Texas Casinos and Gambling
Texas casinos are a rare find, but they do exist. Recent Texas history includes a state-wide switch to conservative politics after decades of historical Union liberalism. This once deep-blue state is now deep-red.
But the big changes in the state weren’t just Democrat and Republican – the past few decades have seen some big changes in gambling law in The Lone Star State. Texas now has one of the most successful state lotteries, though the lawmakers that fought to legalize it faced twelve long years of legislative hell to get the law passed. Other big changes to the law have allowed for the opening of not one but two legitimate casino operations, hosting slots-like games, table games like blackjack, and even live poker tournaments.
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Gambling Options in Texas
In some cities, especially large urban areas like Dallas and Houston, legal game rooms featuring legal gambling devices (and usually not-so-legal backroom games of cards and dominoes) are proliferating faster than state regulators can keep up. Because some of these rooms exist in a legal gray area, it’s best for legitimate gamblers to stay away. Let’s focus instead on the fully-legal and regulated gambling options available in Texas.
Currently, just two full-fledged gambling venues are open within Texas borders:
Aransas Queen Casino
This converted yacht cruises into international waters to provide games of chance and skill. The Aransas Queen had its maiden voyage in May of 2015, and sets sail from Aransas Pass, Texas twice a day. The ship is home to 205 slots, 12 table games, a buffet, and non-smoking gaming rooms. Tickets are $25.05 and must be purchased online. A miniature sportsbook operates on both voyages; other games include blackjack, craps, roulette, and baccarat.
Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino
Kickapoo Lucky Eagle is a literal stone’s throw from the US-Mexico border in Eagle Pass, Texas. I say a literal stone’s throw because I’ve been there and tested it myself, and a strong man would have no trouble throwing a stone from the parking lot of the Kickapoo over to the Mexican side of the border.
For years the Kickapoo was the only gaming even close to Vegas-style casino action in the entire state of Texas. Today it is home to more than 2,800 slots, 12 poker tables, regular head to head poker tournaments, and live bingo on the weekends. All gaming is available 24 hours a day between Thursday morning and Sunday night.
How can these sites host slot machine games in a state that has cracked down so harshly on gambling?
In Texas, traditional slot machines like the ones you’d find in Las Vegas aren’t technically legal.
Two devices have taken their place. The two existing casinos in the state, the Aransas Queen and the Kickapoo Lucky Eagle, host “class II electronic pull-tab” machines. These are special games that are legal under a loophole in state law. They look like slots but have been classified as, essentially, “not-slot slot machines.” Let me explain:
To you and me, these games look like slot machines, but they’ve been classified as officially NOT slot machines and categorized as “class II” devices. A group representing the manufacturers of these games described them this way – “…. [devices] that join together a pull-tab server, which contains information from a finite deal of paper pull-tabs, and a player video terminal, which displays the pull-tab information.” I’m not a game designer, but it sounds an awful lot like a description of an online slot network. Either way, the state allows them, provided they follow other rules and regulations.
The other form of slot game you’re likely to find in Texas are games that locals call “eight-liners.” These games are similar to slot machines but are supposed to be designed to pay out prizes of $5 or less. If they were to pay a max of $5 in prizes, they’d fall under Texas’ “fuzzy animals” law – more on that later. Unfortunately, as this article from the Austin American-Statesman shows, payouts exceeding the $5 limit are near-universal. You can find these games in game rooms in major cities all over the state.
Are Texas Casinos Legal?
Traditional casinos, featuring all manner of electronic games, table contests, and luck-based betting (not to mention sportsbooks and futures betting) would most certainly NOT be legal in the state of Texas.
The two Texas casinos that do exist follow specific guidelines in terms of the type and number of games they allow. For instance, you won’t find a traditional sportsbook operating on Texas soil – the sportsbook on board the Aransas Queen only operates in international waters.
Strangely enough, Texas law is liberal when it comes to social betting. This has to do with Texas long-standing frontier-libertarian ethic, whereby it isn’t proper for the government to tell you that you can’t play poker with your buddies in the privacy of your own home, etc.
The “Fuzzy Animals” Law
In order to prevent confusion, the state of Texas allows for a legal tradition known as the “fuzzy animal defense.” If a person in Texas were arrested and charged with illegal gambling while playing a game at the grocery store which rewards them with a stuffed animal or other small prize, they could use the “fuzzy animal” defense to say they were just playing for fun. This prevents the state from cracking down on amusement park games and other small-value contests, like rubber duck races and other charity events.
More Facts about Texas Gaming Law
Only race betting and lottery games are explicitly legal by Texas law. Both the Aransas Queen and Kickapoo Casinos operate thanks to loopholes – one because it operates in international waters, the other because it is run by a Native group that has permission from the state to operate certain games on tribal land.
As Texas’ demographics change, the state’s political makeup turns from deep red to purple – some analysts suggest an influx of liberal-minded job-seeking Californians and New Yorkers (not to mention traditionally liberal Mexican-Americans) will turn Texas fully blue again in a couple of election cycles.
The impact of this change on state gambling law is unclear – it’s possible that this could extend the era of legislative change in Texas’ gambling law, but it’s also possible that a strong liberal government could shut down what gaming options already exist.
For now, gamblers in Texas should stick to legal options at one of the state’s two casinos if they want to stay on the right side of the law. Game rooms are not only smoky, disgusting, unregulated places to gamble, they may even be illegal.