Ultimate Poker is laughing last - at least for now


Sometimes karma can bite you in the butt.

World Series of Poker Executive Director Ty Stewart just experienced that pain.

Recently, Stewart made light of early troubles that befell Ultimate Poker, the first legal pay-to-play online gambling website in the U.S., which launched April 30.

First, Ultimate was caught using an unlicensed and much maligned service provider to identify new players. Then, a glitch in the website caused two 9 of spades to appear on the flop in a game of hold’em.

“I think the market is ready for a first-class product,” Stewart told Case Keefer of the Las Vegas Sun while touting the World Series of Poker’s planned Nevada-based pay-to-play website.

Last week, the World Series of Poker suffered its own glitch. The unlicensed website briefly went live, letting players gain access to the pay-to-play area.

Caesars Interactive Entertainment, which owns the World Series of Poker, caught the mistake, shut down the site, and notified Nevada gaming regulators.

The laughter you’re hearing emanates from the corporate headquarters of Station Casinos, majority owner of Ultimate Gaming, which operates Ultimate Poker.

We’ll be seeing this back-and-forth between Station Casinos and Caesars in the months ahead. The companies will dominate Nevada’s fledgling online poker market because the competition is on the sidelines.

Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Wynn Resorts Ltd. have shown indifference toward online poker. MGM Resorts International and Boyd Gaming Corp. want seats in the game, but are waiting on licensing of their partner, European online gaming giant Bwin.party.

Last month, Bwin.party CEO Norbert Teufelberger told online gaming publications the company is bypassing Nevada to focus on New Jersey’s Internet gaming potential.

Nevada has licensed nearly two dozen casino operators and technology providers for interactive gaming. Ultimate Poker is the lone company in the field.

Caesars Interactive officials have said the company wants to launch the World Series of Poker website during the tournament, which runs through mid-July. Following last week’s glitch, this year’s Main Event November Nine will be seated when the first hands of real-money poker are dealt.

Technology approval isn’t turnkey.

Ultimate Gaming Chairman Tom Breitling said the company delivered more than 100,000 pages of reports to state regulators and independent testing laboratories during the equipment certification process.

Caesars, a partner of 888 Holdings, is starting to understand the challenge.

“The honest answer is (we’re) unsure,” Caesars Interactive spokesman Seth Palansky last week said of launching the website during the tournament. “Yes if we complete our checklist. No if we do not. The good news is we are progressing well in our testing and it won’t be too much longer until we can offer it online.”

Ultimate Poker is backed by Station Casinos and Ultimate Fighting Championship. The World Series of Poker’s website has the prestige and history that comes with the 44-year-old tournament.

That doesn’t leave much of the market for the other guys.

The state’s interactive gaming regulations only allow poker websites to accept wagers from players using computers or mobile devices within Nevada’s borders. Potential online gaming companies are finding Nevada is too small.

One of two events must take place to change the landscape: Congress passes a bill legalizing Internet poker nationally, or Gov. Brian Sandoval enters Nevada into an online gambling compact with another state to share players and revenues.

Neither seems likely.

That’s one reason the World Series of Poker is a battleground between Ultimate Gaming and Caesars. Both companies want to sign up perspective online poker players for their soon-to-be competing websites.

More than 50,000 poker players from around the world are expected to congregate in the Rio Convention Center through the middle of July. To Caesars and Ultimate, those figures constitute a healthy customer database.

Caesars is encouraging players to pre-register for the World Series of Poker website by offering more than $700,000 in incentives, including seats at some of the 62 live tournament events and entry into the website’s “Online Nine” and “Online Championships.”

Ultimate Poker, which has launched a $1 million marketing campaign in Nevada, has dispatched its brand ambassador, poker champion Antonio Esfandiari, to the tournament. He’ll play as much no limit hold’em as possible while wearing a patch for Ultimate Poker.

Esfandiari, whose popularity grew when he captured a record $18.3 million jackpot in the World Series of Poker’s $1 million buy-in “Big One for One Drop” event last year, said he is often asked about Ultimate Poker.

“I’m very social and I chat with everyone,” Esfandiari said.

Breitling said Ultimate has dealt more than 2.25 million hands of poker since its launch. That’s just games with players in Nevada. Potential players from all 50 states and 28 countries have opened Ultimate Poker accounts.

He’s hopeful many of those players will come to the World Series of Poker.

Even in their downtime, poker players want to play the game. Many of poker’s current stars learned online, which gives Ultimate Poker a potential straight flush until the World Series of Poker site goes live.

“Having 100 percent market share is great but we know it won’t last,” Breitling said.

Howard Stutz’s Inside Gaming column appears Sundays. He can be reached at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.