Ultimate Poker was the talk of the town for two years running, but it would take a miracle for the company to become one of the big stories of 2015.
Ultimate was one of the biggest stories of 2013 thanks to the historic launch of Ultimate Poker. The company launched the first legal, fully licensed online poker room in the United States on April 30, 2013, forever etching their name in the poker annals.
Ultimate Poker was one of the biggest stories of 2014 as well, but for reasons the company, its employees, and its investors would just as soon forget.
RIP Ultimate Poker: April 30, 2013 – November 17, 2014
After making some initial waves during their first few months, 2014 saw Ultimate Gaming struggle mightily in New Jersey, culminating with their withdrawal from the market. The pretense of the closure was the bankruptcy filing of their iGaming partner in the Garden State, Trump Taj Mahal, although it was apparent Ultimate Gaming was going to have to call it a day in the not so distant future with or without Trump Taj Mahal.
Not long after their admission of failure in New Jersey the company also made the somewhat surprising announcement that they would be closing their doors in Nevada; ending their run in the U.S. iGaming market less than two years after they launched.
The company was termed a failure, but despite their struggles, Ultimate Gaming’s impact on the nascent industry wasn’t all bad. In fact, Ultimate Gaming did a lot of things right, and will likely be remembered fondly in the years to come, even if the shortcomings that led to their demise were glaring.
How it happened
The first page of Ultimate Poker’s playbook was to be first to the market and use that advantage to build a customer base before any other competitors came along. The company, owned by Station Casinos, lacked the powerhouse gaming brand of an MGM or Caesars, not to mention their decision to build proprietary software instead of partnering with a proven online gaming operator.
Ultimate Poker was able to launch first in Nevada, beating everyone to the market by a full six months –WSOP.com launched in September of 2013 – but they did so at the expense of their product, and theirsoftware simply wasn’t up to snuff with the poker community.
Even with a six-month monopoly, the first mover advantage the company expected proved to be overstated, and their “not ready for primetime” software proved to be an insurmountable detriment when competitors came along.
With a superior product and a stronger brand, WSOP.com eclipsed Ultimate Poker in market share within weeks of their launch in September of 2013. Ultimate Poker Nevada managed to maintain between 30%-40% market share, but without a massive software overhaul it was obvious they would never be a market leader, and would likely be decimated if another relevant online poker site launched.
In New Jersey matters were even worse, as Ultimate Poker stood almost no chance against its better positioned competition – If Station Casinos brand was weak in Nevada it was nonexistent in New Jersey. The company has no physical presence or track record in New Jersey, partnered with a known but dated casino in Trump Taj Mahal, and had to cross out page one of their playbook as the New Jersey regulations called for a synchronized launch to prevent the type of first mover advantage Ultimate relied upon in Nevada.
The only way they could possibly compete was to spend, and spend they did.
Ultimate Gaming’s costly efforts to breakthrough in New Jersey not only diverted money that could have been used to shore up their position in Nevada, the company was likely losing millions of dollars in the Garden State every month, which likely hastened their demise in Nevada.
Had Ultimate stayed out of New Jersey, or perhaps launched casino-only, they might still be around today. But once it became clear that the software Ultimate Poker developed was not up to par, and the company was going to continue to focus on poker, the fate of the company was pretty much sealed.
Still, you can’t say the company didn’t give it the old college try.
Ultimate Poker tried to differentiate itself with innovative promotions such as No-verlay, and focused on many of the things players have historically complained about within the online poker industry, such as customer service.
A lot of money was invested by Station Casinos and the Fertittas to take Ultimate Poker from the drawing board to reality, unfortunately, this aggressive (costly) style left them little margin for error, and when the first mover advantage proved be less of an advantage than they anticipated, and when they failed to gain a foothold in New Jersey coupled with that market’s disappointing numbers, the writing was on the wall.
Ultimate closed the right way
Ultimate Poker (as well as the lawmakers and regulators) should be applauded for closing the sites down the right way.
When the site announced they would be ceasing operations I’m sure many players – used to the situations that unfolded at Full Tilt Poker, Ultimate Bet, and Lock Poker – were immediately concerned about the safety of their funds.
That fear was for naught. Ultimate Poker quickly refunded all of their players, and even players who didn’t request a cashout had their balances mailed to their registered address in the form of a paper check.
Ultimate Poker’s demise may have been a disappointment, but the way they closed did a lot to bolster the legitimacy of the newly regulated markets and demonstrate that regulation does in fact work.