In April 2013, Ultimate Pokerdealt the first hand of regulated online poker in the US to much fanfare. Only a year-and-a-half later, the Station Casinos-owned venture announced that it was closing up shop in Nevada and New Jersey, citing a difficult regulatory environment and disappointing revenues.
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Now, with the brand dissolved, online poker industry veteran and former head of Ultimate Poker customer service Terrence Chan (pictured) has posted a lengthy “postmortem” video on some of the issues that contributed to the site’s ultimate demise. Watch it.
Chan was tapped in the early days of online poker to create the support department for a growing PokerStars. The 33-year-old Canadian left the company in 2004 to pursue professional poker and has since dabbled in iGaming consulting and even mixed martial arts. With his background in online poker and MMA, Chan seemed to be the perfect fit for Ultimate Poker and agreed to take on the role of Director of Player Operations, working at the company for 16 months.
In a video message recorded from Hong Kong, Chan spoke on some of the failings of the company, one of which included the software itself. “One of the things that upset me was [how management got] excited toward new and exciting features as opposed to holding onto the people we did have,” he said. Instead, bug-riddled software updates were regularly released and nearly always required an emergency patch.
Chan also took issue with the sheer number of people that the company chose to hire and the exorbitant salaries which they were paid. “I feel like we spent too much money… For a startup, I was probably paid too much and I was nowhere near the salaries of the people who were above me,” he said. “I really feel that for startups, people with high executive positions should be paid by performance,” he added.
On the other hand, he said, people who added tremendous value to the company were not being compensated enough. Chan revealed that he was given little say in the salaries of his own underlings and was simply told by upper management what they would be making.
The culture of Ultimate Poker’s parent company, Station Casinos, also played a role in stifling progress at the startup. While the firm has been very successful capturing the local land-based gaming market in Nevada, the online poker industry was foreign to much of the top brass there.
“There’s a story about one of these executives sitting through a meeting where they unveiled to him the redesign of the casino website in New Jersey,” he said. “At the end of [the lengthy technical presentation], he comments, ‘I think the logo needs more purple.'”
The office soon became a place where exchange of ideas among lower-level employees was discouraged. Ultimate Gaming staff would instead “choose their battles” due to fear of being reprimanded by superiors. “At the end, there was very little dissent,” said Chan. “They didn’t see it getting anywhere or they would get yelled at… People got yelled at a lot.”
With a rigid top-down structure in place, employees soon lost their motivation to continue to improve the product. “Probably for the last six to eight months, very little was done,” he said.
Yet even facing roadblocks from regulatory agencies and the problems with building a player base, Chan believes that Ultimate Poker could have become a great company. The main component lacking, though, was strong leadership. “When it comes down to it, that’s probably the single greatest reason why Ultimate Gaming wasn’t able to be successful,” he said.
“I think there were a lot of really talented, smart, and hard-working people in the company, but there was never really the leadership available to get everyone aligned to really knock this thing out. Whether that could’ve happened, we’ll never know,” he concluded.