Monday, March 21 will go down as one of the brightest early days in the history of regulated poker in the United States. Sure, the markets are few and far between and this new world of online poker is in its infancy, but when PokerStars, after nearly a five-year hiatus from dealing real money poker in the United States, made its return, people got excited.
The day, which PocketFives covered live, featured a number of important firsts. First tournament win. First time over 500 seated players. First time over 1,000 seated players. First set of nightly tournaments. While there was probably some celebration in PokerStars’ offices in New Jersey and Isle of Man, there are probably also multiple whiteboards and legal pads filled with notes on things that worked and things that didn’t on Day 1.
While nobody from PokerStars is likely to share the content of those whiteboards or notepads, watching the day unfold from the outside looking provided a unique perspective as the day unfolded. Here is What We Learned.
People still love PokerStars
Black Friday was over 1,800 days ago. That was the last time that PokerStars dealt real money poker in the United States, so its return to the market comes after a lengthy absence. There was probably very good reason to assume people would be excited about the return, but even the most optimistic soul probably didn’t think PokerStars would find itself over 1,000 seated players for a good chunk of prime time on Monday night.
While recent events with the rest-of-world product have turned some high-stakes regulars against the company, the general reaction from New Jersey players on Monday was one of pure excitement. Following the social media chatter throughout the day, there were very few complaints or messages of disappointment about what was happening in New Jersey.
Spin & Gos are hot; Sit & Gos are not
When PokerStars dealt its last hand of real money poker in the U.S., sit & gos were one of the most popular products the company had. Recreational players – those without a six-hour window to dedicate to playing a multi-table tournament – were more than happy to play a sit & go and, good or bad, be done in an hour. In 2014, the company introduced a new concept: the Spin & Go.
Played three-handed, the Spin & Gos are a hyper-turbo tournament where, instead of playing for the buy-ins of all players, the prize pool is determined by a pre-tournament spin of a wheel. Players end up playing for between 2X and 10,000X the buy-in amount. The PokerStarsNJ launch gave Americans their first taste of this new product and they proved to be extremely popular.
On the other hand, those sit & gos that were once a staple of the overall experience struggled to find traction. Watching all lobbies throughout the day on Monday, the SNG lobby looked and felt like a bit of a ghost town. Those recreational players, the ones who originally flocked to them, seem more keen on gambling it up a little bit to find a big prize pool to play for in a Spin & Go than grinding out a smaller payday in a standard sit & go.
PokerStars enjoyed a late-mover advantage
When the New Jersey market first opened up, there were a number of hurdles that operators and players faced. While most players were expecting and hoping for an experience identical to the one they had pre-regulation, the reality was a lot different. The sign-up process was different, more personal information (including Social Security Number) was required, credit card companies were slow to differentiate between regulated, legal online gaming operations and offshore gray market sites and depositing wasn’t easy.
One of the biggest issues was geo-location. NJ Division of Gaming Enforcement regulations require operators to limit their offering to people within the Garden State. Geo-location software was supposed to make this an easy process, but players were often met with confusing situations, including being told they weren’t in New Jersey even though they were attempting to play from that operator’s Atlantic City casino.
But while partypoker, 888, WSOP.com and the now-defunct Ultimate Poker suffered through those early hassles and made their own share of mistakes along the way, PokerStars sat back and were able to observe and be ready for any potential problems. GeoComply, a third-party company that is now the standard-bearer for the gaming industry, solved the geo-location issue. Credit card processing still isn’t perfect (some players reported issues depositing with VISA on Monday), but it’s a lot further developed than it was.
The initial guarantees weren’t all that aggressive
PokerStars developed a reputation years ago of being the site for tournaments. When they announced their PokerStarsNJ tournament schedule last week, it was met with a shoulder shrug or two and considered pretty standard for the state. To be fair, the New Jersey market isn’t big and there are already a couple of operators with market share. That being said, PokerStarsNJ had no trouble at all making the guarantees on Day 1.
A snapshot of some of the regular schedule and how they did against the guarantee.
- The Big $5: $500 guarantee, $759.85 prize pool
- The Big $10: $1,000 guarantee, $1,274 prize pool
- The Big $20: $1,000 guarantee, $1,601.60 prize pool
- The Big $50: $1,500 guarantee, $3,594.50 prize pool
- The Nightly Stars $100: $10,000 Guarantee, $12,943.80
There were a few smaller events that did have an overlay and a lot of this early success can be chalked up to the overall buzz and excitement about PokerStars being back in action, but should these numbers continue to be better than the guarantees, it seems likely that PokerStars will come up with bigger guarantees quickly to maintain this momentum.
Not all the news was good on Monday
PokerStars is a mammoth operation and the New Jersey market represents a fraction of its player base and revenue. So while that state, and a lot of the other U.S. markets, were celebrating Monday, the company managed to drop a bombshell on the rest of its player base. The price of poker was going up.
Just after Noon ET, the company announced an increase in rake that averages out, according to PokerStars, to 4%, but “PokerStars will still have the lowest overall pricing (known as ‘rake’) of any major online poker operator.” The increase comes just a few short months after the dramatic altering of the PokerStars VIP program that led to player strikes and meetings between high-profile players and company executives. The announcement, which did not impact the PokerStarsNJ rake, was not received well.
The timing could have been a coincidence, but it still felt like a dark cloud on what was otherwise a day of rainbows and sunshine. While New Jersey players were happily clicking away at flush draws and making hero calls for the first time in five years, regular players in other markets were again taking to social media to express their frustration, anger and disappointment with the way in which PokerStars is conducting business. Rather than enjoy a day or two or seven of mostly positive coverage, the company found itself swimming in a sea of negative energy.