Poker Tournaments

December 30, 2005

Occassionally, establishments licensed to sell alcoholic beverages consider offering poker tournaments for the entertainment of their patrons, either by the licensee or by a third party working on the licensed premises. This has led to a number of questions to this agency as to the legality of this practice.

All alcoholic beverage license or permits are subject to suspension, imposition of a civil fine or cancellation if they are operated in a "place or manner that warrants the cancellation or suspension of the permit based on the general welfare, health, peace, morals and safety of the people and on the public sense of decency." Alcoholic Beverage Code §11.61(b)(7); 61.71(a)(17). By rule, the Alcoholic Beverage Commission has defined this statute to mean that a permittee violates the above-cited statutes if the permittee violates, or knowing or negligently allows another to violate, certain penal statutes on the licensed premises. Among those penal statutes are the Penal Code provisions prohibiting gambling in Texas. 16 Tex. Admin. C §35.31 (c)(14). These gambling statutes are contained in Chapter 47 of the Texas Penal Code.

In summary then, an alcoholic beverage licensee/permittee violates the Alcoholic Beverage Code if he/she engages in illegal gambling on the licensed premises or allows another to do so.

On June 20, 2005, Attorney General Greg Abbott released an opinion specific to the legality of Texas Hold'em tournaments. In the summary of his opinion, he says,

"A holder of an on-premises alcoholic beverage permit may not, without violating both section 47.04(a) of the Penal Code and Rule 35.31 of the Alcoholic Beverage Commission, host a poker tournament in which participants risk money or any other thing of value for the opportunity to win a prize. A holder of an on-premises alcoholic beverage permit may, without violating either section 47.04(a) of the Penal Code or Rule 35.31 of the Alcoholic Beverage Commission, host a poker tournament in which participants do not risk money or any other thing of value for the opportunity to win a prize."

Read the Attorney General's opinion on poker tournaments in its entirety.

On December 27, 2005, Attorney General Greg Abbott released an opinion specific to the legality of "poker runs." In the summary of his opinion, he says,

"A nonprofit organization would violate Penal Code section 47.03(a)(3) and (5) by sponsoring a 'poker run' in which participants are entitled to receive a five-card hand for each $10 donation they make to a charitable cause and will receive cash prizes for the best, second best, and worst hands."

Read the Attorney General's opinion on "poker runs" in its entirety.

Unfortunately, we cannot offer general or hypothetical opinions as to whether certain programs or ways of conducting tournaments violate the Texas Penal Code. Rather, we must make those determinations in the context of the specific facts as they happen to occur on licensed premises. We advise any licensee/permittee or unlicensed company planning to conduct poker tournaments or participate in poker runs to consult the Penal Code provisions relating to gambling and, if possible, obtain private legal counsel.

TABC will take administrative action against license or permit holders based on these opinions by the Attorney General. However, criminal prosecution of illegal gambling activity is conducted by local district or county attorneys. If you are planning to conduct a poker tournament or participate in a poker run on the premises of your licensed establishment, we encourage you to contact your local district or county attorney who may be able to provide advice as to particular conduct that will or will not be prosecuted in their particular jurisdiction.