PokerStars NJ tournaments featured $30,000 in overlay
Online Poker Report

Was PokerStars’ Second Try At A Live New Jersey Poker Event A Success Or Not?

PokerStars NJ tournament
How did PokerStars‘ second try at a live event in New Jersey go?

With $30,000 in overlay between the two events, it would be difficult to classify it as an unquestionable success. But there are reasons that the event was good for PokerStars and the NJ online poker market as well.

PokerStars live, take two

Last fall, PokerStars hosted its first live event in the US since 2011’s Black Friday.

The inaugural PokerStars Festival New Jersey was held at Resorts Atlantic City, the new brick-and-mortar home for the online poker superpower. It came on short notice, just a couple months after the launch of the PokerStars NJ online platform.

This past weekend, with a little more preparation, PokerStars hosted another live event at Resorts.

The New Jersey Sunday Special Live ran from Oct. 6-8, a quick weekend of live poker. The event was branded as a MEGASTACK event, the smallest member of the new PokerStars Live family. According to its website:

MEGASTACK events bring deep-structured tournaments to exciting live venues around Europe and the USA. Each event guarantees professional PokerStars Championship-like structures, but at a fraction of the cost.

Buy-ins for the MEGASTACK events are around $200 at the top end. They’ve been running all over Europe for the past several months, but the trip to New Jersey was a first for the small tour.

Two events for PokerStars New Jersey Sunday Special Live

The weekend’s schedule consisted of two events.

The $220 Sunday Special Live was a pretty clever effort, mirroring the week’s largest tournament on the PokerStars NJ online platform. PokerStars put an ambitious $100,000 guarantee on the live version, twice the normal guarantee for its online cousin. The lead time allowed them to run satellites in advance, too.

The event featured four starting sessions, two apiece on Friday and Saturday. The 11 a.m. flights ran with 30-minute levels. The 5 p.m flights were accelerated with 20-minute levels. Day 2 levels were all 40 minutes apiece on Sunday.

The $120 Cheap and Deep event provided a second chance for those who failed to run deep in the big one. It followed the same structure, but with 20-minute levels and a $25,000 guarantee. The Cheap and Deep ran from start to finish on Sunday, starting at 1 p.m.

Both events featured 50,000-chip starting stacks and unlimited re-entries. Both overlaid pretty significantly.

EventBuy-inFeeTotalEntriesPrizepoolOverlay
Sunday Special Live$200$20$220409$100,000$18,200
Cheap and Deep$100$20$120119$25,000$13,100
Total$300$40$340528$125,000$31,300

The results are in

The numbers don’t exactly reek of success. But from a results perspective, PokerStars couldn’t have scripted a better outcome.

John Monahan won the Sunday Special Live. Monahan is a 60-year-old recreational player from Egg Harbor Township, who said he mostly plays live when he does play. He won $19,920 for his work over the weekend.

And Chris Moneymaker won the Cheap and Deep. The accountant-turned-millionaire from Tennessee has become one of the foremost faces of the PokerStars brand since turning an online satellite into a WSOP Main Event victory in 2003. The $6,220 payout won’t change his life, but it does make for a fun story and another good piece of publicity for the brand.

This win was Moneymaker’s second live victory in New Jersey, too. Last year, he took down the $560 event at the inaugural PokerStars Festival in the same building. In fairness, he only had to beat seven other people. But he beat those seven.

The new faces of the brand

It’s pretty hard for an American, in particular, to earn or keep a PokerStars sponsorship these days.

Since New Jersey is the site’s only foothold in the US marketplace, there just isn’t much incentive. Jason Mercier, Barry Greenstein and a few other key figures have been retained. Others, like Greg Raymer and Joe Cada, have not. PokerStars even gave up on its Sports Stars strategy this year, though it does continue to sponsor athletes.

The few who are getting new sponsorships nowadays tend to have significant crossover appeal to other markets and platforms.

Twitch streaming is a big focus, as evidenced by the signings of Jason Somerville, Jeff Gross, and others. The sponsored Canadian streamers include the popular Jamie Staples and Kevin Martin. Martin is better known for his reality TV career than his PokerStars screen name.

Jen Shahade is another good fit for the brand as it seeks to grow in New Jersey, in particular.

