At the moment, poker players in the Keystone State have only a single option for online play. That could be about to change, but the situation is anything but clear.
The competitor in question is WSOP, and there are two reasons to suspect its imminent arrival. For one thing, 888 Holdings, which supplies its platform, received its licenses at the most recent meeting of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB).
Elsewhere, that might be news enough to have players champing at the bit. However, delays are common in Pennsylvania, and 888 may be more interested in launching a casino or sports product than poker.
Fortunately, a second, even more compelling indicator came to light over the weekend. As first reported by USPoker, WSOP’s site now has a page advertising signup bonuses for Pennsylvania poker players. It has also reportedly begun sending promotional emails to potential customers in Pennsylvania.
Taken together, those facts would seem to paint a picture of an operator preparing to launch. However, representatives from WSOP have declined to comment one way or the other. Meanwhile, a source at WSOP’s parent company Caesars Entertainment has said there are no plans to launch a poker product prior to 2021.
Caesars already operates and online casino and sportsbook in the state. Like those products, WSOP Pennsylvania will presumably operate on the license of Caesars’ own brick-and-mortar property in the state, Harrah’s Philadelphia. If the plan is in fact not to launch WSOP poker until next year, it could be the case that the emails were sent in error.
A long time coming
Pennsylvania poker players are used to the waiting game by now. Online gambling in Pennsylvania was supposed to have a synchronized launch in July last year. However, it took many months of circulating rumors and disappointment before the first site, PokerStars, actually went live in November.
At the time, the PGCB said it expected one or more other sites to launch within a month or two. Instead, PokerStars Pennsylvania is now closing in on its one-year anniversary without a competitor in sight.
Fault for the delay doesn’t lie with the regulator in this case, however. Rather, the operators other than PokerStars simply haven’t seen it as a priority. Sports betting and online casinos are much bigger money makers than poker. More importantly from WSOP’s point of view, Pennsylvania isn’t ready to begin sharing liquidity with other states.
As it stands, New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware have a three-way interstate compact allowing poker players in those states to compete against one another. WSOP is the only operator currently running such a network, as none of its competitors have a presence in the latter states.
Expanding shared liquidity in the US is going to be important if online poker is to succeed. Unfortunately, a federal legal battle still rages on over the Wire Act and whether it applies to forms of gambling other than sports betting. Until that is resolved, regulators like the PGCB will be reluctant to join the existing tri-state compact or broker deals of their own.
Could WSOP compete without shared liquidity?
Though Pennsylvania’s brick and mortar casinos reopened in June, there’s still very little live poker in the state. PokerStars’ partner casino, Mount Airy, opened its poker room just this month. Others may follow suit soon, but it’s equally likely that another shutdown is coming, given the cool weather and rising number of cases of COVID-19.
If WSOP is, or was, thinking about launching soon, that may be the reason. After all, PokerStars’ Pennsylvania revenue more than tripled from February to April as a result of the first shutdown. New Jersey sites saw a similar increase.
That said, WSOP may have a hard time competing with PokerStars. WSOP leads the market in New Jersey, but it had more than a two-year head start there in addition to being the only interstate operator. In Pennsylvania, PokerStars’ highly polished product and first mover advantage make for a whole different ballgame. Moreover, interstate play isn’t a factor at all.
Does WSOP see the potential for a second surge in online poker as sufficient reason to enter the market under those conditions? That’s a hard question to answer, in light of this week’s contradictory signals.
Assuming the word from Caesars is correct and that WSOP isn’t in fact launching in Pennsylvania until next year, Partypoker may get there first. It will operate in partnership with Roar Digital. That joint venture between GVC and MGM should receive its license soon, as an out-of-state qualified gaming entity.
Partypoker would also face challenges in going toe-to-toe with PokerStars. As the current underdog, however, it has less to lose by rushing in. It also has less to gain by waiting, as it doesn’t have an interstate network yet, though unlike PokerStars, it does have the ability to launch in Nevada if it so chooses.