There’s a palpable buzz in the air in Pennsylvania, with chatter building around the impending launch of online poker. Although there’s no official countdown yet, rumor has it that PokerStars could go live any day now.
Timing isn’t the only thing that’s still uncertain, though. Opinions vary widely on how successful PA online poker will be as an industry.
Some say that launch in PA represents the boost US online poker needs to spark a new boom. Naysayers on the other side, meanwhile, believe that the time for poker is past and its future is nothing more than a rounding error for online gambling.
In this two-parter, we’ll weigh the merits of both arguments. We’ll deal with the potential pitfalls next time. Let’s start with seven factors working strongly to support online poker in the Keystone State.
To say that Pennsylvania is big is to state the obvious, but its population is perhaps its most important selling point.
It’s is not New York or California, of course, but its 13 million residents make PA by far the largest state with legal online gambling. It’s about the same size as Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware put together, therefore doubling the reach of the regulated US online poker market.
The population is doubly important under the key principle that liquidity begets liquidity in poker.
More players on a site mean more tables running at more stakes, which makes it easier for players to find an open seat they want to fill. That makes for a better experience, which in turn helps attract more players. And so the cycle perpetuates itself.
All things being equal, Pennsylvania should be a much bigger market than Nevada or New Jersey. In fact, the comparative traffic figures to be proportionally larger than the difference in population.
The possibility of Pennsylvania eventually sharing liquidity with the existing markets is also a huge potential upside in the long term. No provisions for interstate online poker exist yet in PA, partly due to the January interpretation from the US Department of Justice (DOJ) that the Wire Act prohibits all forms of interstate gambling.
That interpretation would have forced Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey to dissolve the existing shared-liquidity compact while preventing Pennsylvania from joining the alliance.
The New Hampshire Lottery Commission came to the rescue, however, filing suit against the DOJ to protect its right to sell tickets online. That resulted in US District Court Judge Paul Barbadoro setting the DOJ’s opinion aside and reaffirming that the Wire Act applies only to sports betting.
Provided his ruling survives appeal, Pennsylvania will be able to start sharing liquidity as it pleases. It might take years to make that happen, but such an addition would result in a substantial increase in the total size of the US online poker market.
PokerStars will almost certainly be the first PA online poker site to go live, and it may be a while before it faces any competitors. Monopolies tend to be bad for consumers, but there are a couple of ways in which a temporary PokerStars stranglehold might benefit Pennsylvanians.
When New Jersey regulators authorized PokerStars in 2016, it was the third operator in a fairly small state. That won’t be the case in Pennsylvania, and PokerStars PA will want to maximize its first-mover advantage. Expect a big marketing push with attractive bonuses and promotions for new players.
The liquidity argument applies here, too.
Multiple sites will eventually end up splitting traffic between them, but initially concentrating all players on a single site will mean more games running and more seats available. That should help PokerStars PA get off to a quick start.
Philadelphia isn’t Las Vegas, but it is Pennsylvania’s largest city and home to a fairly robust live poker scene.
Parx Casino is particularly well-known for its card room, having hosted World Poker Tour stops and its own Big Stax series a couple of times annually. Rivers and SugarHouse are also home to poker rooms of decent dimensions.
Caesars owns Harrah’s Philadelphia, making it a recurring stop for the World Series of Poker circuit in past years. The series hasn’t returned since 2014, but PA online poker might end up making it a destination once again in the future.
The presence of so many live card rooms means that Pennsylvania — and Philly, in particular — is home to numerous recreational and professional poker players. Many of them have spent the last eight years itching for a legal online option.
Philadelphia also happens to be situated just across the Delaware River from New Jersey, where online poker has been legal for almost six years. Any Phillie eager enough to make the trip has been able to access the game on the other shore since 2013.
Staying home is a far better option, of course, so any such “commuter traffic” will likely leave NJ online poker sites and appear on new PA sites once they go live.
Communities on the far bank are effectively satellites of Philadelphia, with residents frequently commuting across the river for work or pleasure. Some local online professionals even moved into these neighborhoods, where rent is modest and regulated sites are available. Some of those will no doubt be happy to move back into the city once they can play from home.
New Jersey is also home to Atlantic City, the city best known for its gambling scene outside of Vegas. That’s one more reason to expect a proportionally higher number of recreational gamblers and poker players in Philadelphia than the average city in America. It’s barely an hour up the expressway from the AC casinos.
That same principle also works the other way around.
Once Pennsylvania has legal online poker, people living and traveling near its borders may cross over to play. Would-be professionals in nearby cities might likewise make the move. Aside from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s other major population center is Pittsburgh at the western end of the state.
Between them, they should draw customers from five large cities without legal online poker that all live within a short drive.
Baltimore and New York are both within two hours of Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., is only a little farther at three hours. The two big Ohio cities on the other side, Cleveland and Columbus, are similarly situated in relation to Pittsburgh.
US poker players deprived of legal options resorted to unregulated offshore sites following Black Friday. The shift spawned numerous scandals over the years, including several sites that went under and took player funds with them.
Things stabilized over time; however, and two main operators began to thrive in the US black market: Bodog, now attached to Ignition Casino, plus the Winning Poker Network and its flagship Americas Cardroom skin.
That trust has recently begun to wane.
Both networks have shown vulnerability to distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, repeatedly interrupting gameplay at critical times. The identity of the attacker(s) and their motivations are unclear, but customers have voiced their displeasure in unison.
WPN also received its share of bad press last year thanks to a series of videos by poker professional and vlogger Joey Ingram. From his investigation, Ingram presented evidence for the proliferation of bot accounts on the network and the perceived indifference to the issue from its operators.
Though this doesn’t affect Pennsylvania specifically, the Keystone State will benefit by riding the leading edge of legalization. The majority of players will select a legal option over an illegal one if given a choice, which will only compound the problems facing the offshore market.
If the unregulated market eventually dries up as a result of a rising tide of legal poker, then many current players in states without legal options will end up quitting rather than waiting.
Pennsylvania’s legalization comes at the right time then, as its sites will be in a place to accept those players looking to make the switch.