History of Legal Gambling in Texas
For a state typically known for its legal prohibitions against gambling, Texas has a surprisingly rich gambling history. The state provided the setting for many Old West gambling stories and episodes. Several major figures in the later development of gambling in the US are either from Texas or have ties to the state. The world’s most popular poker game — Texas Hold’em — even bears the state’s name.
Let’s look back at what Texas has been for gamblers and some of the factors leading to the current conditions for gambling in the Lone Star State.
The current status of legal gambling in Texas
At the moment, the following types of gambling are explicitly legal throughout Texas:
Additionally, there is a single Class II tribal casino operating in the state, plus another tribal gambling facility arguing its case in court. Thus, it is possible to play the following games at limited locations in the state:
- Slots-like electronic bingo games
- Live poker
A few other types of gambling or gambling-related activities also take place throughout Texas, primarily through the use of various defenses against prosecution or other specific legal maneuvers:
The law does not allow for Texas casinos.
Texas gambling timeline
The current incarnation of gambling in Texas traces its roots back to 1903. In that year, the Texas Legislature rendered every single form of gambling illegal. However, it’s important to understand the historical context that produced such a decision that continues to influence the state’s handling of gambling today.
Before the turn of the 20th century, Texas was every bit the Wild West location for which it is famous. Gamblers like Doc Holliday and Lottie Deno spent plenty of time in various cities in Texas, plying their trade against cowboys, ranchers and anyone else with loose cash. The presence of gambling was often associated with a larger cohort of vices. Indeed, areas like Fort Worth’s “Hell’s Half-Acre,” Houston’s “Happy Hollow” and San Antonio’s “Sporting District” all were historical epicenters of vice, where saloons, brothels and other houses of ill-repute flourished for years.
Progressive and puritanical movements gained influence near the end of the century, moving lawmakers to impose restrictions on numerous activities. Significant antitrust legislation on both the federal and state levels ended the reign of several companies, including (importantly for gambling) the powerful Louisiana Lottery. Thus, the cessation of gambling in Texas in 1903 was but another step in the state’s larger efforts to suppress vice, generally speaking, a trend that culminated federally in the ratification of the Volstead Act in 1919 and the subsequent era of Prohibition.
In other words, current efforts to restrict gambling in Texas are the product of a long legacy of similar efforts stretching back more than a century. Even today, as polls show that Texans favor legalizing casinos and other types of gambling, lawmakers can confidently deny any forward progress because a powerful anti-gambling sentiment still exists among those who wield the greatest political influence.
Here are some key dates for the history of gambling in Texas:
- 1903: In response to the growing anti-gambling sentiment in the state, Texas bans all forms of gambling, legal or otherwise.
- 1933: Texas legalizes pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing in an effort to push back against the reduced revenues of the Great Depression.
- 1937: The Texas governor, James Allred, calls a special session of the legislature to re-ban pari-mutuel wagering, ending a four-year period of legal gambling in Texas.
- 1971: The Texas Legislature classifies charities as exempt from the longstanding ban on lottery gambling.
- 1973: For the second time, a form of gambling legalized is banned once again when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals strikes down the 1971 law as unconstitutional.
- 1980: Bingo returns as a legal activity for charitable organizations in Texas, but the state relegates the decision of whether to allow games to the voters in each county. Two hundred and twenty-six of the 254 counties in Texas have since approved the placement of bingo halls and/or allowed bingo games to proceed inside their borders.
- 1987: Texans approve the re-reintroduction of pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing through a constitutional amendment. The measure, which passes by roughly a 2-to-1 margin, also makes dog racing legal. The first horse track of the new era opens in 1994 in Houston, and two more follow in 1995 and 1997 in San Antonio and Dallas, respectively.
- 1988: The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act introduces the possibility for federally recognized Native American tribes to offer casino gambling on reservation lands. Limited gambling requires no approval from the state, but full-service gambling calls for negotiated compacts between the tribes and state officials. The two tribal facilities in Texas operate due to this law.
- 1989: Texas voters approve raffles as a valid activity for charitable organizations in the state. The measure passes by almost a 2-to-1 margin.
- 1991: Texans pass Proposition 11, a constitutional amendment to authorize a state lottery in Texas. Incidentally, Texas voters continue their pattern of approving new gambling measures by a 2-to-1 margin. The state also moves to expand wagering on races by permitting the introduction of simulcast wagering at the state’s tracks, effectively converting each track to an off-track betting location.
- 2021: Despite high anticipation of a sea change in Texas, sports betting legislation fails to make any significant strides in the Texas Legislature. The failure continues the decades-long trend of major gambling legislation failing even to secure a floor vote in either chamber. However, Texas does decide to allow rodeos to hold raffles.
