Las Vegas Sun

October 13, 2019

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Q+A: marks four years of online poker

WSOP 2017

Ray Brewer / Las Vegas Sun

A stack of $50,000 tournament chips await a poker player before the start of the 2017 World of Series of Poker Main Event at the Rio Convention Center on Saturday, July 8, 2017.

One of only two remaining online poker providers in Nevada, is celebrating its fourth anniversary today.

The company began operating on Sept. 19, 2013, several months after the Nevada Legislature passed Assembly Bill 114 and Gov. Brian Sandoval signed it into law legalizing the business.

At the time, skeptics said that if online poker was limited to a few states — the federal push to legalize has fizzled — the industry would struggle.

Before Assembly Bill 114’s approval, Anthony Cabot, a local attorney and Internet gambling expert, said Nevada’s online poker would not fare well.

“Poker doesn’t work in a small state like ours,” he said at the time. “Poker requires liquidity. People only play on poker sites if there are a lot of people playing on that site and the game has the limits they want.”

And that’s how it panned out. Ultimate Poker, the first online poker offering in Nevada, shut down in November 2014, leaving and as the only two legal online poker sites in Nevada.

The Las Vegas Sun spoke recently to Bill Rini, the head of online poker at World Series of Poker, and Seth Palansky, vice president of corporate communications at Caesars Interactive Entertainment, about Edited excerpts of the conversation follow:

How has been successful and lasted in this industry?

Rini: A lot of it has to do with a great brand and obviously a receptive audience in Las Vegas of poker players.

We have seen a progressive attitude from the gaming regulators who really have sort of gone out of their way to help us bridge the gap between online and offline as well as the help we have received from the Caesars organization in and of itself.

We’ve found it increasingly easy to do cross-promotional things with live poker and online poker during the World Series of Poker itself when we have tens of thousands of events here. We have started to merge the two worlds of live and online in a lot of players' minds.

Not too long ago, poker was everywhere. Now not so much. Is the ebbing popularity of the game one reason why there isn’t more online poker in Nevada?

Rini: Before (the boom), it was tough to get games going. It was mostly just regular players playing against each other.

The whole poker boom sort of changed that and took it to levels nobody imagined, where it was in movies and television shows. And it wasn’t just in shows about poker.

You would have seen it in a TV program, and someone would be playing online poker in the background. And they weren't placing it there for a specific reason, but just because it was part of the culture.

Now, things have calmed down. You often have a huge growth, then a contraction, and we’re definitely on the contraction side of that.

It’s also due to the fact that only three states have legalized it — Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware.

Palansky: But remember, poker globally has never had more players because of the internet. Globally, an estimated 18 million monthly players play free-to-play mobile poker games.

So it depends on how you look at it. Regulations and laws impact it in the U.S. But on a global scale, poker is what chess and backgammon were in ’70s and ’80s.

Rini: Seth brings up a good point. I’m fairly focused on the real money aspect. But there's a ton of play money and social gaming in the poker space that gets underreported because you have two separate sorts of fields and interests in journalism and reporting. You have real money and (the rest).

Within a year or two, Zynga Poker became larger than any real money site that ever existed. It shows that there's a demand for the game, whether it’s real money or not.

When we first opened, I don’t think anyone understood what the potential was. We tried to understand it. But then reality comes in and tells you what the reality is.

In the beginning, we thought we might get a lot of California players in the state to play and the market might be actually bigger than the state of Nevada in general.

We just haven't seen that. When someone comes to Vegas for two or three days, you have to understand there are shows and food and only so many hours. When they are here, they’re not going to play online gaming. The exception is during the World Series of Poker when people are coming here specifically for gaming and poker.

That said, we’ve increased our business every year on the real money side. We’re doing better and better. We’ve got a core group of poker players here and across Nevada, but it just didn’t grow to the scale that we thought it would and we didn’t get a lot of out-of-state players coming in.

How many customers do you have now?

Rini: In terms of total registration, you have to count the times people have gone through the entire process and given us all the information we need to open an account according to Nevada Gaming Control Board guidelines.

Some give us a user name and address but never go further. So the number of people who have gone through the process and have opened an account is 35,000-38,000.

On any particular month, we might have 1,200-1,500 unique active users playing. Obviously some play a lot, and some play a little and all at different times of day. If you go online at any given time, you’ll see 100 to 200 players.

Palansky: This market is so unique. There are more poker rooms and tables than in any other state or city in the world, and you have a preponderance of pro poker players who live in this state. This is a unique market. ... The next frontier for the business in Nevada (is) to compact with other states.

Is that the direction you’re heading?

Rini:There are a couple of different directions we’re trying to take the business. We would really like to see more states open up.

And when those states do open up, hopefully we can implement some interstate compacts allowing the liquidity to flow among those states and allowing the customers to play each other.

Without liquidity, it’s one of most difficult things and you see it overseas. In France, French players can only play against players in France. And it does have a stifling effect. When you allow liquidity, there’s a snowballing effect.

A million-dollar prize pool attracts a lot more people than a thousand-dollar pool. When you can offer very large prize pools, more people will want to play.

We’d like to see that happen, but unfortunately we don’t control it. That’s up to the state legislators and regulators.

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