If you’re an online poker player in Pennsylvania, it’s a question you’ve been asking since PokerStars PA made its welcome debut in November 2019.
When will Pennsylvania join an interstate poker compact and merge player pools with other states offering legal online poker in the US?
The issue of pooling players with other states is a bit more complicated than it may appear on the surface, which is a major reason it has not yet happened for PA online poker. Bureaucracy has proven a large obstacle and the 2018 DOJ Wire Act Opinion only served to slow the process for states like Pennsylvania.
Here, we lay out the background for shared liquidity plans in PA, including the latest news and updates for those Keystone State grinders hungry for bigger and better tournaments. Our advice for now is to hold on to your cards, but don’t hold your breath.
Editor’s note: We will continue to update this article as new information becomes available.
Why PA online poker players are anxious for shared player pools
The importance of shared player pools is obvious for anyone who experienced online poker in the heyday of PokerStars, FullTilt and other international sites operating in the US: Bigger prize pools.
Before the DOJ cracked down and shuttered these international sites on “Black Friday” in April 2011, US players competed in online poker tournaments with players across the states and international waters. The prize pools were massive in comparison to “ring-fenced” sites that PA players experience. The number of game options and concurrent cash games were also incomparable.
Shared liquidity across legal online poker states is a step closer to the juicy poker action of yesteryear.
To some extent, players in Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware have gotten a taste. These three states joined together early on in what is known as the Multi-State Internet Gaming Agreement (MISGA). NV and DE combined first, in 2015, and New Jersey joined the agreement in 2017.
It means that poker brands like WSOP can offer online tournaments that span the aforementioned states (and 888 poker in NJ and DE). So players in NV and NJ can compete against each other in the same tournament fields including in coveted WSOP bracelet events. On the operator side of things, revenue generated by players in each state stays in their respective states.
PA and MI poker sites remain ring-fenced with only in-state play allowed for the time being.
When will Pennsylvania join the online poker compact?
It is unclear as of now just when PA will join an interstate poker compact. Here’s what we know.
Pennsylvania gaming law allows for interstate compacting. But as PGCB Communications Director Doug Harbach has told PlayPennsylvania previously, other entities besides the PGCB also need to review and sign off on such a compact. That includes PA authorities as well as the poker operators, who would need to agree on the provisions of a deal.
Just last week, Harbach shared the following with PlayPennsylvania:
“While the Board would be and has been involved in discussions, the Governor’s Office is the ultimate authority on entering such an agreement and they have taken the matter under advisement.”
So it appears that the question of PA joining an interstate poker compact currently rests with Governor Tom Wolf‘s office. Gov. Wolf, who is nearing the end of his second and final term in the office of Governor, has done plenty to further PA gaming expansion during his tenure. Still, it remains unclear where entering PA into a poker compact would fall in terms of priority in his final year in office.
If not signed this year, the prospect of an interstate poker compact gets kicked down the road to the next Governor-elect.
Pennsylvania and Michigan would change the US online poker game
Pennsylvania and Michigan are two dominoes with the power to start a chain reaction.
Currently, online poker is little more than an afterthought it seems when it comes to new state legislation around legalizing sports betting and online casinos. The latter is still a tough sell in a number of states despite the robust data coming from legal online casino states showing a synergy with land-based casinos and a significant stream of state tax revenue. While online poker provides a smaller boost to state coffers, there is still great demand for it in many states.
PA tax revenue in 2021 from various gambling verticals:
- Sports betting: $122.5 million
- Slots (online): $410.1 million
- Table games (online): $51.4 million
- Online poker: $4.9 million
Potential US online poker growth from shared liquidity
Shared liquidity has the potential to take legal online poker revenue to heights not yet seen, and to make it a significant source of revenue for online gambling operators and state governments alike. A look at estimated state populations helps paint the picture:
- NV, NJ and DE: 12.9 million
- MI: 10 million
- PA: 12.8 million
When PA and MI join the others, poker traffic and prize pools could easily triple current totals. It should also have a sort of exponential effect in terms of growing player pools. Until legal online poker tournaments can rival their offshore counterparts in terms of value and amount of money they stand to win, several players will continue to opt for the dark side.
Adding PA and MI players to the mix would not only make the tournaments more enticing, but they could also encourage other states to work online poker into their gaming expansion bills and join the party.
West Virginia (1.8 million) and Connecticut (3.6 million) already approved online poker, but don’t have any sites live yet. Based on current traffic numbers, our sister site US Poker suggests that a shared network of all legal poker states could begin to rival the top 10 international sites.
Why Michigan will likely beat Pennsylvania to shared liquidity
Michigan appears further along in the process despite legal online poker launching much later, in January 2021.
The Michigan Gaming Control Board (MGCB) recently told our sister publication PlayMichigan:
“Our request to join the multi-state agreement is under review by the current states. We will know more when the review is completed. While we don’t have a timeline, we hope Michigan can join soon.”
So it appears an agreement is in the works in the Wolverine State.
Pennsylvania gaming regulators tend to err on the side of caution on matters around the Federal Wire Act of 1961. And who can blame them? PA legislators passed a gaming expansion bill that included online poker in 2017. However, the rollout was slowed in part by lack of clarity around the Wire Act.
Pennsylvania stunted by Wire Act
A DOJ Opinion from 2011 clarified that the ban on transmitting gambling data and funds across state lines pertained only to sports betting. That paved the way for new gaming verticals like online lottery, online casinos and online poker. However, the 2018 DOJ Opinion attempted to reverse the previous opinion and apply the ban to all forms of online gambling.
This led regulators including those in PA to go to great lengths to ensure they were setting up online gambling in a way that followed the letter of the law. Part of that was the requirement for operators in PA to set up separate servers from those in NJ. Many companies already had online casinos and sportsbooks established in the Garden State. But bringing them to PA suddenly required overcoming a number of hurdles.
The 2018 Opinion was struck down in court a final time in January 2021. And despite countless delays in online betting launches in Pennsylvania in 2019, the market would see explosive growth throughout 2020 and 2021 and on into 2022. But online poker plateaued relatively early on with no interstate compact imminent.
Wire Act woes subsided. Now what?
The window for a DOJ appeal of the New Hampshire Lottery case against the 2018 Opinion closed in June 2021. For some, that felt like the finality of the DOJ threat to verticals like online lottery and online poker. It also opened the way for more interstate poker compacting, or at least many hoped and thought it would.
Michigan has responded with some momentum on the shared liquidity front. And the wheels seem to be creaking in PA.
These two states could spark a chain reaction. However, it’s vital for the future health of legal and regulated poker in the US that it is done right. In that vein, maybe it’s not such a bad thing that the relevant parties are taking their time.
When it does happen, many poker brands stand to benefit (along with players). PokerStars and BetMGM Poker are in place to pool players across NJ, PA and MI. WSOP.com will look to add PA (and MI assuming it goes live there soon) to its existing pool.
Many players in the current ring-fenced markets expressed optimism to US Poker for shared player pools to come. It seems a mere matter of time, and the start of something bigger than what many could even imagine.
Lead image via Shutterstock.