The first thing you hear when you step into Robert Espericueta’s club is the constant rattle of poker chips, a steady drum of clicks and clacks that constantly emanate from the room like a pulse.
The chips are red and white and green, worth anywhere from a buck to $25. When you add them up you realize there’s a few thousand dollars sitting on the tables, which explains the black-clad security guards with white headphones, the dozens of cameras, and the cashier sitting in a steel cage in the corner.
By the end of the night, a lucky gambler or a canny card shark could walk out of the door with hundreds, maybe thousands more dollars than he walked in with. Or, if the game doesn’t go his way, he could walk out with no money at all.
The 30-odd men sitting around tables and stacking their chips in the House Club Poker Room & Lounge in McAllen on Wednesday evening are unequivocally gambling in a state that’s had laws forbidding gambling businesses on the books since before it achieved statehood.
The men in the club aren’t ashamed to be gambling and they’re not hiding it. They even have a Facebook page. And technically, according to the club’s co-owner Robert Espericueta, the gambling in his club is perfectly legal.
The House Club is a far cry from the dark, seedy 8-liner dens that seem to be perpetually raided by law enforcement across South Texas. The club looks like something between a man cave and a professional casino. Artwork by Espericueta’s friends decorate the walls, his own personal collection of Marvel collectibles sits in one corner. On the back wall is a litany of commendations awarded to Espericueta; he was fishing in the Laguna Madre in 2001 when the Queen Isabella Causeway collapsed. He helped pull three people from the water and was lauded as a hero. All of the decor centers around the poker tables, felt topped and emblazoned with the club’s name.
Soft-spoken and professional, with a fringe of gray in his black beard, Espericueta treats club members like he would guests in his own home. He knows most of them by name and greets them warmly.
“Hey tocayo, it’s good to see you back, man,” Espericueta tells one club member that walks in the door. “It’s been a while. I’ve been counting the days you’ve been away.”
Espericueta’s club is one of hundreds of poker clubs that have opened up across the state in the past decade. The clubs operate in what’s often referred to as a legal gray area: due to the way the law is phrased, poker is only permissible under certain strict parameters.
“There are several things under Texas law that qualify clubs to host games,” Espericueta said. “One of the more important ones is there should not be any house advantage, which consists of a rake. It has to be a private facility, a private club, it cannot be open to the public.”
To operate legally, poker clubs in Texas can’t make any money off the gambling winnings themselves. The way most clubs have managed to become economically viable while staying within those legal parameters is by charging membership fees, often by the hour.
At the House Club, members are issued an ID card when they join. It gets them into the club and also lets them play at a table.
“If they want to sit at a cash table, they have to load this card up with time, like tokens at Dave and Buster’s,” Espericueta says.
Each table in the club has a computer monitor watched by the table’s dealer.
“You’ll see every position at the table, 10 spots,” Espericueta said. “The people who are playing, their picture, and the amount of time they paid for on their card is on that table. So you sit down, they’ll swipe you in and as your time passes while you’re at the table that icon will change colors, letting my dealers know that they need to collect for being at the table.”
An hour of time at one of Espericueta’s cash tables costs $10, which is the only way the club is legally allowed to profit off the game.
“None of the winnings go to the house,” he said.
The House Club opened earlier this year. A high school dropout who spent most of his life self-employed in the oilfield, Espericueta said the gambling venture was his opportunity to get into an emerging market as an entrepreneur.
“We’re about seven months in and we’re at 1,300 members, so I’d say it’s doing well,” he said. “There was some speculation that it’d have a slow take-off, but I think there was enough poker presence here in the Valley to sustain it.”
In the past year, several poker clubs like Espericueta’s have popped up in the Valley.
“As soon as I opened, it was like the levee broke, and now there’s 13 or 14 clubs within a 10-mile radius of me,” Espericueta said.
So far, clubs in the Valley haven’t caused much of a stir, but it looks like the law’s laissez faire attitude toward less scrupulous clubs may be changing elsewhere in the state. Two Houston poker clubs were raided by police in May. Nine people were arrested and charges were levied that included money laundering, gambling promotion, and engaging in organized criminal activity.
“Poker rooms are illegal in the state of Texas,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said. “We are changing the paradigm regarding illegal gambling by moving up the criminal chain and pursuing felony money laundering and engaging in organized crime charges against owners and operators. Players are not being targeted.”
