Lee Campbell used to drive from his home in Lindale to Shreveport to pursue his hobby - Texas Hold’em. He’s made the two-hour trip home after midnight on numerous occasions. His pockets might be a little lighter or a little fuller, but that driving distance never changed.
When he found Tilt Poker Room, in Flint - a legal venue for playing poker for money - he immediately became a member. Now a regular, he enjoys the bright, well-lighted facility with professional-quality game tables, dealers and even custom-made chips.
“When you add up the cut the casinos take, the tips to the dealers, plus the travel expenses it’s a significant amount,” Campbell said. “Someone who wins will probably pay half as much here than they would pay in the rakes and the tips to the dealers in Shreveport.”
Tilt Poker Room is one of a growing number of private social clubs specializinge in providing venues for poker games.
Co-owner Connor Vrba was working in the fiber-optic industry in Austin when he discovered a social club called Texas Card House. Club members pay a monthly or annual membership and rent a seat in the building to play poker. Vrba, who grew up in Whitehouse playing poker with friends, and later often traveled to Shreveport himself, loved the idea.
“I played cards at Texas Card House a lot and I thought it could work here,” Vrba said.
With childhood friend Justin Allen, he looked for a suitable location in East Texas to try out the business concept here.
HOW IT WORKS
Here’s how it works. Tilt Poker Room can accommodate up to 54 poker players at a time. Membership fees are $25 monthly, $250 annually or $10 for a daily membership. Prospective members must fill out a questionnaire and pay the dues upfront. It’s an upscale place, a far cry from the smoky rooms and dubious legality many think of when they picture poker rooms.
“We don’t serve alcohol, and we do not allow anyone to bring their own alcohol into the club,” Allen said. “The safety of our members was a high priority. We have surveillance cameras, and we have an armed security guard.”
Members are identified at the door. Minimum buy-ins are $100 and that must be paid in cash in exchange for the Tilt Poker Room’s custom chips.
“At the end of the game, our members can cash out with their chips and pay for their seat rental,” Vrba said. “They can also buy back in if they want to continue to play.”
Although gambling is generally illegal in the state, social clubs like Texas Card House in Austin, Alamo Card House and SA House of Cards in San Antonio are among several places to play poker legally in Texas. According to the Texas Card House website, it has been open since March 2015 and claims to be the first place in Texas where people can legally play poker.
The clubs do not take a commission (a rake) from the people playing in their private clubs, and the dealers are not allowed to take tips. Rake-free poker is considered legal, according to the Texas Penal Code.
Poker is a player-versus-player game, and the establishment does not bet against the players like in blackjack or roulette. The rake is a way casinos generate revenue from their games.
“We talked to multiple lawyers, the county sheriff and our county commissioner,” Allen said. “Our top priority was to make sure that we are operating within the letter of the law.”
In fact, Section 47.04 (b) of the Texas Penal Code states “it is an affirmative defense to prosecution if the gambling occurred in a private place; no person received an economic benefit other than personal winnings; and except for the advantage of skill or luck, the risks of losing and the chances of winning were the same for all participants.”
Vrba and Allen spoke with county officials before opening Tilt Poker Room in December.
“There are no ordinances that prohibit Tilt Poker Room from operating,” Smith County Commissioner Jeff Warr said. “The owners want to operate within the law. As far as I know, this is the only club like this in the area and the only one in Smith County.”
The owners are quick to differentiate Tilt Poker Room from the numerous game rooms that have popped up in local storefronts and convenience stores. Those operate machines that are commonly called “eight-liners,” and law enforcement agencies said they can be a problem, with furtive illegal gaming and attracting crime.
“We are not that,” Allen said. “Our members are true poker players who want a safe game.”
Safety is a big concern. There are casino-style security camera and security on the premises when games are in progress.
“We want everyone to know that we operate a safe, secure, legal facility where our members can have fun playing cards,” Allen said. “We want to make sure that it’s within the parameters of the law.”
The no alcohol policy doesn’t seem to be an issue for the members.
“People who play poker typically don’t drink,” said Campbell, the player from Lindale. “When I was learning from better and more experienced players, they always told me that you can’t drink and think you’re going to play well.”
Allen and Vrba grew up together in Whitehouse. The childhood friends played soccer together and spent a lot of time playing card games such as poker and Texas Hold’em. They always knew if they discovered a good business idea, they would become partners and bring it to Tyler and East Texas.
Allen’s business background is in working and managing local restaurants. He, like Vrba, believed a place like Texas Card House could be marketable in East Texas. Instead of people driving to Shreveport or to Oklahoma to play cards, the two avid card players envisioned poker players would want to play Texas Hold’em in a safe, secure legal environment in East Texas.
Vrba and Allen opened Tilt Poker Room, County Road 140, south of Tyler, on Dec. 28.
Although Tilt Poker Room specializes in Texas Hold’em, if there is enough demand for another version of poker, the owners would not be opposed to dealing it.
“We’re really open to anything,” Allen said.
Campbell said he’s impressed with the business.
“There are a lot of good, talented poker players in East Texas,” Campbell said. “The potential for them (Tilt Poker Room) is good for this area, because they are doing things the right way. The game is good. It’s safe, well run and there aren’t any other distractions from table games or slot machines.”
The most popular version of poker, Texas Hold’em, was invented and developed right here in Texas. The game dates back to the early 1900s and its birthplace is thought to be Robstown. Much has changed since the early 1900s when a Texas roadside gambler Blondie Forbes invented the poker variation that got him inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1980.
If you go
Tilt Poker Room is open from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday.
Tilt Poker Room is at 10972 County Road 140 in Tyler.