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State of Poker in America – Where to Play in USA

When the infamous UIGEA (Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act) was passed in 2006 no one could really predict the events that were going to unfold in the coming years relating to online poker. The bill was very controversial in its numerous aspects, starting from how it was passed (buried within the SAFE Port Act) to what it represented. Some compared it to alcohol prohibition in the 20th century and did believe it would actually succeed.

This was, however, a turning point for many sites operating on US soil. The definitions of the Act were such that they made business in the states much harder for these sites, especially when it came to transferring money between the players and operators.

Some, like PartyPoker, decided it was better to leave and wait for some better times to return. Many others, headed by PokerStars and Full Tilt, decided they would take their chances and continued business as usual as much as they could.

Black Friday

For the next couple of years, the sites that continued offering their business to US customers seemed to have made the right choice. The states were a huge market and, financially speaking, it was in no one’s best interest to leave unless they had to. It was looking more and more that Party Gaming and those who followed suit made the wrong move in the heat of the moment and should have never pulled out. But then Black Friday hit.

It was on April 15th of 2011. Everyone and anyone who ever played poker to any extent still remembers the day when the three major poker operators, namely PokerStars, Full Tilt and Absolute Poker, had their domains seized by the FBI and their home pages replaced with the Department of Justice Logo across the screen.

The charges against the sites and their owners were quite damning:

As charged, these defendants concocted an elaborate criminal fraud scheme, alternately tricking some U.S. banks and effectively bribing others to ensure the continued flow of billions in illegal gambling profits.

It was an all in move by the American government to bring poker operators offering services on their soil to their knees. If they wanted to stand any chance, they had to remove themselves from the USA immediately. What followed is a long story of a waiting game for the return of money to the customers, which is still ongoing, but that’s a story for a different article. The important fact for this one is that millions of Americans were left without their favorite pastime and many of them without their livelihoods when the ban hammer hit the online poker felt.

Taking the Gamble

Black Friday charges were only directed at major operators. Either the government did not really find it profitable to deal with smaller sites or they thought that bringing down giants like Stars and Tilt would serve as a good enough warning for the others who could hardly compete with the size and resources of these sites. And for some it was more than enough, as sites left the US market one after another. But a couple of rooms saw the opening and were willing to take the gamble and try and grab their share of the cake that was hardly available to them when the competition was at their peak.

Even though player traffic dropped by 80% after Black Friday, as many US residents were unwilling to tangle with what seemed borderline illegal at best, there were still those very eager to get back in action. And this is where a couple of sites stepped up and started offering their services to anyone willing to take the risk.

Carbon Poker was amongst the first ones to step out. They welcomed US customers despite the obvious risks and obstacles of such a proposition. Although working basically illegally, Carbon managed to keep their customers more or less satisfied with cashouts, although there were a plethora of problems, as expected. Apart from sometimes waiting for a long time for checks to arrive, reports coming from Two Plus Two users tell the stories about checks bouncing, problems with banks and other similar issues simply unavoidable in this type of business scenario. All that said, Carbon has managed to somehow stay operational in the US and maintain a good reputation amongst their player base, as there are no big threads popping online about how Carbon is cheating their players and apart from occasional complaints, they seem to be keeping their head above the water.

Another room that’s part of the same network as Carbon, namely the Merge network, and offering their services to US players, is Aced Poker. Although it offers pretty much the same experience as Carbon, with the same software and similar promotions, the player traffic on Aced is very low, so there isn’t much incentive for players to look for action there.

One of the sites that managed to emerge as a competitor for the US market is Bovada. Formerly known as Bodog, Bovada started offering their services as an independent poker room in 2011. Although the general consensus seems to be that their software is pretty good, it is not at the level of top tier sites. They have also implemented the anonymous table model across the site in an effort to attract more recreational players, the idea that some find refreshing while others frown upon it.

Anonymous poker is the way poker was meant to be played, a level playing field for everyone at the table. Every poker session will be a fresh start. You can take your seat at the table as a mysterious card player and nobody will know if you’re the confident bluffing type or more of a tight-handed conservative player.

Cashout times at the moment seem quite decent, as some reports state the waiting time of 5 – 15 days, which is very good at this point in time.

There were other sites who tried to grab their share of the market as well, but some of them did not fare so well. One such experiment was Lock Poker, who attracted a lot of players with good promotions and relatively fast cashouts for a period of time, but then they went belly-up in 2013 and were forced to leave the Revolution Network and players’ funds are now floating in limbo and nobody is really holding their breath for the money.

There are several common themes for all of these sites, one of them clearly being the waiting time for withdrawals. But apart from that, most of them are not really able to offer many withdrawal or deposit methods due to circumstances out of their control, and those who manage to sneak in the deposit using credit cards can count themselves lucky. Others are forced to use Western Union or MoneyGram services, which come with chunky fees for the services provided.

US Regulated Sites

After the USA was excluded from the rest of the world market, it was pretty clear even to financial laymen (like yours truly) that the poker industry was financially too big to simply be completely ousted. Sure enough, not long after Black Friday, the foundations have started to be set for the US-based and operated poker sites. The trouble in this scenario was the lack of an all-encompassing federal bill that would enable the foundation of poker rooms catering to the entire US (and potentially to the ROW). In such a climate, certain states decided they would regulate online poker on the state level until such a bill passed and today there are several states and several poker rooms catering to residents of the said states.