Why is it called “Texas Hold’em”?
One of the most confounding contradictions for Texas residents is that the most popular poker game in the world bears the name of the state. And yet, it has been largely impossible to play Texas Hold’em legally in Texas. Even now, with the advent of private card clubs around the state, it is still not on a solid statutory ground. How did the state’s name become linked with the game?
There’s no firm date of origin for Texas Hold’em, although it is safe to say Texas was the state where the game first appeared and took hold. Some have claimed Texas Hold’em originated during the early 20th century in Robstown, a suburb of Corpus Christi. However, there exists no historical evidence to support claims for the coast-adjacent town is the birthplace of the game. Texas native and Poker Hall of Famer Johnny Moss remembered first encountering Texas Hold’em in a couple of Dallas clubs during the 1930s. Others have mentioned the game appearing in Waco in the 1940s. Meanwhile, Doyle Brunson, another Texan and Poker Hall of Famer, remembers first being dealt into a game of Texas Hold’em in Fort Worth in “about 1958.”
In any case, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that the game began to earn national attention, including in a 1968 Life magazine article. In 1969, a gathering in Reno, Nevada, called the Texas Gamblers Reunion helped inspire the birth of the World Series of Poker the following year at Texan Benny Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, where the game was among those available alongside draw and stud.
In 1971, the second year of the WSOP, the series-culminating tournament featured No Limit Texas Hold’em, further securing the variant’s status as the “Cadillac of poker” (as Brunson called it). The fact that many of the WSOP’s earliest stars like Moss, Brunson, Amarillo Slim Preston, Crandall Addington and Brian “Sailor” Roberts all hailed from Texas further highlighted the state’s importance in the development of the game.
Today, No Limit Texas Hold’em continues to be the variant that the WSOP Main Event and many other tournaments all over the world use. In a way, the game has become a kind of global ambassador for Texas, even if it hasn’t always been legal to play in the state.
Notable people in Texas gambling history
Despite its institutional pushback against gambling, there is no denying that Texas has left its mark on the activity. Several individuals over the years have influenced the development of gambling, both in Texas and in the world at large.
Here is a list of Texans or people with connections to Texas who have made an impact on gambling, in one way or another:
- Crandell Addington — Born in Graham, resides in San Antonio. Made WSOP Main Event final table seven times, more than any other player in history. Poker Hall of Fame.
- Benny Binion — Born in Pilot Grove. Opened Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, the birthplace of the World Series of Poker. Poker Hall of Fame.
- Jack Binion — Born in Dallas. Became president of the Horseshoe Casino at 26. Developed WSOP and other poker and gambling properties and ventures. American Gaming Association’s Gaming Hall of Fame and Poker Hall of Fame.
- Doyle Brunson — Born in Longworth. Known as the “godfather of poker.” Two-time WSOP Main Event champion, 10-time WSOP bracelet winner. His landmark strategy book on poker, “Super/System,” importantly influenced all variants, especially No Limit Texas Hold’em. Poker Hall of Fame.
- Johnny Chan — Attended the University of Houston. Two-time WSOP Main Event champion, 10-time WSOP bracelet winner. Appeared in iconic poker movie “Rounders.” Poker Hall of Fame.
- Frank Fertitta Jr. — Born in Beaumont. Founder of Station Casinos. Pioneered “locals” casino concept at several Las Vegas properties.
- Johnny Moss — Born in Marshall, lived in Dallas. Three-time WSOP Main Event champion, 10-time WSOP bracelet winner. Poker Hall of Fame.
- Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston — Nicknamed after Amarillo, Texas, his longtime residence. WSOP Main Event champion, four-time WSOP bracelet winner. Poker Hall of Fame.
- Carlotta “Lottie Deno” Thompkins — One of the most famous Texas gamblers in the late 1800s. Crossed paths with Doc Holliday. Known as the “Angel of San Antonio.” The nickname was a shortened version of “dinero,” Spanish for “money.”
The past, present and future of Texas gambling
Gambling is interwoven in Texas history. However, that connection has not always been comfortable for some of the more conservative elements in the state. If there is a takeaway from studying Texas’ gambling history, it’s that legalization of various types of gambling is not always permanent. Both horse racing and charitable gaming had false starts before becoming fixtures in Texas, and horse racing had to fight off another episode of potential defunding only a few years ago.
Thus, if history is to guide us, even if sports betting, card rooms or other types of gambling become legal in the state in the coming years, Texans would be wise to remain wary that further changes could happen. Much as a hand of Texas Hold’em can change dramatically from flop to turn to the river, the next stage of legal gambling in Texas can potentially be very different from what came before.