The oh-so-slow rollout of online gaming in Pennsylvania is about to accelerate.
The good news is that next year is not so far away. Christmas will soon be upon us, and the online operators are champing at the bit to get started.
Online poker is actually a much more difficult game to offer than an online casino. Nevertheless, online poker should launch at about the same time.
What Pennsylvania does have to look forward to is rampant competition for market share. That means many operators will be chasing the market so generous bonus offers will abound.
But exactly who will be there? What can a Pennsylvania poker player expect from the new opportunities?
Online poker casino by casino
Only seven casinos have proceeded with their license applications to run online poker. The Mohegan Sun, Stadium Casino and the Rivers Casino pulled their applications to save a few million dollars of license fees.
The casinos that will have online poker partners are:
- Harrah’s Philadelphia
- Hollywood Casino
- Mount Airy
- Parx Casino
- Sands Bethlehem
- SugarHouse Casino
- Valley Forge
Caesars Entertainment owns Harrah’s. Caesars owns the World Series of Poker (WSOP) brand and operates WSOP.com under license in Nevada and New Jersey.
WSOP.com uses on an online poker platform provided by 888. 888poker is one of the most popular online poker rooms on the planet, so the software is top notch.
888 and Caesars obviously have a close relationship. Pennsylvania gaming laws allow casinos to offer more than one online poker room, so the expectation is that Harrah’s will launch both brands.
The WSOP connection means that by next May, both brands will be full of offers to win tickets to the live WSOP in Las Vegas.
Looking further into the future, it also means WSOP.com in PA can, eventually, join the interstate compact that currently consists of Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey. Once that happens, the pool of players in each state will all be mixed, creating the largest online poker site in America.
Hollywood Casino may be the first to market with sports betting, but it looks like online poker may not be its priority.
IGT is Hollywood Casino’s online partner. The tech company is not a globally recognized poker brand, but it does provide a lot of online poker.
The state-regulated sites in Canada all use IGT’s online poker platform.
IGT presented its completely overhauled poker platform at this year’s G2E conference. Both mobile and desktop versions have been radically upgraded and now meet the highest standards.
One new feature that might make it to Pennsylvania is a pending patent game called Poker Challenges.
This is a poker tournament where no players are eliminated.
Each player’s chip stack is restored to the starting stack after each hand. The software monitors how many chips each player has won or lost and at the end of the timed tournament works out every player’s score.
The prize pool then pays out just like a regular tournament. This is a great way of avoiding the disappointment of paying a tournament entry fee and only getting to play a few hands.
Mount Airy’s choice of partners does look like it plans to be an online poker leader.
The resort casino has managed to catch the biggest online poker partner of all, PokerStars.
PokerStars stayed on in the US after the UIGEA passed in 2006, finally exiting the market after Black Friday in 2011.
A deal with the DOJ resulted in PokerStars admitting no wrongdoing and buying the defunct Full Tilt. Since then, it has entered the US market in New Jersey, where it is the No. 1 operator.
Players that remember PokerStars from back then should prepare to see a lot of changes.
The software is much better, there are a host of new games and tournament formats and the VIP scheme is now strongly focused on recreational players. Moreover, in a regulated market, some of the old features they were used to are no longer in action.
Parx Casino should debut its retail sportsbook sometime this month. The launch will be at the main casino followed shortly after that by a launch at the South Philadelphia Turf Club.
Technology partners are GAN and Kambi. Neither are renowned for their online poker.
If Parx were serious about online poker, it would have partnered with a bigger name brand, and that still could happen. Or Parx could be relying on its status as the most prominent casino brand in the state. It is also known for offering regular live poker events.
On the other hand, poker is the poor relation to online casino and sports betting.
What online poker does provide is an extra marketing channel. With an online poker product, Parx can cross-sell its casino and sports betting services.
This is the case even with a giant like PokerStars. The Stars Group CFO, Brian Kyle recently told investors that online poker is now “a large and low-cost customer acquisition channel.”
The book remains open on how Parx will decide to use its online poker license.
Don’t expect anything soon from the Sands Bethlehem. Despite receiving conditional approval from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB), online poker will not launch anytime soon.
They want the option to offer online poker, so they submitted the license application.
We won’t know anything about their plans until after the sale is complete.
SugarHouse Casino is owned by Rush Street Gaming. It is extremely keen to make a success of online gaming in Pennsylvania and has developed its software through Rush Street Interactive.
Their main technology partner is Kambi. The partnership has a successful online casino and sports betting product in the New Jersey market but don’t offer online poker.
SugarHouse’s main priority is the launch of its live sports betting. Originally scheduled for Dec. 1, there looks like there may be a delay. Either way, it will be out soon.
PlaySugarHouse online product will follow as soon as Rush Street can possibly get it approved. But online poker is a long time away.
Valley Forge has conditional approval to launch online poker but has not announced an online partner.
There is a 2015 agreement with partypoker, but no one is saying what has happened to this since GVC bought party later in 2015.
Who cares about public announcements? It’s almost certain that GVC and Valley Forge will launch online gaming together.
Hence logically, online poker will launch at Valley Forge under the partypoker PA brand.
Partypoker left the US in 2006 after the UIGEA passed. This fit of compliance angst caused the company to lose the top spot as the world’s favorite poker room.
PokerStars took over the title, and partypoker began a long slide into wherever former top poker sites go when everything goes wrong.
After GVC bought partypoker, things began to look up. CEO Kenny Alexander put some heavyweight management attention into online poker and restored the site growth.
Globally, partypoker has displaced 888 from the No. 2 spot as the most popular poker company.
In New Jersey, partypoker is in third place, which isn’t as good as it sounds. However, if Pennsylvania goes ahead with its option to share liquidity with the current New Jersey/Delaware/Nevada pool, things may change.
Liquidity sharing with New Jersey et al
At the moment, Delaware, New Jersey, and Nevada have an interstate compact for online poker.
Sites licensed in more than one of these jurisdictions can have a single poker room where all their US players play.
This is more theory than practice since only WSOP.com operates in Nevada and New Jersey.
888 provides the platform for all the Delaware operators and operates in New Jersey. The addition of players from Delaware has not made any significant difference to player numbers.
Pennsylvania law allows for an interstate compact. There are 12.8 million people in PA. More than 9 million in New Jersey, so adding the two markets will be significant.
PokerStars, WSOP, 888 and partypoker will be able to offer much higher tournament guarantees in a combined player pool. Higher guarantees mean more marketing carrots to dangle in front of new players.
The launch of online poker in Pennsylvania will come in two phases. The first phase will be standalone sites. The second will be under the shared liquidity compact.
It will indeed be a game of two halves.
The odds are that New Jersey’s steady state of a market dominated by PokerStars, WSOP, 888 and partypoker will replicate in Pennsylvania.
That will actually be pretty cool. Even cooler if one of the local casinos can do what Winamax did in France.
You may never have heard of Winamax, but it became the top poker room in France by leveraging its local popularity.
For once in the world, PokerStars had to settle for second place. Who knows, maybe the Parx or SugarHouse could do the same in Pennsylvania?