It’s unfair to compare Nevada’s adolescent Internet poker market to the pre-Black Friday online poker world that existed in the U.S. a few years ago.
On a good day, the state’s two currently operating real money poker websites — UltimatePoker.com and WSOP.com — might have a peak cash game player pool of roughly 250 to 300 participants combined. That includes players who bought into different games on multiple tables.
Before the federal government cracked down on illegally operating Internet poker in April 2011, the player pool throughout the U.S. was anywhere from 250,000 to 300,000 cash game players on a single day through multiple websites.
Not that Nevada’s poker players are complaining about the current state of affairs. It’s early in the game.
The landscape for legalizing Internet poker in the U.S. is a fluid situation. For now, Nevada is the only state with legal pay-to-play Internet poker. Delaware was expected to launch a poker website on Halloween while New Jersey targeted the end of this month to begin real money online gaming, including poker and casino games.
In Nevada, residents of any state or country can register to play on the websites. The gambler, however, must physically be playing on a computer or mobile device located within the state’s borders in order to place a wager.
Nevada poker players are just happy to play online again on state-regulated websites.
“It’s obviously a very small market, but hopefully that will improve,” said Las Vegas resident Ed Miller, a poker player and author of seven books on poker strategy.
Miller knew when he joined UltimatePoker.com and WSOP.com that the games weren’t going to draw huge numbers.
“There are times I’ll log in and there is literally no action,” Miller said.
Dominic Ricciardi, a Las Vegas physician, said the websites make it convenient for him to play around his busy schedule. Like many Las Vegas-area poker players, Ricciardi uses online poker as a way to sharpen his skills for tournament poker play inside a casino.
“It’s sometimes hard not to compare the play to what it was before Black Friday,” said Ricciardi, who specializes in internal medicine. “The action is a little softer and it’s easier to become familiar with players because you recognize their screen names. But it’s nice to be able to play when I want.”
UltimatePoker.com, which is majority-owned by Station Casinos, launched on April 30 as the first regulated pay-to-play poker website in the U.S. The rollout began with the website offering just the popular hold’em version of poker.
Since the launch, UltimatePoker has updated its system three times in order to increase player features. The most recent update included adding Omaha poker to the platform.
UltimatePoker had the Nevada market exclusively until the much-anticipated Sept. 19 launch of WSOP.com. The website, which is owned by a subsidiary of Caesars Entertainment Corp., is based on the company’s World Series of Poker brand.
WSOP immediately offered hold’em, Omaha and stud poker games.
Both websites have tournament action as well as cash games. They also offer various promotions and incentives.
It’s expected that two more poker sites could be approved by state gaming regulators before the year ends; a website run by the South Point and one branded with Treasure Island that will be managed by Gibraltar-based online gaming giant 888 Holdings, a partner of Caesars. 888 operates the platform used for WSOP.com. The company is expected to launch its own branded poker website in conjunction with Treasure Island.
Nevada has a relatively small population. Analysts said it’s unclear if the websites are seeing much of the state’s visitor base buying into the action.
Poker players said there are both pros and cons of more websites.
“There is no question it will dilute the existing business somewhat,” said Las Vegas resident and poker player John Mehaffey, a freelance writer who contributes articles to several gambling-related websites.
“South Point will add a much different product and that should create a buzz,” Mehaffey said. “But more sites mean the same players will be spending less time on the existing sites.”
Donnie Peters, editor-in-chief of PokerNews.com, who is based in Las Vegas, thought the launch of WSOP.com would have boosted the number of players, mainly because of the well-known nature of the World Series of Poker brand.
“The player pool is thin, that wasn’t a surprise,” Peters said. “Right now, the sites are working hard to pull in players on a regular basis.”
SLOW GROWTH FORESEEN
Analysts were not surprised Nevada would be a small Internet poker market.
