PocketFives’ Adam Small Talks GPI Partnership, Online Poker’s Potential in New Jersey

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Over the last decade, PocketFives.com has established itself as the premier site for online poker tournament results tracking and rankings. Along the way, the site has become one of the world’s largest online poker communities while adding staking, training and a coaching directory to its offerings.

The latest expansion for PocketFives.com: a recently announced partnership with Global Poker Index (GPI) and The Hendon Mob that will see PocketFives’ online tracking data married with the live poker results database of GPI and Hendon.

I spoke with PocketFives co-founder Adam Small (@AdamLoebSmall) to get his thoughts on the partnership, his approach to the New Jersey market and who he sees as the primary winners from regulated online poker in America.

Adam Small PocketFivesChris Grove: Obviously there are a number of potential partners for PocketFives. What about GPI and Hendon was specifically attractive?

Adam Small: PocketFives and Bluff Magazine had a very nice content-sharing partnership in our early years from 2005-2007, and that worked out great for both of us based on where the two companies were at the time. We’ve done other similar arrangements over the years with other print magazines and some non-English websites.

The difference with this new partnership, what makes it bigger and more interesting in my opinion, is that there have been a variety of relevant and semi-relevant ranking sites for live tournaments over the last several years with no one really pulling away as the clear authority.

This is finally starting to change with GPI cementing themselves as both an interesting and authoritative site. Their acquisition of Hendon Mob, in my opinion the most important live tournament tracking site, was huge for them.

We love the idea of the top authorities in both online poker rankings and live poker rankings working in tandem, and I think we finally have that.

Grove: How does the move fit in with your larger strategy for PocketFives as a community and as a media property?

Small: I think it fits well in that it makes our site more of a comprehensive hub for players who care about our online rankings but also play live tournaments and want to see how they stack up there. We talk a lot about live tournaments in our community, but until now we didn’t have a very good way of recognizing our members for their B&M accomplishments.

Grove: What’s your approach to New Jersey at this point?

Small: We’re really excited about New Jersey. Our membership is very international, but we have always had special appeal to poker players in the US. That’s only natural, given that the site is based in the US and run by Americans. The new NJ market is allowing us to once again do what we do best in the US – offer a great community and rankings product that people can be excited about.

We are working very hard to have all of the New Jersey sites in our rankings as soon as possible. Running PocketFives Leaderboard (PLB) competitions in NJ and recognizing more tournament wins on legal NJ sites via the rankings will be very exciting for us. It’s something we’ve been looking forward to for years.

Grove: If you could wave a wand and change one single thing about the NJ market as it currently stands…

Small: I wish there were an easier solution to the Geolocation problems, for one. I can’t imagine how frustrating it is for players to be shut out after waiting so long to get back in the game. It would really try my patience, and I can tell it’s having that effect on many who are trying to play.

I think the best thing that could possibly happen for that would be federal legalization, but we all know that’s a long shot anytime in the near future due to total standstill on pretty much everything in Congress.

Grove: What three states do you see coming online next?

Small: I’m probably not the best person to ask this to – I’d probably be asking you for your opinion! But I think Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania all seem like good candidates.

I wouldn’t be surprised about any number of other states that have been discussed, but I’m going to throw out one dark horse: Kentucky. Churchill Downs really wants to get in the game. They’ve got heavy influence in that state and already have online horse betting there. That state doesn’t exactly conform in every way to people’s preconceptions about the Bible Belt. I could see them surprising us and becoming one of the early entrants into this market.

Grove: Ultimate Poker’s Joe Versaci recently commented on Twitter that he couldn’t see any single state regulated market – except for California – surpassing the liquidity of the sum of the unregulated US-facing networks. Agree / disagree?

Small: It’s a pretty nuanced situation, but I mostly do agree. California is massive and seems pretty obviously sustainable on its own – though they’d still do much better in my opinion by compacting with other states and internationally. Other states are much more questionable.