Shahade is from nearby Philadelphia, and she comes to poker via a championship chess background. She also made the final table of the Sunday Special Live. Shahade represents PokerStars as a Mind Sport Ambassador, where she brings publicity to the communities of chess, poker and other strategic games.

She’s turning her connections into actual PokerStars customers, too, she told Online Poker Report:

“My friend Alisa Melekhina, who is a chess master, author and lawyer, played in one of her first live events at the Sunday Special Live,” Shahade said. “She almost made the money and we had a chance to play some chess on a break.”

Moneymaker doesn’t have a ton of crossover appeal, but he does have the most enviable story in the game and plenty of appeal to the recreational player. And he’s managed to navigate the shifting sponsorship winds so far. He’s well-trained in saying all the right things for the brand by this point, too.

“The highlights would be a great atmosphere and how much fun everyone was having,” Moneymaker told OPR. “Many tournaments can be stressful but these were a lot of jokes and people relaxed. It was also nice to be able to play online at the same time as the live events.

“You are getting great value. The level of play was soft compared to most events you play and people were just having a good time. The tournaments themselves were run in typical PokerStars style, fantastic.”

If PokerStars is hosting an event anywhere in the world, chances are good Moneymaker is there and talking about it. His name still carries a ton of recognition within the community, but his type are a dying breed among sponsored players.

The goal of small live events

PokerStars’ commitment to running much smaller events is one of the biggest changes to come from the PokerStars Live restructuring. There weren’t any EPT festivals with only two events, that’s for sure. But these New Jersey events are designed to tick a different set of boxes.

First, the Sunday Special Live was held right in the middle of the NJ Championship of Online Poker. Satellites were aggressive, and the events were cross-promoted live and online. Bringing live New Jersey poker players into the online fold is key for growth in the state. PokerStars, obviously, would prefer everyone do it on their platform.

The price point and the schedule are also well-suited to the local poker community. Direct buy-ins to both would set players back just $340 — less than the entry for the cheapest event on the WSOP Circuit. And online satellites were available for as little as $0.50.

The tournaments were also held over the course of a single weekend, with bonus flights available on Friday. That schedule allowed those with real jobs to tend to business before cutting loose on their days off.

PokerStars might be changing tactics in light of a sparse turnout for its inaugural PokerStars Festival. None of those events had guaranteed prize pools, something to which players in the US (and New Jersey, in particular) have become accustomed. Both of these MEGASTACK events were guaranteed aggressively.

There is also a significant social component to these smaller events that PokerStars is keen to exploit. Moneymaker touched on it with his above comments to OPR.

Although they’re still adorned with all the familiar trappings of larger PokerStars events, these are far less serious in nature. Making sure everyone is having a good time might sound like hollow talk, but it’s a legitimate and important goal of these smaller live events.

Success or not for PokerStars?

The willingness to put a lot of resources into running small events is a bit surprising. But it makes some sense considering the above.

Live events have never been a direct source of revenue for online poker sites. And they’re not designed to be. The licensing and registration fees might cover the costs of running the event, but just barely. Most of the time, they probably don’t. The purpose is to show you a good time and plaster the brand in your face in the process. And PokerStars is pretty good at that.

Still, events this small are hard to justify in most places. But New Jersey is bit of a special case for PokerStars.

It’s the only foothold in the US market for the biggest brand in online poker. It’s essentially a placeholder for what it hopes is a much larger market in the future. The overlay isn’t much concern, either, as PokerStars is still generating more than $700,000 per month in online poker revenue in NJ, and that’s a fraction of what it takes in the rest of the world.

The live efforts haven’t really shown up in those numbers yet, though. All NJ online poker sites showed month-on-month growth through July and August, but PokerStars NJ was down in September. And it’s lagging behind the market curve a bit, too. Its trends are a little more unfavorable than the competitors across both the positive and negative months.

But PokerStars still has designs on growing its NJ business, and using the groundwork it lays there in future regulated online poker markets. And live events are a part of that equation.

Image courtesy of PokerStars

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Eric Ramsey
- Eric is a freelance reporter and writer covering poker, sports betting, and daily fantasy sports. He comes from a poker background, formerly on staff at PokerNews and the World Poker Tour.