That there is demand for online poker in the United States and around the world have never been in question. Even in years the federal government held online gambling to be illegal, and even after the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006 barred the handling of financial transactions for online play, Americans continued to play poker by the millions; right up until leading online operators closed their sites to U.S. players in 2011.

The virtual doors are about to re-open to Americans, thanks to the legalization of online poker in Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware; and with California, New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania considering similar legislation. This time, with a more stable legal situation, mainstream casino industry suppliers such as Bally Technologies, SPIELO International, SHFL Entertainment and Amaya Gaming Group are getting involved, while International Game Technology (IGT) so far has reserved its online poker presence to freemium social play through its Double Down Casino.

The providers hope to tap into a ready-made market of players who have been without their favored wagering experience for two years. Indeed, according to John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance, in the period between the passage of UIGEA and April 15, 2011—known in the industry as ‘Black Friday” when the U.S. government indicted and effectively shuttered PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker, two of the industry’s largest purveyors of online poker—eight to 12 million American held web poker accounts on the closed sites alone, generating an estimated $4 billion in yearly play.

John Connelly

 “I think you’re going to find when poker reenters the United States in a regulated fashion, it’s going to be as big, if not bigger, than it was before.”
John Connelly, VP of business development, Bally Technologies


Play has not yet begun in the new legal environment. New Jersey has yet to publish regulations, and as a result has no vendor applications. Delaware, which like New Jersey will allow casino games in addition to poker, has a September 30 online gaming start date built into its law. Nevada, which will restrict online wagering to poker, appears to be farthest along and has actually started licensing vendors. This past February, the state also took the important step of passing a measure permitting reciprocity with other states that allow online poker.

“For poker to be successful, the number one thing you have to have is a critical mass of players, also known as ‘liquidity,’” Pappas said. “If an online poker

Bally Technologies has focused on being an integrator for casinos
Bally Technologies has focused on being an integrator for casinos
seeking online poker, using acquisitions to create a unique online
gaming platform for properties.

website in Delaware is servicing only Delaware players, chances are it will not produce the types of games and stakes players want. So you need to have Delaware combine with California, Texas, New Jersey and other states or perhaps even foreign jurisdictions where online poker is allowed.”

BIGGER AND BETTER

Despite the current unsettled state of the domestic online poker market, John Connelly, vice president of business development for Bally Technologies, sees a bright future as the U.S. joins international markets in legalized trade.

“I think you’re going to find when poker reenters the United States in a regulated fashion, it’s going to be as big, if not bigger, than it was before,” Connelly said. “In the past there were limitations on credit cards and the ability of players to obtain funds in a secure fashion. Now, online poker will be based in the U.S. and it’s going to be regulated. I think we’re going to see tremendous growth.”

One thing that’s changed in the online world since poker’s last crest is the prevalence of mobile devices. At SHFL Entertainment, which has entered into a strategic alliance with Amaya Gaming Group, Michael Daly, vice president of online gaming, sees mobile devices becoming the primary way of accessing poker online.

  “We believe the future of online poker
is on mobile devices such as smartphones
and tablets.”
—Michael Daly, VP of online gaming, SHFL Entertainment

Michael Daly



“We believe the future of online poker is on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets,” Daly said. “SHFL and Amaya are committed to mobile development as it is proven to help build brand loyalty and engagement, further increase retention, and lifetime player value. We are happy to be able to offer full mobile support for both Android and iOS. We believe we are also the first, which we know of, to be able to offer fast-fold poker for mobile in the U.S.”

Will the change in delivery from desktops and laptops to smartphones and tablets change the nature of the game?

“Mobile players tend to play shorter sessions, have increased focus on the game and demand a faster experience,” said Fredrik Kjell, director of online product for Amaya Gaming Group. “I believe we will see new variants of more casino-like poker games in the sense that a player’s chance of winning big does not rely on putting in a lot of time or volume or taking huge risks.”

INSTANT GRATIFICATION

Some of those variants will be coming from SHFL Entertainment, a leader in providing licensed table games to brick-and-mortar casinos. SHFL has entered into a strategic partnership with Amaya for distribution of its content on Amaya’s Ongame platform. One of SHFL’s innovations is a new bonusing mechanic called Instant Rewards.

“Instant Rewards is a new achievement engine, built in the same vein as the social mechanics SHFL offers in the customer branded social versions of its online

IGT's popular and successful DoubleDown online gaming package offers "freemium" poker to customers.
IGT’s popular and successful DoubleDown online gaming package offers “freemium” poker to customers.

products,” Daly said. “Instant Rewards enables poker operators to set up a number of different challenges for players and award prizes based on accomplishment of those challenges. The challenge could be anything from winning a hand with two Aces to collecting a certain combination of cards. Each Instant Reward has its own progress bar that shows clearly how close the player is to achieving the prize. The player gets notified while still at the table about his or her progress and as soon as a challenge is completed. The prize, which could be anything including cash or a tournament ticket, is made available immediately to the player.”