I think my minor points of disagreement are twofold. First, we don’t know how many people might actually play if the banking situation is user-friendly and geolocation issues stop being a problem. It could be quite a turnout if it’s really well-advertised and really easy to play. That’s definitely not the case now, particularly the latter.

Secondly, I am not sure those unregulated networks are going to continue to exist much longer, so it’s hard for me to think of them as legit competitors to the legal sites. I guess they are the competition until they aren’t, but I don’t see why someone in NJ would play on one of those sites when they can play against a lot more losing players on the sites that can advertise on mainstream media. And you know when you want cash out you’re actually going to get your money…

In general I agree with Joe. We need interstate compacts for US players to see anything like the player pools they grew accustomed to prior to Black Friday. But I’m not sure I agree with seeing the unregulated sites as their competition, if that’s what he’s saying. For anything outside the immediate short term, I don’t think that’s the case.

Grove: Other than operators (and tax collectors), who do you see as the potential financial winners in the regulated U.S. market?

Small: Winning players! Games, both live and online, have gotten so much harder in the last few years. This is partially just because so many people have taken the time to study the game, and so many good tools have been created to help people improve.

But it’s also largely because there are many more forces pulling good players toward the unregulated sites than there are pulling in beginners and weaker players. The US market needs a huge refresh, marketing-wise. Regulation should provide that as long as thing don’t flame out due to previously discussed issues people have getting in the game.

Grove: PocketFives stopped taking any sort of advertisement or sponsorship from unregulated operators several years ago. Why was the thinking behind that decision, and why do you think so few sites have followed suit?

Small: For a little background on this, my original partners and I sold our site back in 2007 and reacquired it less than a month after Black Friday. Sparing the details, the reacquisition was a surprise for my partners and me and took us some time to process. As soon as we had gotten our heads firmly wrapped around our new situation, cutting ties with the unregulated sites was one of our first moves.

Our thinking was pretty simple. Black Friday was a horrifying experience for us and for many thousands of our users. A lot of smart people in the industry never saw it coming. While we can’t guess everything that will ever happen in this industry, we made the decision that we will do what we can to inform our members about our genuine feelings on the safety of the unregulated sites. That has meant giving up a lot of revenue over these past couple years, but we feel good about our decision.

As far as other sites continuing to advertise these unregulated poker sites, in some cases I’ve been quite surprised. I’m not at all surprised that many SEO-keyword-affiliate type people continue to advertise them, because most of those people don’t really feel have a relationship with their visitors and are primarily focused on generating revenue however possible.

That’s not to say they’re bad people or unethical businessmen, but they clearly have different goals than we do. Some other communities that are much more connected to their members have really surprised me by continuing to run ads for the unregulated sites.

At the end of the day, I’m sure it’s about paying the bills. We’ve had to trim down our operation and our personal expectations quite a bit these last couple years as a result of our decision, and I’m sure that’s not easy for everyone to do.

Grove: Communities are regarded as one of the toughest models for affiliates to execute. What’s your advice for an affiliate hoping to build a community-driven site from scratch?

Small: We don’t really consider ourselves an affiliate and don’t really focus on affiliate deals, so I’m probably not the best person to ask.

My advice to anyone who wants to start a community that will be sustainable long term is to build the best products possible and find ways to engage your members. If your site is an authority in an important area and has an active following, you can find ways to make money!

Grove: Harder to make a living as a poker player or as part of the industry?

Small: Haha, define “living” I guess. Both have become a whole lot harder since 2005 when we launched PocketFives. Look at it this way, there are a lot of low- and mid-level “jobs” doing both. Lot of poker players who can grind out small or medium earnings and lots of people working for site operators. It’s very hard to make a really good living in either one, but there are still probably a lot more people doing it as players than in the industry.

- Chris is the publisher of OnlinePokerReport.com. Grove also serves as a consultant to various stakeholders in the regulated market for online gambling in the United States.
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