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Betting on card houses

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Poker is coming out of Texas’ back rooms.

Private, membership-only “card houses” are emerging in statewide locales, including the North Side.

Most organized poker games have been illegal in the Lone Star State since 1937, when lawmakers passed strict anti-gambling regulations. However, poker fans kept dealing by simply moving the action and the money either out of state or underground.

More than a year ago, a group of poker enthusiasts founded the Texas Association of Social Card Clubs to find ways to play legally. Their solution: Establish private, membership-based venues that do not serve liquor, refrain from taking “rake” money from betting on games, and prohibit tipping dealers – all red flags in the eyes of the law.

Operators make a profit solely from memberships or fees from player participation.

SA Card House, 19314 U.S 281 North, Suite 110, opened at Redland Road north of Loop 1604 several months ago, and has seen membership grow fast.

On a recent weeknight, with a tournament and other games in progress, almost every seat at the club’s 18 tables had filled by 10 p.m. The giant, high-ceilinged space was brightly lit, with bird’s-eye view cameras positioned to catch the action.

Snack and soft-drink machines dotted the room. Employees in maroon or navy polo shirts constantly moved through, and two uniformed security guards kept watch. The dominant sound was the clicking of chips.

Players, mostly middle-aged or older, sported a wide range of clothing and hairstyles. Some wore baseball caps, Stetsons, driving caps or sports visors. Dress was casual, mostly jeans or shorts and short-sleeved shirts, even one promoting a charity event.

“We are a private social club, 3,000 members strong,” said Foster Hearn, co-owner of the club.

He and partner Sammy Nooner have created “a safe environment for working folks to come in, play cards and have a good time,” Hearn said.

“A lot of our members drive quite a distance to play here, but we also see a lot of people from Stone Oak and the nearby neighborhoods. People here have been really receptive,” he added.

“I love it that there are card houses open now. This is an awesome place,” said Encino Park resident Kristi Garcia, one of the younger patrons on this night.

Mickey Davis said the security angle is particularly important.

“You had home games all over town, where people could get shot or robbed. Here, everything is in the open. You have security guards and they video everything. If there’s an argument, they roll back the tape and settle it. There’s great parking, and a restaurant and pub next door – but you can’t bring liquor in here.”

Dave Smart, co-owner of Rounders Card Club, 14602 Huebner Road, Suite 120 in the Olmos Creek shopping center, noted playing poker isn’t illegal.

“This is a neat concept, and it falls under the guidelines of the law. It’s private membership, and we’re rake- and tip-free. People can play poker or any card game – we even have a chessboard here,” he said.

When Rounders opened in late March, Smart said, there were four other card houses in San Antonio. Within the next six weeks, six more debuted, he said.

State Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, said he has supported legalizing various kinds of gambling, from bingo and poker to full-blown casinos, since 2011. Growing up in San Antonio, his family and friends often played poker and dominoes for fun. While he doesn’t partake these days, he welcomes the card houses.

“I don’t see it as evil. I see it as a game,” he said. “We already have gambling. People can walk into an H-E-B and buy a lottery ticket, go to horse races or bingo halls, and anyone can have a poker game as long as the operator or host doesn’t take a rake. Yet, we have been exporting literally billions of Texas dollars to casinos in Las Vegas or Lake Charles, (Louisiana) or Oklahoma. How silly that in the state of Texas, we should not be able to play Texas Hold ’em.”

While the card-house business is flourishing, Menéndez said the future isn’t guaranteed.

“I’m still not sure there has been a 100 percent change. People are still approaching their district attorneys and the attorney general about how they will proceed,” he said.

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