History of gambling in Texas
Texas wasn’t always like this with regard to gambling. The state was every bit the Wild West destination of lore and legend. To give you an idea of how things used to be, this section will list some of the biggest dates in Texas gambling history.
However, before we talk about the timeline, let’s set the stage. Texas has changed hands and ruling governments many times over the years. In fact, the amusement park chain Six Flags Over Texas is so named because of the commonly acknowledged number of national flags that Texas has raised at one time or another. For three centuries, Texas existed as a part of Spain’s New Spain viceroyalty, a piece of land that would become the First Mexican Republic in 1821. Texas remained a territory of the newly formed Mexico until the area won its own independence in 1836. For those hundreds of years, Texas was the edge of the frontier, and gambling was commonplace throughout the entirety of the viceroyalty.
Even with its victory at San Jacinto, the Republic of Texas had no intention of changing the permissive environment regarding gambling in the territory. Each major city or town in Texas maintained entire sections dedicated to activities such as gambling, prostitution and drinking. The areas were well-known and bore fanciful names, like Fort Worth’s “Hell’s Half-Acre,” Dallas’ “Frogtown” and Houston’s “Happy Hollow.” The largest of these vice areas in Texas was San Antonio’s “Sporting District,” which is where our first notable event takes place.
Carlotta J. Thompkins, aka “Lottie Deno,” comes to San Antonio as one of the earliest female professional gamblers in Texas or US history. The Kentuckian is renowned as one of the finest poker players of her era and began working at the University Club as a house gambler. Though Deno would leave Texas after roughly 12 years of activity, she helps to establish Texas as a gambling destination — a reputation that also sees the likes of Doc Holliday and other prominent gambling figures of the Old West make a stop in the state. Ironically, one of the only types of gambling banned in Texas during this period is the lottery.
Spurred on by the Progressive Movement, the Texas Legislature bans all forms of gambling outright. This prohibition is the first in Texas of a series of both state and federal reforms to attack different types of vice. The new law is part of a growing sentiment in the US regarding unsavory activities such as drugs and prostitution. Opium usage is banned by federal law in 1909. Marijuana, once available in general stores and pharmacies, is outlawed in Texas in 1919. Prostitution is banned throughout the US by virtue of 1910’s Mann Act, which precipitates the closure of the state’s various vice districts. The movement culminates in the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which bans alcohol in all forms in the US.
The unintended consequence of the “Noble Experiment” (the 18th Amendment) is the mobilizing and motivation of organized criminal elements in most of the country’s populated areas. This time is the heyday of Al Capone in Chicago, and Texas has its own answer to “Scarface” in the form of the Maceos. Italian-born brothers Sam and Rosario Maceo move from nearby Louisiana to Galveston in 1910 to work as barbers. However, the two quickly realize that more profit is in vice, so they begin serving drinks. The two open the Chop Suey gambling hall in 1923. This location goes through many incarnations before settling upon its most famous — The Balinese Room. The Balinese Room grows to be one of the most famous gambling halls in the entire country and hosts entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Groucho Marx. The high-class-yet-illegal operation, which exists on a pier extending into the Gulf of Mexico, lasts until 1957, when it is finally raided and closed.
Pari-mutuel wagering on horse and greyhound races finally becomes legal for good in Texas. The legalization ends more than 50 years of back and forth between lawmakers and the electorate over the issue. The Texas Legislature initially authorized horse betting back in 1933, but it was rendered illegal four years later during a special legislative session. Much like other gambling expansions in this state, there were many attempts in subsequent years to bring it back, including the notable election of Red Berry to the House and Senate in the 1960s on the single-plank platform of bringing pari-mutuel wagering back to Texas. Berry does not live to see legal horse betting in Texas, but continued interest culminates in the 1987 legalization. Four years later, simulcast betting becomes legal in the state.
Fresh on the heels of expansion into horse and dog racing, Texas decides to add lottery games to the mixture of gambling available in the state. The legislature votes to approve HB 54 during the 72nd Legislative Session, and a signature from Gov. Ann Richards amends the Texas Constitution to allow the Texas Lottery Commission to be born. The commission begins selling tickets (scratch, then draw) in May 1992, with Richards purchasing the first ticket. Texas ultimately joins the multi-state drawings Mega Millions and Powerball in 2003 and 2010, respectively. Lottery tickets are available in most convenience stores and grocery stores throughout the state.
Since Powerball came to Texas in 2010, there have been no significant increases to the state’s gambling profile in any sort of meaningful way. As mentioned earlier, there are options for playing DFS and poker in the state, but these are functioning under a legal cloud and are in no way resolved as permanent fixtures.