Although Ogg and other officials in Houston have taken a firm stance against the clubs, the jury still seems to be out on whether or not the state will take any action on them. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton declined to offer an opinion on the clubs’ legality in 2018, and clubs are continuing to flourish across Texas.
Espericueta says he’s taken every effort to make sure his club operates legally. He keeps boxes of receipts and documents as proof that the club doesn’t take a cut from any of the games. The club strictly enforces its members-only policy, and Espericueta says he’s got some of the most advanced gambling software in the state, which makes it easier to stay in compliance.
Espericueta admits that some clubs have profited directly off the gambling and do attract a rough crowd. But he says that professional poker houses that focus on the social element of the club can actually prove to be a boon to the area.
“This is a club, first and foremost. Do we play poker here? Yes. But we also do things like beach cleanups and we’re beginning to sponsor a mile on our expressway where our club members will come out and clean out the mile in front of our club,” Espericueta said. “We’re trying to give back as much as we can to our community, because the only way I’m going to change the stigma of poker is if these poker players and club members start showing that there’s no harm in this. They’re not hurting anybody here; they’re refining their skills and at the same time participating in the community.”
Becca Martinez works at CrossFit Edinburg, just a short stroll from the House Club. Martinez says she has no problem working next to the poker club.
“They’re very friendly to us, they stop by sometimes to workout,” Martinez said. “They even let us use their parking lot sometimes when ours fills up.”
Espericueta, who doesn’t play much poker and isn’t very good at it, says the social aspect of the club is what keeps most people coming back.
“We’re a club, and the poker really, really is secondary here,” he said. “I can guarantee that pretty much every person at every table knows each other, and the vast majority met here. It’s a good feeling to bring all these people together.”
Just after nine, Franklin Carter walks into the club. In his 70s, Carter’s lived a colorful life: he was raised in Michigan and he’s worked a variety of jobs over the years, including a 10-year stint as a cab driver he particularly enjoyed. In his biker years they called him Father Time, because he was older than the other bikers he rode with. He’s sold his Harley, but he still wears a black biker vest. Bearded, with gold rimmed spectacles, Carter is a fixture of the House Club.
“I started playing for money when I was about 13 and I’ve been playing for money off and on ever since, and I’m now 71,” he said. “So I’ve been playing poker for longer than most of these people have been alive.”
Carter had a rough week, but things were looking up: he’d just leased a new apartment. He sat down at the bar in the club and helped himself to a slice of pizza.
“I’m not gonna play, I’m too frazzled,” he says to one of the dealers that comes up to greet him.
“Need some help moving, give me a call,” a player says, patting him on the back as they walk past.
Carter says the club and its members have become a big part of his life.
“I’ve been coming in for almost three months, and all the dealers, all the staff, everybody treats me like family, and that means a lot to an old guy, cause I have nobody here,” he said. “There’s very few people who come in here and take poker extremely serious. Most of it’s for fun and camaraderie.”
Other members came in Wednesday looking for a serious game. Matt Cruz, taking a break from dealing at one of the tables, said gamblers were playing just a little wild that night. Sometimes games last past daybreak.
“We get people that have been drinking come in at two, three in the morning, wanting to play some cards, so they’ll keep the game going,” he said. “The latest I’ve stayed is seven a.m., but once I think they played till eight.”
Cruz, who works as an AT&T representative in Alamo, started moonlighting at the club after playing as a member a few times. He says the camaraderie of the club drew him to it.
“It’s just a friendly environment, the people here become family,” he said. “Plus, it’s a good way to pick up some extra cash, you know.”
Although there’s a very real possibility that the law could come down against Espericueta and his club, he’s not overly concerned. In fact, he’s doubling down on his bet that poker houses will continue to operate legitimately in the state. Espericueta hopes to open a second location later this year, and is shooting for a total membership as high as 4,000 by next year, with a total staff of 40. He even wants to open a card dealer school.
“It’s definitely in the back of my mind somewhere, but I’m not too concerned with it at the time. Laws may or may not change, but for the time being I’m going to accommodate my members and I’m going to keep a safe, clean facility for them to come to and play poker,” Espericueta said. “The people who are lobbying against facilities and clubs such as mine are, I’m thinking, maybe the casinos up in Louisiana, Oklahoma, Las Vegas, Indian reservations. Texas is a big state, and there is an astounding amount of poker rooms in the state of Texas.”
Until Texas makes up its mind about clubs like Espericueta’s, it looks like the chips are going to keep on clacking.