NJ iGaming Weekly: Are New Jersey Poker Players Better Off Playing on an Unregulated Site?

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When regulated online poker first went live in the Garden State, the general consensus among my inner circle of poker aficionados was that there would no longer be a pressing need to play on unregulated sites.

Fast-forward nearly five months, and a slew of server, traffic, and payment issues later, and suddenly they’re not so sure.

There’s little denying the appeal of offshore sites, especially to those who reside in one of the 47 states that have not regulated online poker. But to hear that players from New Jersey are forgoing regulated sites in favor of unregulated ones is a little more than off-putting.

But sadly, I get it.

Granted, the regulated market is still young and growing, potentially offering far more benefits to US players than offshore sites ever could.

But right here, right now, it would be difficult for me to wholeheartedly recommend, say, nj.partypoker.com over Bovada.

And here’s why.

Unregulated sites benefit from larger player pools

A quick glance at cash-game traffic numbers for the most heavily traversed US-facing sites reveals a huge disparity when compared to New Jersey poker sites.

Recent cash-game numbers for NJ’s top three networks (7 day averages):

Average traffic across all NJ sites is 423 and trending downward. The Garden State’s infant market peaked on January 26th, when cash-game averages hit 616.

That represents a more than 31 percent volume loss in less than three months.

Comparatively, global volume over a similar time period is also notably down, albeit by a significantly smaller percentage.

Traffic numbers across the top three US-facing networks speak a decidedly different tale:

Merge no longer accepts most players from New Jersey and Delaware, proving to be a non-factor.

Bodog, the parent network of Bovada, is the real wildcard here, drawing nearly four times the volume of all NJ-based sites combined. Traffic numbers on the site have held relatively steady over the past several months, and are up significantly in the last year.

Traffic on the Winning Poker Network, which is comprised of six poker rooms, surpasses that on Party Poker NJ by a more than two to one margin.

Granted, these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, as Bovada and other offshore sites are accessible to tens of million of players located outside the confines of New Jersey.

And while there is undoubtedly a higher percentage of NJ players frequenting state regulated poker sites than there are US residents playing on Bovada, from the perspective of the average poker player, overall volume is king.

One interstate compact with a state of significant size, like Pennsylvania, New York or California, will close the gap. But until then the traffic edge will likely belong to unregulated sites.

Data provided by PokerFuse Pro via PokerScout.

Unregulated sites: Better promos, better stability

It’s not uncommon for an unregulated site to offer players a staggering signup bonus, usually in the neighborhood of $1,000 or more.

New Jersey sites have gotten better in this regard, particularly WSOP, which in celebration of its new alliance with Neteller recently rolled out a $20 + $1,000 match bonus promo.

Conversely, current promotions on Ultimate Poker and 888poker are less enticing than those offered earlier this year. And there really isn’t much at all to get excited about on Party Poker.

With the hype surrounding New Jersey’s regulated poker scene slowly winding down, I’d be hard-pressed to imagine that we’ll be seeing much in the way of creative promotions anytime soon.

Then there’s the ongoing issue of server stability, which is markedly improved since November, but still lacking.

Granted, there are a bevy of offshore networks churning out sites more closely resembling a college sophomore’s Comp Sci. project than a professionally developed piece of poker software.

But just the fact that unregulated sites aren’t subject to the same location verification protocols as those in NJ give them a leg up in the server stability department.

Security – now that’s a different story.

Pros of playing on NJ regulated poker sites

Thus far, it appears that I’m making a staunch case for unregulated poker, when in fact, there are a multitude of benefits to playing on a New Jersey-based regulated site.

New Jersey’s poker operators are more readily equipped to monitor behavior than the average land-based casino, let alone an offshore site.

Rigid identification verification, strong authentication and self-imposed restrictions all ensure a more fluid, less risky poker playing experience. The same assurances do not exist on offshore sites.

Furthermore, the fact that NJ player funds are kept in a local bank, separate from operating accounts, ensures that all monies are accounted for.

Payment processing options are far more diversified on legalized Garden State sites than elsewhere. This wasn’t always the case, but the introduction of Neteller and Skrill have mostly filled the void left by banks that refuse to amend their antiquated gaming policies.

New Jersey also permits ACH deposits and withdrawals – which in my estimation, is the single best processing vehicle on the planet.

Credit/debit card deposits are pretty much impossible on unregulated sites, leaving US players with the equally arduous Western Union and Rapid Transfer depositing options.

In regards to withdrawals, the very best offshore sites ship funds about as quickly as the lesser NJ sites – with Bovada and Winning among the more reliable.

The problem – and this is clearly exhibited in John Mehaffey’s monthly report – is that cashiering times on unregulated sites is subject to change at any time. Take Lock Poker for example, which at one point processed payments in a reasonable timeframe, only to eventually subjugate its players to wait times exceeding a year.

Players simply won’t experience this level of ineptitude on a regulated NJ site. Yes, payment processing times will vary slightly, and errors will be made, but players should feel relatively safe knowing that they can retrieve their funds rapidly.

Regulated poker has a more promising future

Over the next several years, passage of the “Restoration of the Wire Act” bill pending, expect a paradigm shift away from offshore sites servicing U.S. players.

For now, the appeal of bigger prize pools, better promotional events and more stable software will probably continue to compel players away from regulated sites.

But the security, safety and growth potential of the regulated market simply cannot be denied. The latter will ultimately be the factor that tips the scale in favor of regulated markets.

For those who insist on playing on an unregulated site, keep your account for now. But I urge you to at least keep an active New Jersey gaming account on hand as well.

- Robert DellaFave is a game designer and avid poker player. He writes for several publications centered on legal US online poker and the regulated online gambling industries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
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