PokerScout.com tracks online gambling activity worldwide, primarily cash games. Website owner Dan Stewart said WSOP.com initially cut into UltimatePoker’s market by about 50 percent.
However, Ultimate is averaging roughly 128 players at any time of the day, with a peak number closing in on 300, usually in the evening hours. WSOP.com averages a little more than a 100 players a day, with a peak of more than 200 players in the evening.
Stewart said promotions by both websites have helped drive traffic.
“Ultimate’s traffic has recovered somewhat, but it’s clear this is a small market,” Stewart said. “The next (website) out will face an uphill battle.”
Wagers on both sites can be as low as a few pennies to over $100 for a buy-in to a tournament.
Nevada gaming regulators won’t break out online poker revenues into a separate category in the agency’s monthly reports until there are at least three licensed websites accepting wagers.
Union Gaming Group Managing Director Bill Lerner analyzed the numbers based on year-over-year increases during the summer to poker revenues in the Balance of Clark County reporting market. The figures imply that online poker — i.e., UltimatePoker.com alone — had roughly $750,000 in gaming revenues in July.
Eilers Research gaming analyst Adam Krejcik estimated Nevada could produce annual online gaming revenues of $45 million based on various economic factors, including population and the possible wagering spend per customer.
He said the overall Nevada market hasn’t grown much since WSOP.com joined the mix.
“WSOP will still play a big role in that it will cross-promote with the land-based tournament, allowing Internet players to win seats in the live events,” Krejcik said.
PLAYERS HAVE PREFERENCES
Seven months into the action, poker players are learning the hits and misses of each site.
Mehaffey said he stopped playing on UltimatePoker once WSOP launched because he wanted to play Omaha and stud games, not just hold’em. Miller signed up for WSOP, but hasn’t played on the site because he is waiting for more players. He’s continued his allegiance to UltimatePoker.
Ricciardi plays on both websites while Peters favors WSOP.com because he uses a Mac computer. UltimatePoker hasn’t been available to Mac users, but recently added a tool that allows players with a Windows program to access the UltimatePoker system.
Most players can’t help but to remember what they had online before Black Friday, which ended U.S. access to PokerStars and Full Tilt. Five years earlier, the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act cut off play by Americans on 888, PartyPoker and other sites.
“The (current) platforms are immature compared to what had been out there before,” said Miller, who has been playing online since 2001. He also hopes features, such as tracking a player’s hand history, will soon be added.
Mehaffey said many online poker players compete on multiple tables at one sitting, sometimes 10 to 20 tables. WSOP.com, he said, limits a player to four tables while UltimatePoker is unlimited.
Many players gave UltimatePoker credit for the ties with Station Casinos. Customers can open an account, add money to an existing account or cash out winnings at one of the company’s Las Vegas-area properties.
PLAYER POOL EXPANSION SOUGHT
Ultimate Gaming CEO Tobin Prior said the Nevada website continues to evolve. Since April, the website has dealt almost 20 million hands of poker.
“We pride ourselves on customer service and that’s been important to us since we were first in the market and everyone was watching us,” Prior said.
The most glaring item in the minds of players — Mac compatibility — could be addressed by early next year, he said.
As for WSOP.com, Bill Rini, head of online for Caesars Interactive Entertainment, said the website’s real growth will take place in the coming year as promotions kick in for the 2014 World Series of Poker at the Rio.
Meanwhile, WSOP.com’s first online championship is scheduled during the final table of this month’s Main Event.
“Our plan was a very controlled ramp-up, but we’re actually doing a little better than expected,” Rini said. “Our plans are long term. There was no use sprinting out of the gate.
Poker players and website operators agree that increasing the player pool through compacts with other states is the key to growing Nevada’s poker market.
“A lot of players left after Black Friday and moved out of the country to play online,” Peters said. “I think most players, especially those who play professionally, are happy online poker is back. They understand this is the first step in getting the game back all over the U.S.”
Contact reporter Howard Stutz at email@example.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.