Monday, March 6, 2017

The Future of Online Poker – Four Years Later, Part One

Four years ago I penned a 3-part series about the “State of Poker.”  Because I cross-post to Facebook, one of the articles popped up as a “memory” and I shared it over the weekend, saying
Consider Zynga and PokerStars, and ask yourself this - of those two, which one has made themselves look more like the other one? I was right four years ago.”

Well, partially right.

The rationale for such a series was that we were starting to see the first state-sanctioned Internet poker rooms approved for Delaware, New Jersey and Nevada.  It had been almost two years since “Black Friday,” and the initial wave of states moving forward with regulated online poker was seen by some, including me, as the “first step” in revitalizing what was a phenomenon of the digital felt.

The three parts – The Future (of Online Poker) Looks (1) Great, (2) Scary, and (3) Predictable described the scene as of four years ago.  No one could be absolutely sure what to expect – whereas in the Golden Age (seven years prior) PokerStars and Full Tilt has tens of thousands of players around the world at thousands of tables at every stakes imaginable, the three states no doubt would start much smaller.  They all had their handicaps, including the fact that every new online casino/poker room had to tie in with an existing casino in NV and NJ, a fact I decried at the time (what online casino needs 200 hotel rooms, anyway?).  But like all decisions political, it all came down to emoheneewhy – MONEY – and states took the richest (for them) path.  At the time, anyway.  Besides, we in the poker community thought thusly – as more states jump online, the poker boom will return, post-haste.

And then there was Sheldon. 

Seeing the return of online competition, Uncle Moneybags and his Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling was launched, with the intent of stopping and reversing the meager progress i-poker had made.   We’ve seen no reversal, but as for progress?

We still have three states online.  That’s all.

Sure, others have written bills and passed bills through one side of their legislatures or the other, but as of now, no other state has what NV, NJ, and DE has.  We might see Pennsylvania, or New York, or Michigan, or maybe one of the dark horse states like Massachusetts (or hell could freeze over and California could pass a bill).  We could also see another sneak attack in Washington and find that Congress has tacked on Sheldon’s RAWA or something like it in the middle of the night to a must-pass bill, or AG Sessions could undermine the DOJ’s 2011 ruling and reverse it, putting online poker in limbo…or worse.

And let me stop and correct myself.  No matter what Congress or Sessions does, online poker will continue.

Just not the consumer-protected, tax-revenued kind. 

Off-shore sites like America’s Cardroom and Full Flush (and others of their ilk) will continue, as will social sites with cashless (free) games like Zynga, WSOP, Governor of Poker, Jackpot Poker, etc.  And it’s Zynga and other social media games that I’d like to focus on here.  Because that’s (sadly) the future of online poker.  To a degree.

You see, people want entertainment.  Poker can be entertaining when you play for real money, and many (self included) believe this.  The idea that a cash game or tournament was a click away brought many basement/country club poker players to the electronic tables to play with (and largely, lose to) the sharks.  Black Friday took care of what remaining fish there were, leaving the sharks and larger fish to fend for themselves in the back-waters of off-shore sites.

But the fish “survived.”  A few took their “new found skills” to live poker rooms, where they experienced a new kind of thrill.  Most went to the cash-less games – some to ad-based sites like NLOP, but many flocked to free games like Zynga, the largest poker room in the world.

What is it about Zynga that attracts players?  It’s certainly not prize money – there isn’t any.  No real prizes, too – just bragging rights for a variety of “challenges” and “leagues” and other tests of skill that mimic other online games they offer like Diner Dash and Farmville.  And simple entertainment, of course.

That’s the key here – what many players in the “online poker boom era” sought was simple entertainment.  It was nothing to pop open the browser and spend a few minutes or a few hours playing poker.  With super-micro buy-ins, one didn’t spend much money, either.   So despite no new states getting on the online poker bandwagon, online poker continues to…exist.  I can’t really say “flourish” except you should know that Zynga made $741 MILLION last year, and makes roughly $28,606 PER DAY.  And it’s FREE.
Think about that.

Also know that other online freebies like Caesars Slots and MyVegas (MGM and Stations Casinos partner) are also making a buttload of money.  Overall, “social gambling” sites are an almost-THREE-BILLION-DOLLAR business. 

From FREE games.  You see that?  Certainly PokerStars does.

That’s what I meant when I implied that PokerStars looks more like Zynga now rather than the other way ‘round.  Since my original series four years ago, PokerStars has re-branded their free-social gaming site as “Jackpot Poker,” featuring many of the interactive bells and whistles found on Zynga and other play sites, plus gambling-type options like “Beat the Clock” and “Spin-n-Go.”  You can even buy play money from PokerStars, too (and you can now do it from the original application). 

So is THIS the future of gambling?  While states struggle to regulate online poker and other options like lotteries and casino games, millions of Americans spend their time (and money) at social gaming sites, as well as playing other games online like “Words with Friends” and, of course, all the eSports games in all of their genres.

We in the poker advocacy world can’t see why states don’t jump on the bandwagon.  Legislators worry about their revenues, and not wanting to have ANYTHING to do with taxes (like raising them), consider online gaming as a viable option.  And yet, after four years, there’s been no state to jump on that bandwagon.

That’s because it’s not about revenue.  Which is why we play for free – well, most of us do.  Who the hell buys chips, anyway?  OK, you know the answer to that.

So is social gaming the future?  Partly, but it’s not the catalyst that will bring American gaming into the 21st Century (and I have no idea what will bring Congress and State government leaders into this century, as their continued “gambling is evil” attitude gowns old with me).

The future of online gambling is elsewhere.  Look at England.  Look at the top left-corner of your PokerStars app.  That’s a clue, and I will expand on this in Part Two.

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