Amaya Gaming Group made its entry to the poker market with its acquisition of Ongame in Sweden.

“Ongame was one of the first suppliers in the market with PokerRoom in 2001 and a global B2B poker network in 2004,” Kjell said. “Since then, Ongame has been a leading provider with a first-to-market approach and specializes in offering networked poker in regulated European markets such as Italy and France.”

Kjell pointed to the technical challenge of running an online poker network and compared it to other high-volume, transaction-intensive systems such as the stock market.

“Some of the most important tasks are maintaining system integrity and uptime and to ensuring players have a fun, safe and fair experience,” he said “Amaya is essentially supplying all parts of the entire system, from the handheld mobile poker client to financial reporting. In addition to end-user clients, the network liquidity and the supporting technical services, Amaya is also running the poker network from an operational point of view. Poker operations simply mean managing the network liquidity, handling policies and rules for all operators, creating exciting network promotions for the players and continual development and innovation of the poker experience.”

FLEX TIME

Bally Technologies sees its role in poker’s new world not in providing game content, but as an integrator, just as it’s long been a leading systems provider in brick-and-mortar casinos.

“Bally is very much focused on being a technology supplier to the gaming industry, whether it is in the traditional or the online sense,” Connelly said. “So over the last several years we’ve been making acquisitions that have allowed us to create a unique offering from the platform perspective. Our platform is the first that is capable of integrating into what I call three distribution channels.”
 

Fredrik Kjell

  “Some of the most important tasks are maintaining
system integrity and uptime and ensuring players
have a fun, safe and fair experience.”
—Fredrik Kjell, director of online product, Amaya Gaming Group


By three channels, Connelly was referring to bricks-and-mortar casinos, wireless gaming and online play. He said Bally’s open architecture allows customers to have a seamless experience regardless of where they play. A key is integrating content from third-party suppliers. In bricks-and-mortar casinos, he said, there might be 100 different vendors on one floor that need to be integrated.

“We’ve taken that same business model and we’ve applied it to the interactive world,” he said. “Third-party content can be integrated easily into our game platform. Our strategy is to give the online industry the ability to choose whatever poker they want and integrate it in, and frankly, change it out. Which companies are going to be the leaders? Three companies tend to be the leaders in any market at any time, but those pokers change.

“The traditional model in Europe has been once you have a poker and you have a platform, you’re stuck, because you’re still integrated. What we’ve done is we’ve allowed our customer to integrate different pokers, and then in the future if one they’ve chosen doesn’t become one of the dominant pokers or if things change, they’re able to change out that poker quite easily.”

EXPERIENCE EDGE

SPIELO International, meanwhile, is an old hand at online poker. William Scott, vice present of business development for SPIELO G2, the iGaming division of SPIELO International, says more than 5 million hands are played each day

across its nine poker networks in regulated territories around the world.

“Our underlying focus is to give players the poker experience they want,” Scott said. “We have spent more than a decade studying player behavior, and the knowledge that we constantly gain drives development. SPIELO G2 Poker Networks have been created so that everyone can play poker regardless of their level of experience. We provide a wide variety of online games designed to appeal all the way along the player scale, from rookies to seasoned players.”

A successful poker operation involves more than just dealing the cards, he said.

“Online poker should be intuitive and user-friendly at every step of the way,” Scott said. “Our poker product is built for easy regionalization and is fully customizable, right down to the player level, where they can even select the card backs of their choice.

“One example of how you can take player enjoyment to the next level is through live dealer integration, a feature that is shown to increase dwell times as players plan their sessions around the appearances of their favorite presenters.”

FREE FOR ALL

International Game Technology has made its entry into the online poker world through social media at Double Down Casino. Acquired by IGT last year, Double Down does not accept cash wagers, instead using freemium play. Players can claim free chips daily, but also buy chips for faster progress through the game’s achievements and Facebook recognitions.

  “We have spent more than a decade studying
player behavior, and the knowledge that we
constantly gain drives development.”
—William Scott, vice present of business development for SPIELO G2

William Scott



Double Down poker content launched on Facebook in February of 2012. In the works is the ability for international customers to play in their native language against poker players around the world.

“Our first poker game was Pot Limit Omaha and players bet with virtual chips,” said Jeff Liboon, product marketing manager for DoubleDown Casino’s skill-based games. “A few months later we launched Texas Hold ‘Em as well as Five Card Draw. Over the next few months we’ll be making some enhancements to our poker offerings and will be rolling out new features that will appeal to the casual and hardcore online poker players.”

“Our main focus will be improving how our players interact with other players while they play,” added Liboon. “We realize that poker is inherently a very social game and want to bring more of that social interaction to the DoubleDown tables. We want to make game play more fluid and intuitive for casual and hardcore players alike.”

Whether through social gaming or cash wagering, online poker is in the first steps of a new beginning. Content and systems providers find that exciting.

“The market is just starting up and there is a tremendous interest with the legislation unraveling,” said Kjell.

Liboon added, “We think the future of online poker is endless. The game is proven to be timeless.”