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Online poker play may be on the verge of a comeback in Nevada

Updated April 14, 2024 - 8:30 am

Online poker play may be making a comeback in Nevada.

Playing poker over the internet became a thing in the state in the early 2010s when Strip and locals casinos saw a niche and opened poker rooms in their properties and the Nevada Legislature sought ways to expand play and enable local companies to generate new revenue.

Proponents reasoned that some players, once hooked with an online version of the game, would find their way to casinos where they not only could play poker, but also gamble at other games and maybe buy a meal or two.

To be sure, online poker requires a different skill set than those in live rooms as online players are unable to gauge the body language of their opponents when they’re thousands of miles away.

The Legislature debated Assembly Bill 114, and then-Gov. Brian Sandoval signed it into law on Feb. 21, 2013. It was the state’s first dive into online gaming, and proponents suggested that players would flock to poker because it’s a game they would play against each other and not the house, which takes a percentage of the proceeds with every hand dealt.

Station Casinos became the first regulated online poker licensee in the state when it opened Ultimate Poker in April 2013. Caesars Entertainment, which owned the World Series of Poker brand, opened WSOP.com five months later. Michael Gaughan’s Real Gaming Online Poker got started in February 2014 but never had much traction.

Companies offering online poker in Nevada found that the state’s low population base and the requirement that players had to play from within the state’s boundaries limited their growth.

Nevada eventually entered agreements with Delaware and New Jersey that enabled players in those states to compete with Nevadans.

But online poker never took off as proponents expected.

In November 2014, Ultimate Poker shut down, and WSOP.com became the only game in town.

Even after online poker experienced an uptick during the COVID-19 pandemic years, WSOP.com remained the last game standing in Nevada.

But that could change in the months ahead.

Two companies — one a David and one a Goliath — appeared before the Nevada Gaming Control Board this month and will seek approval Thursday from the Nevada Gaming Commission on the extension of a waiver that limits when they can activate their licenses.

Las Vegas-based Z4Poker LLC and MGM Resorts Interactive LLC received recommendations of approval to extend licensing for the 14th time, and if the commission concurs, they will have another year to begin operations.

At Z4Poker, the founder, owner and chief technology officer of the company, Eric Colvin, told board members he is on the verge of providing real-money poker games after offering social play for years.

Colvin said his company had a setback around 2018 when computer software company Adobe Inc. discontinued its Flash product, requiring his designers to rewrite its poker programs.

“Many millions of dollars have been invested in this product to further demonstrate our commitment, and we’re weeks away from relaunching our product on the web,” Colvin told board members.

“So we’re very, very close,” he said. “It’s worth mentioning that we’ve been further enhancing and developing all of the features that we feel are necessary to enter into a real-money market.”

Control Board members, weary of extending waivers year after year because it clogs up the approval process for other prospective licensees, opted to give Z4Poker one more waiver, essentially telling executives they wouldn’t get another.

As a policy, the board wants to get innovative companies operational so that they can profit and provide jobs, which in turn generates tax and fee revenue for the state.

On the other end of the spectrum, MGM Resorts Interactive is a much larger operation but made a similar extension request.

Chandler Pohl, an attorney for MGM Resorts International, explained there is a clearer path toward poker operations for MGM, which partners with BetMGM for its online gaming.

MGM already has licensed operations in Detroit, Atlantic City and suburban Washington, D.C.

Pohl said that since Nevada’s drafting of a compact with Delaware and New Jersey, Michigan has adopted e-gaming and Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are on the verge of approval in their states.

Maryland and Pennsylvania have potentially large player bases, which means Nevada players could compete with players in those states. For MGM, it was a matter of waiting for the right opportunity to offer poker.

Colvin said the key to success is to build player liquidity. He said around 800 concurrent online players would be needed for a successful launch, and now Z4Poker has around 450.

But the addition of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia poker players may be the boost the industry needs to expand online play in the future.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on X.

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