently scheduled to go to trial next summer.

The owners of Poker House of Dallas were sued by the city earlier this month alleging code violations saying its operations as a poker business isn’t officially listed with the city. According to the lawsuit, the business was La Zona Rosa Cabaret when it received its latest certificate of occupancy from the city in 2017.

The owners submitted a new land-use statement in 2021 telling the city that the business would be allowing customers to pay to play card games and that its new name was Poker House of Dallas. But the group never got approval from the city, and its current certificate of occupancy only allows it to continue operating as a strip club, according to the lawsuit.

Roger Albright, an attorney representing Shuffle 214 and Poker House of Dallas’ parent company, Badger Tavern LP, described the city’s claims in the latest suit as “just wrong.”

He agreed that the new land-use statement was submitted and noted that the city issued a revised copy of the certificate of occupancy listing the business as Poker House of Dallas. The permitted land use for the site is for commercial amusement inside, a facility that offers entertainment or games of skill to the public for a fee. That designation includes strip clubs and poker businesses, Albright said.

The city was aware of the move away from a strip club and granted building permits to allow modifying the space as a poker business, the lawyer said.

“They already have pending litigation that is much further along the legal path, but the city keeps filing these lawsuits,” Albright said. “I just don’t understand why the city is wasting our tax dollars with additional lawsuits as opposed to waiting for the courts or the legislature to make a final determination on all this. It really makes no sense.”

Gambling is illegal in Texas, including betting money or anything of value at any game played with cards, dice, balls or other devices. But it is legal if the games occur in a private place, if no person receives any economic benefit other than personal winnings and if all players have an equal shot at winning except for the advantage of individual skill or luck.

Supporters argue that poker is a game of skill and doesn’t fall under explicit gambling. Poker businesses have been allowed to operate legally around the state by charging membership or access fees to patrons instead of directly collecting money from the games. The profit for businesses and employees comes from membership fees, food and beverages served and cash tips.

The businesses argue that any winnings players give directly to workers don’t violate the law because tips aren’t mandatory and players are free to spend their winnings any way they see fit.

But the ambiguity in a section of the law on who is and isn’t allowed to receive financial benefits from the games is among the key issues in dispute between some cities.

State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, filed House Bill 732 on Nov. 16 seeking to clarify Texas’ law on gambling that it be allowed in a “private residence” instead of a “private place.” Poker business supporters have argued that poker clubs are private places because people can’t play without paying a fee.

“The definition has been stretched, massaged, twisted and pulled to the concept we see today,” Wu said. “The law did not mean to cover a commercial enterprise where anybody can come off the street, pay a fee and play. That’s not private.”

State Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, filed legislation Nov. 14 that proposes amending Texas’ constitution to allow casinos and sports betting.

The proposal calls for legalizing sports betting, creating a state commission that would oversee the licensing and regulating of casino gaming, and a tax on the gaming revenue.

Wu said he mistakenly filed a draft version of his bill. He said the proposal was supposed to include allowing counties to regulate and license poker businesses. How that would happen would be up to them.

“Individual city by city regulation is too much. Statewide regulation is untenable, so the middle point is let the county do it,” he said. “The purpose is to go after the bad actors and at least have some type of mechanism where you can shut down operations of people who are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

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