Online poker faces a bit of an uncertain future in the US

Could PartyPoker Be Coming To Nevada For Online Poker?

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Could a new online poker room come to the Silver State?

When it comes to online poker in Nevada, WSOP NV is for practical purposes the only game in town, and has been since 2014, when the first-to-market Ultimate Poker shut down. Today, there is technically speaking an alternative in Real Gaming, but its traffic is almost nonexistent.

That situation may change in the near future, however, as there are signs that GVC, which owns PartyPoker, may be considering bringing that brand to the state.

GVC coming to Nevada?

GVC applied for a Nevada license in partnership with MGM Resorts International. The primary goal is to establish Roar Digital, an online sports betting platform, as part of a joint venture between the companies.

However, MGM also owns the Borgata in Atlantic City, which is the brick-and-mortar partner for PartyPoker’s operations in New Jersey online gambling. Furthermore, the license application includes a request for “interactive gaming.” In Nevada legalese, those words apply specifically to online poker, so it seems that GVC is, at minimum, attempting to secure for itself the option to launch a Nevada PartyPoker platform at some point in the future if it wishes to do so.

The application was approved by the Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB) on Wednesday, May 8, in a 2-1 vote. Board member Terry Johnson cast the dissenting vote on the basis of a Turkey-facing operation owned by Ladbrokes, which GVC acquired in March last year. 

Online gambling is illegal in Turkey, and for a time those illegal operations continued. GVC had ultimately divested itself of the problematic business, which was good enough for the other two board members, but apparently not proactive enough for Johnson.

Conditions apply in Nevada

Although the vote passed, Nevada has two separate agencies involved in regulation, and GVC will still need approval from the latter of these, the Nevada Gaming Commission (NGC), which will meet on the subject this week. Assuming it passes muster with the NGC as well, it will go through a two-year provisional licensing period during which it will be under close scrutiny, and have to pay $100,000 to cover the costs of those investigations into its own activity.

These conditions illustrate how the hardline approach of the twin Nevada regulatory agencies is likely one of the reasons that WSOP has an effective monopoly on online poker in the state. New Jersey, by contrast, enjoys healthy three-way competition between:

Most significantly, PokerStars is currently forbidden outright from getting a license in Nevada due to continuing US operations after the passage of the federal UIGEA, and now we see that GVC is just barely squeaking in, assuming it gets past the NGC as well.

Nevada is also a comparatively small market. Naturally, gambling is more mainstream there than any other state, but the population is just a third that of New Jersey. WSOP also has a branding advantage in Nevada due to that being the home of its iconic tournament series, while PartyPoker likely hasn’t been on many Americans’ radars since it elected to comply with the UIGEA and cease serving US customers in 2006.

A changing landscape for online poker?

Between the low demand and competitive disadvantage versus WSOP, GVC likely felt there wasn’t enough upside for a potential Nevada PartyPoker site to be worth the costs and difficulties of navigating the regulatory barriers to entry. So, what’s changed?

For one thing, sports betting looks like it’s about to become huge in the US, since the Supreme Court decision last May which struck down a nationwide ban on such games and restored control over their legality to the states.

Currently, seven states allow it, but many more are likely on the way. That means that the Roar Digital venture with MGM has at least an order of magnitude more potential than a new PartyPoker site at the moment, which changes the calculation considerably in terms of what hoops are worth jumping through.

Meanwhile, the complaints that the NGCB had with Ladbrokes’ Turkish operations on GVC’s watch have nothing to do with PartyPoker or poker in general, so including a request for “interactive gaming” along with the sports betting request likely wouldn’t affect the outcome of the application at all. There was therefore no reason not to include it.

Shared poker liquidity is the wild card

The approaching launch of online gambling – including poker – in Pennsylvania is also a likely factor.

That market will be segregated at first, and might have to stay that way depending on how things go with challenges to the Department of Justice’s new opinion on the Wire Act, such as the one underway by the New Hampshire Lottery. If, however, that decision does come to be reversed, multistate online poker involving PA could arrive somewhere down the road, and then Nevada might turn out to be of greater importance than its population alone would suggest.

For PartyPoker, the reason Nevada might prove important is that it has recently made big tournament series a key part of the strategy for its international operations, and has had success in the past with building fields for its own events by running them alongside other, larger series, such as PokerStars’ SCOOP and WCOOP.

For the US regulated market, there’s no bigger time of year for tournaments online or off than during the WSOP, but taking advantage of the Las Vegas summer crowds to run a big series for a hypothetical shared-liquidity site would require having a presence in Nevada.

It’s probably no coincidence, then, that in the same week GVC applied for an online poker license in the state, that PartyPoker announced its first-ever MILLIONS Live event on US soil, with a $10,300 buy-in and $5 million guarantee. The location will be at the Aria in Las Vegas, and the dates will be June 28 to July 2, smack dab in the middle of the WSOP’s run.

If and when a PartyPoker Nevada site does open, expect a similar strategy to unfold, with a PartyPoker series overlapping the online bracelet events.

Prospects uncertain for PartyPoker

The preceding is still a big “if,” however.

As we said, there was likely not much downside for GVC to include the interactive gaming request in the same application it was filing anyway for its Roar Digital sports betting venture. Actually going forward with a site would be a non-trivial cost, however, so we can’t expect GVC to do it just because it can.

It may be that it plans to give it a shot regardless, but it could equally be the case that this is a speculative inclusion. In the latter case, the follow-through will likely be contingent on how things develop on the legal front vis-à-vis the Wire Act, and whether there’s potential to eventually integrate a PartyPoker Nevada site into something larger.

- Alex is a journalist from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Now site runner for Online Poker Report, he has been writing about poker and the online gambling industry in various capacities since 2014.
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