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After almost two years of questions, impatience and false alarms, the launch of WSOP.com in Pennsylvania is less than a week away.
The company made the announcement on Twitter and Facebook, late on Monday. It set the date for next Monday, July 12 and promises players that it will bring “the best sign up offer, the largest guarantees, and a new and improved poker client.”
The date happens to coincide almost exactly with the second anniversary of online gambling in PA. The first online casinos in the state launched on July 15, 2019, though it took until November that year for the first poker room to arrive.
WSOP.com is the biggest online poker room in New Jersey, and the only one currently available in Nevada. It has, however, dragged its heels about launching in states that have legalized iGaming more recently, which includes Michigan and West Virginia as well as the Keystone State.
The timing of the launch is interesting for several reasons, not only because it comes so close to the two-year mark for Pennsylvania online gambling.
The announcement also comes just as WSOP is about to enter the second week of its summer online bracelet series. This is the time when, in an ordinary year, poker players would be flocking to the Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas to compete for bracelets in person. However, the pandemic has pushed those plans back until fall.
In the meantime, series organizers are repeating the solution they came up with last year, when COVID-19 had shut down in-person poker entirely. Forced to cancel the series, they hosted at a two-part online series. One half, for US players, took place on WSOP.com, and the other, for international players, was hosted by GGPoker. Both were resounding successes, with the US portion alone creating a record setting $27 million in prize pools.
This year’s series is also off to a good start. Unfortunately, Pennsylvanians won’t be able to participate, even once the new poker room goes live. WSOP and its technology partner, 888, operate what is currently the only interstate poker network in the US, linking New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware. However, before it can connect the new room to the network, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) will have to negotiate its own entry to the interstate traffic sharing compact.
The PGCB has so far been reluctant to do so because of legal ambiguities. The good news there is that the court battle over the relevant legislation – the Wire Act – is at an end. That might get the ball rolling, and could have been another factor in the timing of WSOP’s announcement. However, the necessary technological and regulatory steps will take months at least.
Although WSOP is the market leader in NJ, the situation will be very different in PA. It is specifically the traffic-sharing with Nevada which gives it the upper hand in the Garden State. Having those extra players means more tables, better game availability, and bigger tournament guarantees. The ability to compete for those coveted bracelets and Circuit rings helps too.
There is also the fact that PokerStars enjoys a considerable first-mover advantage in Pennsylvania. It held a monopoly in the state for nearly a year and a half before the arrival of BetMGM Poker this April.
In May, BetMGM’s first full month of operation in the state, it and its second skin Borgata Poker collected just $346,019 in combined poker revenue. That’s 13% of the total market. WSOP may likewise face an uphill battle.
Though PokerStars is well-established in PA, WSOP does have two advantages over BetMGM in terms of pulling away some of its market share.
First is its brand, which is among the most prestigious in the world and especially in the US. Even though online bracelet events won’t be available at first, players may be able to qualify online for live events in the fall, and will certainly hope for shared liquidity in the future. By contrast, BetMGM is the US market leader for online casino, but only one of three skins on the third-place Partypoker US Network for poker in NJ.
The other factor, alluded to in WSOP’s announcement, is the launch of new software. 888poker, which provides the platform for WSOP, began rolling out its next-gen software Poker 8 in international markets in 2019. In the US, however, it was waiting for WSOP to launch in new states before making the switch in its existing markets. This is surely the “new and improved software” mentioned in WSOP’s tweet.
It remains to be seen how Pennsylvania players react to the new software. However, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of good software to the online poker experience. Before the arrival of legal online poker in PA, some state residents had been playing on illegal offshore sites. The superior responsiveness and reliability of PokerStars was one major factor in convincing them to make the switch to the legal alternative.
If Poker 8 proves to be better still, it will go a long way towards offsetting PokerStars’ head start.