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Texas poker advocates make push for legalization

It isn't a stretch to say that poker in Texas has the same allure among its people as the hot dog to Coney Island or the famed clam chowder made in Boston. If you are recognized as a poker legend, chances are you came from Texas.

Doyle Brunson was born in Longworth, Crandell Addington has San Antonio in his blood, Johnny Moss was from Dallas, and it doesn't take a genius to determine "Amarillo Slim" Preston's city of choice.

These guys are the founding fathers of the World Series of Poker and even credited for introducing Hold 'Em to the Las Vegas casinos. This is how the game got the "Texas" attached to it.

A quick examination of Texas law makes this affix a tad ludicrous. The game is called "Texas Hold 'Em," but poker continues to be illegal to play in public settings in the state.

Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman wished to legalize poker had he been elected. His stance: "Texas invented Hold 'Em, but as it stands, we can't play it."

Friedman failed in his bid for the big seat, but hope is alive that Texas politicians are starting to favor his agenda. A recent bill submitted by San Antonio state representative Jose Menendez is set to go up for a full vote by the state House of Representatives as early as next week. It proposes the legalization of real-money poker in Texas for the first time in state history.

Menendez's bill is good news to the many grass-roots organizations such as the Texas Card Players Association and Texas Poker PAC among others that have sought to legitimize poker for years — justly advertising the game as one of skill instead of luck.

The current bill doesn't ask for much. It hopes to open up public poker in various horseracing tracks throughout the state, in addition to allowing tables to be set up in various bars and entertainment establishments. All gaming licenses are to be approved by the state via the lottery commission, with most licenses limiting operators to small- scale poker rooms with four tables or less.

Despite its flaws, current Texas law isn't entirely archaic. It does allow poker to be played in private settings for unlimited stakes, as long as nobody financially benefits from the game outside of its players (no dealer tips or sit-down fees).

Poker could be made outright illegal, but the law's insistence on keeping games private puts the game underground and inaccessible to those without proper contacts. These games also have no guarantee for player safety or regulation, and it isn't uncommon for them to be robbed.

The strength in the pending bill lies not in what it asks for, but what it does not. Advocates have no desire to tie poker in with casino operations, and they welcome state taxation and regulation. Players just want safe, open venues to play poker in peace.

Texas stands to benefit from the substantial tax money it could receive from legalized card rooms.

"Poker could bring in millions of dollars in tourism and television instead of being a law enforcement liability," Menendez said. "Texas ought to benefit from the game."

As it stands, the bill needs only a simple majority in the legislature to get the OK. If the bill goes through, Texans could see the first hand of legal public poker as early as Jan. 1, 2008, according to Mike Lavigne of the Texas Poker PAC.

Lavigne says the move by the Texas House to move for a vote next week is good news.

"The bills typically don't make it out of the subcommittees and see the floor unless they have a good shot at getting passed," he said.

Lavigne reports that his organization has received word of 60-65 commitments from Texas lawmakers that favor the bill, with only 35 firm "no" votes. That leaves approximately 55 votes up in the air, with only 15-20 needed to get to the magic number of 76 needed to pass the bill.

"(The bill) is very much alive," Lavigne said.

Keep your fingers crossed, and we'll see what comes out of Austin in coming weeks, if not days.

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