The Road to Online Poker Legalization in Illinois
To understand the background of online poker in Illinois, one has to understand the laws behind online gambling in the state. Illinois law states that gambling is any activity where a player “knowingly plays a game of chance or skill for money or other thing of value.” You will notice that games of skill are included under the definition for gambling, effectively killing the “luck vs. skill” argument that most poker players use to defend the game.
Also, Illinois law makes it illegal for a company to operate online sites that allow players to wage on games of chance or skill. This means that you cannot operate an online poker site legally in Illinois. With that said, the state presently doesn’t criminalize playing online poker in Illinois.
There is one exception to the law. Games of chance or skill that do no require a player to put up a buy-in to participate are legal. Sites that only offer freeroll online poker tournaments would be legal under Illinois law.
Online gambling expansion has only been considered once since 2011. In 2013, Senators Donne Trotter and Terry Link introduced an online gambling provision in SB1739, the Chicago Casino Development Act. Online gambling would have been made legal in Illinois and bad actors would be banned from participating for 10 years from the signing of the bill into law.
Lawmakers did not support the iGaming provision and it was later removed from the bill. An informal hearing was held on iGaming in 2014, but little progress was made. Later, State Senate President John Cullerton told reporters that iGaming would not happen until the matter of live casino expansion has been resolved.
On May 31st, 2017, the Illinois Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill legalizing online poker, voting 42-10 in its favor. The bill must now be approved by the Illinois House of Representatives in order to be signed into law.
Unfortunately, the state is no closer to resolving live casino expansion today as they were in 2014. Bills are filed annually, but continue to fail. Original estimates put Illinois at implementing iGaming sometime in 2017. However, there’s little reason to believe that this has a realistic chance of happening.
It is our opinion that it will be around 2017 or 2018 that the live casino expansion issue finally gets resolved. Afterwards, it may be 2019 or even 2020 before we see regulated online poker in Illinois.
Will PokerStars Be Granted a License to Offer Online Poker in Illinois?
Illinois is one state that we’re not 100% certain will fall in line and allow PokerStars to offer online poker once the activity is regulated. Our reason stems from the language in the state’s only attempt to regulate iPoker in 2013.
Back then, the state proposed a ban of 10 years for any company that violated the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006. PokerStars accepted bets from U.S. players following the bill’s passage and was indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2011. While PokerStars later settled with the DOJ, some states have still held their past deeds against them.
For example, Nevada has banned PokerStars for five years for violating the UIGEA. They will not be eligible to apply for a license in Nevada until 2018. Some California tribes are not in favor of allowing PokerStars to operate, but recent reports state that the issue may be moot thanks to New Jersey.
In early 2014, New Jersey put PokerStars’ application for a license on hold due to owner Isai Scheinberg’s continued association. Later that year, PokerStars was sold to the Amaya Gaming Group and Scheinberg was no longer associated with the company. New Jersey then reopened their investigation to the company.
In September 2015, the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement determined that PokerStars was a suitable candidate for licensing and issued a transactional waiver for them to offer iGaming services in NJ.
Ultimately, we believe PokerStars will be permitted to operate in Illinois but they may have to serve some type of short-term ban as they are in Nevada. Granted, if PokerStars is operating in more than two states by the time Illinois comes on board, they may be forced to allow PokerStars a license in order to stay on par with other states.
Which Online Poker Sites Will Operate Once Illinois Regulates Online Poker?
Illinois is the fifth largest state in the United States and will host a robust online poker market. We realistically expect a minimum of four major operators to offer online poker in Illinois, and this number could go up depending on which other states are regulated.
Below are the four major operators we expect to provide online poker in Illinois once it’s regulated.
The only site that we believe is a given to operate in Illinois is WSOP.com. Caesars Entertainment operates Harrah’s Metropolis and Harrah’s Joliet, meaning that the online arm of the company already has two casinos that they can partner with.
Once operational, we believe the company will offer around $2 million in weekly online poker tournament guarantees. They will also offer a robust selection of satellites to live WSOP and WSOP Circuit Events.
WSOP.com will be one of the top two sites in the state due to their name brand recognition. We expect Sundays to be dominated with major events from WSOP IL and PokerStars IL.
The All-American Poker Network would be a perfect fit for some of the smaller properties in Illinois. The AAPN offers a ready-made network for casinos in the state and those properties would benefit from combined player pools on the AAPN, including 888Poker.
If lawmakers decide to let the state’s racetracks to get involved with iPoker, the AAPN would be a great options to network these properties and make them a serious online poker contender.
Also, remember that 888 Holdings is the backbone for the interstate poker network. If the network expands prior to Illinois regulating iPoker, the inclusion of 888 Poker IL will be a necessity.
Illinois will present a market large enough where a site like PartyPoker could benefit. Past reports claim that bwin.Party have talked to Hollywood Casino in Pennsylvania so if that deal happens, expect similar talks to commence between PartyPoker and the two Hollywood Casino properties in Illinois.
PartyPoker’s brand recognition and compatibility will make them solid site with weekly tournament guarantees around $1.5 million.
We believe that with smart promotions targeting players looking for “something different,” PartyPoker can easily become the #3 site in the state behind PokerStars and WSOP.com.
PokerStars should be the #1 online poker site in Illinois from Day 1. Our belief is that the company will partner with a casino near the Chicago area to maximize exposure for their online product and any live events held at their partner site.
PokerStars is going to have the largest spread of cash games and guarantees in the state. We could see anywhere from $3 to $4 million a week in tournament guarantees, including a potential Sunday Million.
The company will pump a ton of money into the poker economy in the state to grow their brand but all brands will benefit from the media exposure that PokerStars will give online poker.