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Online poker and casino gambling might be coming to West Virginia sooner than expected.
The WV Lottery Commission last week approved a set of emergency rules for iGaming which it will file with the Secretary of State later this month. Director John Myers told iGB that the rules pave the way for a quicker launch than originally intended.
With the emergency rules, the Lottery will be able to grant interim licenses allowing companies to begin operations almost immediately. These are good for up to 270 days, during which the Commission will conduct a thorough review and, if all is as it should, issue a full license.
The Secretary has 42 days to approve or reject the emergency rules after they’re filed.
In this context, “emergency” simply refers to the fact that the rules are a temporary measure to expedite launch. The state’s online gambling law, which passed last year, instructs the Lottery to produce a set of emergency rules before July.
That said, the actual emergency created by the COVID-19 outbreak has likely induced the state to hurry things even further.
The initial expectation was that a July deadline for emergency rules would lead to a launch in late 2020 or early 2021. Public demand for online gambling is peaking at the moment, however, with most brick-and-mortar casinos still closed. States with legal online casinos/poker are seeing traffic surge as a result.
The emergency rules are good for up to 15 months, during which time the legislature must approve the permanent rules.
The emergency rules, obtained by WV MetroNews, provide fairly liberal authorization for most forms of online gambling. For the most part, they cover operators’ responsibilities for things such as:
There is one aspect of the rules that will be of particular interest to casino gamblers, however: provisions for live-dealer games. The rules refer to these as “simulcast tables.”
Until now, it was unclear whether this recently popularized form of online gambling would be available in West Virginia. The rules do indeed allow for such games, but operators will need special permission from the Lottery before offering them.
That doesn’t necessarily meant that any operators will offer them, though.
Live-dealer games require a special studio setup, and the small size of the WV market might make the concept unprofitable. The rules additionally stipulate that all such primary gambling equipment must be physically located in the state.
Even more interesting are some of the provisions for peer-to-peer and multiplayer gaming, which essentially means online poker.
Most significantly, the rules require the availability of randomized seating. Sites can offer tables with manual seat selection, of course, but only as a separate option. Every site must allow players the option to be seated at random against opponents who were also seated at random.
This has been the trend in the international online poker market, but it’s not universal. The options for seat selection — or lack thereof — vary from site to site, so it’s interesting that West Virginia would mandate randomized seating.
Other specific rules include:
The Lottery seems to be hedging its bets when it comes to the ongoing legal battle vis-a-vis the Wire Act.
The Act’s original purpose was to prevent the use of the mail system, telephone, etc. for the purpose of circumventing the (now-defunct) federal ban on sports betting. The US Department of Justice, however, has attempted to enforce a reinterpretation that covers all forms of interstate internet gambling.
That reading is currently the subject of a challenge in the First Circuit courts.
The emergency rules contain a section allowing “reciprocal agreements” with other jurisdictions, provided that “such wagering is not inconsistent with federal law or the law of the [other] jurisdiction.”
At the same time, however, it requires that sites include in their terms and conditions a section about federal prohibitions on interactive gaming — including those in the Wire Act and the UIGEA.
What all of this implies is that regulators are likely to go with the flow of what happens at the federal level. If the new interpretation of the Wire Act is struck down, West Virginia appears ready to authorize multi-state poker. If upheld, it looks like the Lottery will comply without a fight.
That’s probably good news for poker players in a state that is too small to support a healthy poker ecosystem on its own. To flourish, WV will need to enter a liquidity-sharing compact with the likes of New Jersey, Nevada, and possibly Pennsylvania and/or Michigan.
As is the case in many other states, West Virginia online casinos and poker rooms need to operate in partnership with a land-based licensee. There are five eligible casinos in the state, each of which can have up to three online partnerships.
WV online sports betting is already available under a similar framework.
The first app, BetLucky, suffered a serious false start and shut down in March 2019 after just a few months of operation. DraftKings Sportsbook and FanDuel Sportsbook finally launched their apps late in the year, however, and BetMGM Sportsbook followed suit this January. West Virginia bettors now have three online options with more on the way.
It’s probably a good bet that these operators will also be among the first to open online casinos and that their partners will be the same as for sports betting. That means the privately-owned Greenbrier for FanDuel and MGM and Penn National’s Hollywood Casino for DraftKings.
For poker, it’s unlikely that anyone except PokerStars will try to launch in West Virginia without a liquidity-sharing compact with other states. As of this week, PokerStars is owned by Flutter, which also owns FanDuel.
That seems to indicate that PokerStars WV would operate under the Greenbrier license as well, though a request for confirmation went unreturned.