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After months of delays, PokerStars finally launched in Pennsylvania this week.
Monday was the first of two days of public testing, with the site up and running for eight hours from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. local time. Tuesday’s session added two extra hours, closing the testing window at midnight.
Despite a few predictable hiccups, it was a wildly successful soft launch for PokerStars PA.
Less than two hours after birth, the Pennsylvania site already had more players online than the New Jersey site. Traffic increased steadily throughout the test period right up until the site shut down for the night.
@PlayPANews peaked at 745 yesterday. Exciting stuff!
— Rebecca McAdam (@BexMcAdam) November 6, 2019
Multi-table tournaments also performed better than PokerStars might have expected. The Hot $10 received 148 entries when fewer than 60 were needed to meet the guarantee.
Numbers only tell part of the story. First-hand accounts from players reveal just how desperately Pennsylvania players had missed online poker.
B. Alfero is a professional online cash game player from Philadelphia, specializing in mid-stakes six-max cash games. Alfero’s story is a typical one for someone who’s become good enough at the game to earn a living for it in the years just before Black Friday. His words have been lightly edited for clarity.
“I was playing on PokerStars and Full Tilt at the time,” says Alfero, “It was the worst day. Waking up to the awful fact that I could no longer ply my trade in my home country was a gut punch. Everyone I knew relocated out of the US, but I honestly thought it would be temporary.”
Unwilling to leave home and left with no legal options to continue playing, Alfero turned to Bovada the following year. Although he was still able to earn a living playing, it was a nerve-wracking and unpleasant experience.
“The software was clunky and laggy compared to PokerStars and Full Tilt,” he explains, “Not being able to feel confident about keeping a proper bankroll in the account was unfortunate. Player pools were substantially smaller. It was less by choice and more by necessity because that’s all there was.”
Over the past year or two, his declining trust and increasing frustration with the offshore sites led Alfero to scale back his play. Eventually, he was keeping only a few hundred dollars in his account and playing rarely.
“My withdrawal options had been reduced to Bitcoin only. That was kind of the deal breaker. It’s hard to trust a company like that. I got sick of not feeling secure my money would be there the next morning. I knew Pennsylvania was going to be regulated and it was only a matter of time before I’d have a regulated site to play on.”
Like many people, Alfero assumed that the July 15 launch date for online gambling in Pennsylvania meant that poker would be returning on that day as well. He was disappointed when it did not.
PokerStars and the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) presumably felt that it was better not to make any predictions than to set a target date and possibly fail to meet it. For Alfero and others, though, the lack of an official timeline compounded the frustration.
“It was tough,” he admits, “The first thing I’d do every single morning would be to check sites like Online Poker Report to see if there was any new information.”
Alfero was ecstatic last week when the official word came that PokerStars would launch on Monday. Even then, a lack of specifics proved to be an annoyance.
“I wish they’d told us up front it was only going to be at 2 p.m.,” Alfero says, “I barely slept last night, thinking they might launch overnight.”
Even when the site went live, it took almost two hours before Alfero was able to play.
First, he found that all his deposit options were being rejected. Once he’d resolved that issue, he discovered that the geolocation technology required by regulations meant that he had to be connected through WiFi, and not the Ethernet setup he’d been using to ensure a stable connection.
Alfero wasn’t too bothered by those problems, however. He dismisses them as standard issues that come up when a new site is launching, and said he found PokerStars staff helpful in resolving them.
He’s less thrilled about the new four-table cap on cash games that PokerStars implemented this fall. That came as a surprise to him.
“Before Black Friday, I was used to playing 20 tables or more,” he says, “Look, I get it. No one wants to get eaten alive [by multi-tabling professionals]. I suppose I understand both sides of the argument, but I think maybe an eight-table cap would have been more reasonable.”
It’s unlikely that policy will change any time soon. PokerStars enforces the new cap for tables on all its sites globally. Other operators have begun following suit, including the GGNetwork just this week.
Alfero describes the difference between the experience of playing on regulated versus unregulated sites as “like night and day.” He says that the lag on the latter is “ridiculous,” but that he experienced none whatsoever on PokerStars PA.
He also observes that PokerStars has improved its software over the years it has been out of the US online poker market.
“It definitely feels better than the software I was used to pre-Black Friday,” he says, “That was actually one the most pleasant aspects of the experience. It was just incredibly smooth.”
It’s probably a good guess that Alfero’s experience with PokerStars’ return to Pennsylvania resembles that of other local pros who elected not to leave after Black Friday.
In the international market, there are many legal options to choose from. Players in Europe and elsewhere have expressed extreme displeasure with some of PokerStars’ decisions in recent years.
Increased rake is a big complaint, as is the new table cap.
For Alfero and others who’ve had no legal option at all for many years, however, these problems may not loom as large. They’re not insignificant, but they’re relatively minor compared to the risks and hassles that come with black-market sites.
It’s not only pros who’ve been eagerly awaiting the return of online poker in Pennsylvania, either.
Asked about his opponents, Alfero says, “I saw one, maybe two solid players at each table and that might be an exaggeration. I think if you’ve been playing poker in Pennsylvania, whether it was recreationally or professionally, you knew this was coming. The news was pretty widespread.”
If the experience of other players who participated in the test matches Alfero’s, that’s very good news for PokerStars. The question now is how long it will get to enjoy the benefits of being the only game in town.
In New Jersey, PokerStars has played second fiddle to WSOP/888 and is scarcely bigger than the partypoker/Borgata network. That’s partially because WSOP/888 benefits from shared liquidity with Nevada. More importantly, though, PokerStars was a latecomer to that market.
The PCBG says it expects other sites to launch online poker in just four to six weeks. Once players have settled in at one site, though, it can be difficult to get them to switch. If the players who sign up with PokerStars while it holds its temporary monopoly are highly satisfied with the experience, competitors may find themselves needing to invest a lot of money in promotions and sign-up bonuses in order to establish any market share.
What’s more, Pennsylvania’s population of 12.8 million is equal to that of all the other regulated poker states combined. It may prove to be the case that whoever dominates PA dominates the US market as a whole.