Nevada

Nevada has been a center of gambling and poker in the United States for decades. Therefore, it was no surprise that Nevada would be the first state to sign an interstate bill allowing for online poker. The signing of the legislation happened on February 21 2013, and it was accompanied by these words from Governor Sandoval:

“This is an historic day for the great state of Nevada,” Sandoval said, flanked by dozens of state lawmakers. “Today I sign into law the framework that will usher in the next frontier of gaming in Nevada.” cbsnews.com

It wasn’t long before the first American poker site appeared. It was Ultimate Poker and they made the big entrance to the scene by signing several high-profile pros like Antonio Esfandiari. Although there was some confusion during the early days, the site has no ties to the Ultimate Bet room that’s been out of operation for quite some time now.

“The Nevada Gaming Control Board has set regulatory requirements for online poker at the highest level,” remarked Ultimate Gaming Chief Executive Officer Tobin Prior. “We are thrilled that our product is the first to not only meet these standards, but exceed them. Ultimate Poker gives online poker fans the game they love in an environment they can trust.”

Ultimate wouldn’t stay a lone competitor for long. In September of the same year, Caesars launched their real–money online room branded World Series of Poker. Caesars saw an opening after the customers of Ultimate Poker started voicing their dissatisfaction with the room’s software and the overall slow-pace of the implementation. However, the software met with a lot of problems at the launch, as there were both software and banking issues that needed immediate attention.

The third site that launched in mid-February of this year is Real Gaming, but so far they’ve failed to attract any substantial number of players, which can partially be attributed to the short existence of the site.

At this point in time, these are the only three operators offering online poker in Nevada and at least three more are awaiting their licenses. How many is too many remains to be seen, but as the numbers stand right now, there doesn’t really seem to be a place for six network operators to conduct their business profitably in Nevada, especially considering the traffic on the already existing sites has been rather low.

New Jersey

The online poker phase in New Jersey started on November 21 2013 with the soft launch of several poker sites, with the public launch scheduled for November 26. The promise was kept as six casinos were given permission to continue with the full launch on the 25th. These six are The Borgata, Caesars, Bally’s, Trump Plaza, Trump Taj Mahal and Tropicana.

New Jersey experienced the same problems like Nevada when it came to processing of deposits, as some banks and operators refused to do business with poker sites, even if they were fully regulated.

So, where can residents of New Jersey actually play some online poker? One of the biggest names is certainly Party Poker NJ. It is PartyPoker’s American franchise, marking their return to the US market after a long absence following UIGEA. Teaming up with Borgata Poker, these two sites have managed to seize the lion’s share of the state’s market operating as a part of the same network. The traffic is quite decent for New Jersey – only site, with 1,200-1,500 players during the peak hours. The software, although it looks sleek, has quite a few functionality issues, as well as latency problems. Support is sub-par, but cashouts are quite fast.

Both Ultimate Poker and WSOP.com also have their New Jersey variations, offering their games. While Ultimate’s software certainly has its issues, they try to make up for it with good customer support. Player traffic is okay for tournaments, but rather lacking for cash games.

As for WSOP.com, both software and customer support are quite exemplary. The software may not offer anything spectacular, but it is simple to use and functions well. It also offers a wide variety of games apart from Hold’em, including PLO, PLO8, Seven Card Stud, and 7CS eight or better. Traffic is decent, although trailing the Party-Borgata combination.

Another operator offering their services in NJ is 888.com. Although they are the creator of the software for WSOP.com, they also offer their own client. Despite being a well-known and trusted name in the industry, combined with numerous promotions, their traffic is still only in the third place with around 600-700 online players during peak hours. The software is basically the same used by WSOP.

Delaware

Delaware actually introduced their online games before New Jersey, but they’ve never received much attention for the fact. It is clear that Delaware cannot create much of the player traffic on its own, but it is playing an important role in the creation of the cross-state poker network. They’ve been very vocal about their intentions to partner up with Nevada.

Nobody is expecting Delaware to build a player pool with enough liquidity to survive on its own, the state simply doesn’t have the population to generate this type of player base. onlinepokerreport.com

The biggest currently running Delaware room is Delaware Park, but once again, the traffic on the site is rather negligible.

Following their efforts to team up with Nevada in their online poker efforts, the two states signed a gambling compact (in February of 2014) that should enable people from the two states to play against each other once such a technology is made available.

Although the state on its own might not contribute greatly to Nevada’s player pool, this contract and its results may well sway other states to start signing such contracts as well, eventually leading to federal legislation.

At the moment, these are the only three states in the USA where playing online poker is allowed and regulated by law. California is well on its way to passing a bill, and there have been some movements in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Illinois. Other states have not yet made any significant (positive) progress on the matter of online poker and it remains to be seen what the rest of the year will bring on that front. Stay up to date with the latest developments as we bring them to you here at PokerUpdate.

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Ivan Potocki

Ivan is an aspiring journalist writer from Bosnia and Herzegovina. With a degree in English Literature and a fiery work ethic, Ivan adds a dynamic and flexible element to the PokerUpdate writing staff.

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