US Online Poker Enjoys Renaissance With Players Homebound
No one should confuse what’s been happening in online poker to the booming pre-Black Friday days when just about anyone anywhere in the U.S. could fire up their computer and find a game any time of day or night at any price point.
However, a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown many Americans have been experiencing is that regulated online poker sites, as well as unregulated ones, have been enjoying a mini-renaissance lately. That’s a nice change for the online poker business as well as players.
“There has undoubtedly been a resurgence in first-time player signups, which was surprising given our operations are relatively mature,” Ty Stewart of Caesars Entertainment said in an email. Stewart is executive director of the World Series of Poker and a vice president for Caesar Entertainment’s interactive division.
“We saw volume metrics traditionally reserved for the summer period when the offline WSOP recruits a large number of out-of-market players,” Stewart added.
CHECK OUT: States Showing Urgency in Expanding Online Gaming Options
New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Delaware can offer online poker games. The online poker numbers for Pennsylvania and New Jersey support Stewart.
In New Jersey, online poker revenue jumped to $5.2 million in April compared to $1.57 million in the same month last year.
In Pennsylvania, where so far PokerStars PA has been the only game in the commonwealth, April set a record with $5.3 million, a 68% increase over March.
Delaware had a nice percentage increase on obviously small numbers. Online poker revenue for April was about $84,000, or a jump of about 46% from March.
Nevada did not break out its online poker figures.
“It’s only natural. People are stuck at home, they’re bored and even though there are more live poker options starting right now, people are just hesitant to jump right back in because of the health risk implications,” said Danielle Andersen, a professional poker player who was a principal in a documentary about Internet poker several years ago. “So yes, there’s been a huge increase in demand — as big as anything we’ve seen since online poker was shut down in the U.S.”
Professional Poker Players See Demand Rise
That increase has played out in a couple of ways. In the most obvious fashion, regulated online poker sites have experienced a jump in business as demonstrated by those April revenue figures. And poker websites that offer a platform for play-money private games have also seen a jump in popularity.
For instance, Andersen said she hosts a home game on the Internet with people she knows and combines it with Zoom. That way, Andersen, who lives in Las Vegas, and her friends get to socialize while playing low-limit poker.
Andrew Brokos, a professional player in Maryland, prefers playing poker online, but he has done well at real tables, too. He cashed in the Main Event of the WSOP five out of six years (2006-2011) with three of those paydays in the top 100.
He notes that in the online home games “you are not officially playing for money.”
But that’s just a technicality in many cases.
“Money is exchanging hands,” said Brokos, who has been spending the pandemic writing his second book, “Play Optimal Poker 2,” and teaching other players. “For the most part, (transfer of money) is offline. … I get the impression that these were games that were previously home games that moved online so they’re playing among a group of people that have established trust among themselves.”
Todd Anderson, who co-founded the Heartland Poker Tour and currently produces Poker Night in America, also plays in his own online home game. In that case, Anderson and others (including former HPT television broadcaster Chris Hanson) didn’t have a previous home game; their new online game exists because of utter boredom.
“We started spreading the word and now we have 60 players,” Anderson said. “It started just as something to do but it’s a lot of fun.”
Bigger Than Live Poker Games?
Danielle Andersen said that online poker would continue to be an attractive alternative for players because casinos' games will be so unappealing.
“Poker is a social game. They’ll be playing four-handed, maybe five-handed and I don’t know if that’s feasible with Plexiglas (dividers). I’m skeptical and I’m really skeptical about higher stakes (games) like that,” she said.
Like Andersen, Brokos and poker pro Jamie Kerstetter said that they’d be staying away from casino play for a while.
While there has been a flurry of real-money action in the four states that have authorized online poker, the big question is whether there is enough momentum to put legal online poker on a faster track.
The immediate evidence is that the outlook is not so promising in the near term.
Pennsylvania has a PokerStars cardroom and is soon to get an online WSOP site, but there’s no agreement with New Jersey, Delaware and Nevada to share the player pool. Michigan is scheduled to introduce online casino gaming soon, including poker, but internally it is prohibited from joining other jurisdictions, and West Virginia is too small to make much a difference in adding to the overall pool of players.
Stewart, the WSOP executive, remains an optimist.
“Online poker should be bigger than live poker in the near future,” Stewart said. “It presents more options, more convenience and less erosion of a player’s bankroll. Right now it’s mainly politics standing in the way of another poker boom bigger than the first. Poker is simply a numbers game, and the greater the liquidity, the faster players will hop online, creating higher (return on investment) for themselves and additional tax revenues.”
Unregulated Poker Sites Still A Concern
After the U.S. Department of Justice shut down the major offshore poker websites that were dealing to U.S. players on April 15, 2011 (the aforementioned Black Friday), New Jersey became the first state to legalize virtual poker.
At the time, Kerstetter helped launch PartyPoker’s website in New Jersey, she promoted the website and would play regularly on the site.
“We thought it was going to be in every single state,” Kerstetter said. “And why not? It meant tax revenue and our country needs it.”
The online poker movement grinding to a halt also frustrated Anderson, the TV producer.
“We all have our bad beat stories,” Anderson said. “When Black Friday hit, I lost a significant sponsorship with that. In 2012, a lot of us were very bullish on the idea that poker was going to be making resurgence when New Jersey opened. … It didn’t really progress. Those years, it was frustrating. But maybe it’s changing again.”
Curiously, unregulated poker websites are flexing their marketing muscles during the pandemic. America’s Cardroom is a website that has gotten a lot of attention and is drawing significant traffic. In April, it held a charity tournament for COVID-19 hunger relief and drew quarterback Tom Brady and actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
Kerstetter is concerned about players taking the risk to participate on websites that, while appearing to be healthy and trustworthy, are still unregulated.
“An event like that celebrity charity tournament can be great for poker but it was all this attention being put on a website that’s operating in — I’ll be generous, and say it’s operating in a gray area,” she said.
Websites operating on the fringe of the law caused the events of Black Friday and in the process, thousands of poker players did not have access to hundreds of millions of dollars for an extended period of time.
“Meanwhile, a lot of players even in regulated states are still hopping on those sites because they have pretty big tournaments and big series,” Kerstetter said. She’s concerned that “if any of those sites get taken down,” player money won’t be protected.
“I hope that never happens,” she said, “but we should learn from our mistakes of the past.”
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