New Jersey Celebrates 10 Years Of Legal Online Poker And Casino

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New Jersey Celebrates 10 Years Of Legal Online Poker And Casino
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Sunday was the 10th Anniversary of Gov. Chris Christie signing New Jersey online poker and online casino gambling into law. New Jersey was the third state to legalize online gambling, following closely on the heels of Nevada (2011) and Delaware (2012).

All three states launched in 2013, with the Garden State holding a universal launch on Nov. 21, 2013, just nine months after it became law and mere weeks after Delaware went live with its online gambling sites.  

Despite being in the first-mover group and using a highly accelerated launch timeline, New Jersey is considered the gold standard for online gambling legislation and regulation. New Jersey’s nine-month legalization-to-launch window remains the fastest to date. 

Let's look back at New Jersey’s foray into online gambling, including some little-known and forgotten aspects, and look ahead to the future of online gambling in New Jersey

How Legal Online Casino Came to Be

The path to legal online gambling in the U.S. was long, winding, and torturous. Without going back to the very beginning, the best jumping-off point is 2011.

A Three-Pronged Approach in 2011

In April 2011, the Department of Justice shuttered the largest U.S.-facing poker sites. The shutdown spurred efforts to legalize online poker. What had been whispers turned into shouts. 

On a parallel but hidden track was a DOJ Office of Legal Counsel opinion stemming from the Illinois and New York lotteries. The opinion gave the states the green light to offer online lottery products and opened the door to intrastate online gambling, as it argued that the Wire Act only applied to sports betting. 

And on a third track was the burgeoning efforts in New Jersey to legalize sports betting. Sports betting supporters got a referendum passed in 2011 but were stuck in legal limbo and realized the same argument would work even better for online casinos and poker. 

A Mulligan

The New Jersey legislature passed an online casino bill in 2011, but Christie vetoed that effort. Still, the writing was on the wall, and a somewhat forgotten part of the next chapter was PokerStars failed attempt to buy the Atlantic Club Casino. I’ll simplify the story to keep the text under 10,000 words. 

PokerStars was willing to step in and save the failing casino and its 2,000 jobs, and in return, it would get a toehold in the U.S. and the beginnings of an integrated land-based-online gambling model. That thought (and the inevitable legalization of online gambling) spurred the casino companies that were still wishy-washy about online gambling into action. 

Everyone was suddenly motivated to get a deal done – with the leadership of Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who became the point man for online gambling legalization.

In 2012 the legislature passed another bill. It included a bad actor clause to counteract the looming shadow PokerStars was casting across the Boardwalk.  

With everything going on in Atlantic City post-Great-Recession, Christie had a change of heart and went from opposing to full-throated endorsing online gambling. Christie would continue to erase his initial opposition by taking victory laps at gaming conferences and touting the New Jersey iGaming success story.   

The rest, as they say, is history. 

What a Difference a Decade Makes

New Jersey online gambling has grown from a quaint subsidiary product for land-based casinos to accounting for nearly half of all gaming revenue (if sports betting is added in) generated in New Jersey. 

In 2014, the first full calendar year of online casino gambling in the Garden State, the industry generated $123 million. In 2022 that number ballooned to $1.7 billion.

There are three acts in this story.  

Act 1 was about character development, with the main characters introduced and the industry growing organically. Here we meet Golden Nugget, Resorts, 888, PokerStars, and all the rest. 

Act 2 began with the end of PASPA and the launch of mobile betting in New Jersey in August 2018. With the launch, online casino revenue growth skyrocketed. Act 2 also introduced some new main characters, like FanDuel and DraftKings. 

 

COVID-19 ushered in Act 3, with online gambling saving the Garden State’s gambling revenues during the prolonged closures of land-based casinos. During Act 3, online gambling finally silenced the naysayers, and even when the casinos reopened and land-based revenue rebounded, online gambling maintained its pandemic growth. 

A Lot of Trial and Error

An Almost Synchronized Launch

New Jersey invented the synchronized launch, setting a universal launch date for all operators. The (almost) synchronized launch included 13 websites:

Borgata:

  • Borgata Casino
  • Borgata Poker
  • partypoker

Caesars:

  • Caesars Casino
  • Harrah’s Casino
  • 888 Casino
  • 888 Poker
  • WSOP.com

Tropicana

  • Tropicana Casino
  • Virgin Casino

Trump Plaza

  • Betfair Casino

Trump Taj Mahal:

  • Ultimate Casino

A 14th site, Golden Nugget, was supposed to be part of the synchronized launch, but technical issues caused a multi-week delay.

The biggest problem in the early days was on the player verification, geolocation, and payment processing fronts. 

The Ultimate Failure

There has been some reshuffling and rebranding, but of the original operators, only one is no longer active: Ultimate Gaming.

One of Ultimate’s biggest missteps was its poker-centric approach. It seems crazy in 2023, but in 2013, there was a widespread belief that online poker would be the driving force of U.S. online gambling. That was quickly proven incorrect, but not before Ultimate spent oodles of money trying to build an online poker brand. That sunk the entire Ultimate Gaming ship like the Titanic.

Ultimate Poker was the first Nevada online poker room (making it the first legal U.S. online gambling site), launching on April 30, 2013. The site closed shop in New Jersey in September 2014, with its Nevada operation ending in November 2014. 

The Little Guys Go All-In 

New Jersey online gambling was a game-changer, but not just for obvious reasons. One of the most significant impacts of online gambling was its ability to level the playing field. The two biggest beneficiaries were the smaller casinos in the Atlantic City market, Golden Nugget and Resorts.

Both companies took risks and made investments the bigger casinos were unwilling to make. 

Not surprisingly, both companies brought in veterans from the European market to run their online operations — Thomas Winter at Golden Nugget and Ed Andrewes at Resorts. I could make a case for either as the most crucial figure in New Jersey’s online gambling history. Spoiler alert: That’s the final header of this column. 

Among his many early accomplishments at Golden Nugget, Winter built the first live dealer studio, which may seem like a no-brainer now but was seen as a massive risk at the time.  

At Resorts, Andrewes oversaw the iGaming Lounge, a first-of-its-kind on-site area to help walk customers through the registration process and offer a place to relax and play online with their own device or on state-of-the-art gaming tables provided by Resorts.  

In May 2018, Andrewes told me there were over 25,000 registrations through the iGaming Lounge.

It wasn’t until the introduction of NJ mobile sports betting that some of the city’s more prominent casino operators put the same time and energy into online gambling. 

The Most Important Person in New Jersey’s iGaming History

If you’ve gotten this far, you know how turbulent New Jersey online gambling has been. But throughout it all, there has been one constant, David Rebuck, the director of the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement.

A big part of New Jersey’s online gambling success is consistency at the top, with David Rebuck leading the DGE throughout the entire online era. The Rebuck-led DGE has communicated with and learned from other jurisdictions and shown a willingness, and the means, to adapt to an ever-changing industry.

Under Rebuck, New Jersey successfully launched (in record time) online gambling and sports betting while juggling the closure and openings of multiple casino properties. Rebuck has also dealt with everything from cyberattacks to dealing with black market operators to overseeing the gaming-heavy state during a pandemic.

And throughout it all, the DGE has been one of the industry's most transparent and communicative regulatory bodies.

Has it been perfect? No, but it never is when you are blazing the path. 

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Steve Ruddock

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