GALVESTON

Owners of downtown poker room are wagering that Las Vegas-style service will keep their business in the game.

A year after opening, Vault Poker Club, at 2002 Strand, hired Simon English, a former professional poker player and Las Vegas casino manager, to revamp the club.

It’s an effort to help the club gain a strong foothold on the island it hasn’t managed to find in its inaugural year, English said.

“It takes a lot of effort to get started and to get the ball rolling,” English said. “With the amount of games and the amount of people on this island, that I know are playing, if they all came here, we would have to expand tomorrow.”

While gambling is illegal in Texas, the club is legally able to host poker games by selling memberships and allowing members to play poker games amongst themselves. The club doesn’t take a cut from the outcomes of the poker games played there, he said.

Still, to many, poker rooms occupy the same legally murky space as game rooms that operate slot machine-like video games. The businesses operate under conditions that make them technically legal, though they are generally treated as suspicious by authorities.

Case in point, Harris County recently became embroiled in a scandal involving two members-only poker rooms that were raided in May as part of a money-laundering investigation by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

Those charges were dropped after the poker clubs claimed a consultant and campaign donor connected to Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg had been paid at least $25,000 to help the businesses get permits to operate and to help them lobby for ordinances that would make it easier for the poker rooms to operate.

Ogg’s office dropped the charges against the poker rooms, citing conflicts of interest. The district attorney’s office referred the fraud investigations to the FBI.

But Vault Poker Club hasn’t had any legal issues since opening in 2018, English said. And the Galveston business is on good terms with the Galveston County District Attorney’s Office and the Galveston Police Department, he said. Also, there hadn’t been an anti-poker room pushback from the Galveston business community in the way such businesses experienced in Harris County, he said.

“Here on Galveston, the DA and the chief of police are like ‘As long as you’re not breaking the law, then we don’t have anything against you,” English said.

In fact, one of the poker room’s new and reimagined selling points is the promise of an all-legal, honest game. The poker room’s main business competitors are long-established underground poker games, English said.

“If all the poker players on Galveston were our patrons, and I wasn’t competing with underground illegal games, we’d have no issues at all,” he said.

In Las Vegas, underground games are regarded as inferior to established ones at casinos and poker rooms, English said. That’s the attitude that the Vault Poker Room wants to spread in Galveston, English said. It’s also why he was hired, said Barry Hailey, the poker room’s owner.

“We’re trying to make it a more upscale and Vegas-style place, rather than what we had before,” Hailey said. “We have high hopes.”

Hailey had two partners when he opened the club last year. Today, he splits the ownership with a silent partner, he said.

To try to meet their aspirations, the owners have given Vault Poker Club a facelift and installed more creature comforts, including an open bar and more comfortable chairs, among other things. English also has introduced a new software system that tracks the comings and goings and personal preferences of club members.

The club also plans to hold more tournaments and events to try to draw more attention from the general public, English said. Since the re-opening the club has twice held tournaments in which the winner received a paid trip to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

Hailey and English hope that’s enough to draw a more consistent clientele to the business.

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; john.ferguson@galvnews.com or on Twitter @johnwferguson.

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