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When PokerStars launched in New Jersey earlier in 2016, the excitement on social media from the poker community was palpable. While the other online poker sites – PartyPoker and 888/WSOP already satisfied some player needs, the competition and offerings from the likes of PokerStars was welcomed with open arms.

The site hosted its first online tournament series in the spring, complete with 54 tournaments and $1.1 million in guarantees. Almost every NJSCOOP tournament surpassed its individual guarantee. So when PokerStars announced the first official NJCOOP, the New Jersey version of the annual World Championship of Online Poker, players were thrilled.

Even better, the first-ever PokerStars Live Festival was scheduled for to begin as NJCOOP came to an end in the last days of October. Team PokerStars Pros were coming from around the world to participate, and events were prepared for poker players as well as those who wanted to compete in other games. It was touted as a massive poker event to take place at Resorts Casino in Atlantic City, the land-based partner of PokerStars.

The results of the online series were impressive, but the live series failed to garner much participation. In the end, many of the non-sponsored pros left early, and players were constantly frustrated with the lack of numbers in many of the tournaments.

So what happened?

Score One for NJCOOP

Just as NJSCOOP was a success in May, NJCOOP in October did well, too. The online tournament series offered a total of 43 events from October 14-31 with $1.2 million in cumulative guarantees. And according to Online Poker Report, the majority of the tournaments surpassed their guarantees and ended the whole series more than $200K over the initial $1.2M promised. Even the few events that had overlays only missed the guarantees by a buy-in or a few buy-ins. All in all, there were 1,273 unique players in NJCOOP, and a total of $1,405,276 was paid out.

One of the reasons for PokerStars’ success was the smooth running of the series. Its competition wasn’t so lucky. Due to technical problems and overall low turnout, the parallel-running Garden State Super Series V on PartyPoker/Borgata failed to hit guarantees in about two-thirds of its tournaments. And a major technical glitch disconnected many players from the GSSS V Main Event, which resulted in an incomplete tournament and many unhappy players. PokerStars, on the other hand, benefited.

Another reason for the NJCOOP triumph was its timing. PokerStars arranged the New Jersey version of the series so that it would not overlap with the dot-com WCOOP but would provide competition to PartyPoker/Borgata and WSOP in the New Jersey market. If players were going to be in New Jersey for online poker, PokerStars gave them more options than they would’ve had otherwise. It worked in PokerStars’ favor.

Online Success Not Translating to Live Poker

The PokerStars Live Festival was set up like many of the European Poker Tour and other live series events, though with lower buy-ins and fewer tournaments to accommodate the burgeoning New Jersey market. However, it was marketed worldwide to give players many chances to win online satellites that would allow them to trek to New Jersey and participate.

Action began on October 29, the last weekend of NJCOOP, and continued through November 6 with more than 50 events. Buy-ins ranged from $100 to $5,000 to accommodate a range of players, and the Main Event was a very reasonably-priced $1,100 buy-in NLHE tournament. PokerStars Team Pros came from everywhere to participate, with international players like Fatima Moreira de Melo, Felipe Ramos, and Andre Akkari. Other big names in attendance were Vanessa Selbst, Daniel Negreanu, Chris Moneymaker, Barry Greenstein, Victor Ramdin, Randy Lew, Jaime Staples, Jennifer Shahade, Jason Mercier, Jason Somerville, Jonathan Little, David Vamplew, and Matt Affleck.

It was a chance to play with the pros but without exorbitant buy-ins or high rollers. It was an opportunity to ask questions of the pros like Little, who were hosting Q&A sessions and livestreaming. Poker fans could get up close and personal with PokerStars employees like Lee Jones, talk about the future of US online poker with Poker Players Alliance representatives, and play a fun charity tournament to benefit the T.J. Martell Foundation for Leukemia, Cancer, and AIDS Research in honor of the late Chad Brown. There was even an activities room set up to play ping-pong and other games against some of the top poker pros in the world.

The series had everything a poker player/fan/enthusiast would want in a live setting. PokerStars went to great lengths to bring it all to New Jersey to welcome players to Resorts and create a thriving live poker scene to go with the online poker growth.

In the end, however, turnout was dismal and disappointing. Many tournaments were cancelled due to low participation, and photos of the tournament room and various events showed a virtually empty tournament room. Even the PPA livestream featuring Lee Jones and Bryan Spadaro struggled to get 40 or 50 online viewers at any given time.

Ultimately, the Main Event only garnered 208 players over the course of two starting days, and the prize pool was set at $201,760 with which to pay the top 39 finishers. The winner would take home $38,220.

Players Failed Poker

By all accounts, PokerStars did everything to make the events a success. With the exception of reportedly slow internet in the Resorts hotel rooms (too slow to play online poker for many people), it was a poker player’s dream scenario.

The players who neglected to show up and patronize this festival failed. They failed the New Jersey poker market, Resorts, and the future of poker in America.

The PokerStars Live Festival had the potential to show casino operators in states like Pennsylvania, California, Michigan, and Massachusetts the benefits of partnering with a well-known operator for online gaming. It could have been a wildly successful event that made other casinos envy Resorts for the massive uptick in business on its property during the festival. It had the possibility to be a catalyst for future events because people would want to travel from all over the United States to attend the next one.

The poor turnout for many of the PokerStars events in New Jersey over the past week is a sign that US poker is a long way from the good old days and an even longer distance from spurring a reinvigorated relationship between online and live poker in America.

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Jennifer Newell

Jennifer has been a freelance writer in the poker industry for a decade. She left a full-time job with the World Poker Tour to tell the stories of poker. She now lives in St. Louis, writes about poker while pursuing other varied interests, and speaks her mind on Twitter… a lot.