Pennsylvania’s first legal online poker sites are coming soon. As the launch gets closer, pros and recreational players alike are weighing the effect this will have on their lives and planning the adjustments they’ll be making.
In the case of the three poker regulars I interviewed for this article, Pennsylvania online poker legalization is a welcome change and catalyst in their poker careers.
The Scientist, The Pastor and The Pro
Ryan Gutzler is a research scientist in the Philadelphia area, who has played poker regularly for about a decade. With a grade school age son, he’s found less time to travel to New Jersey to play online, but he plays the bigger tournament series and occasionally logs a few hands on offshore poker sites.
Gilbert Thurston is a pastor at a church in Harrisburg who makes enough money playing poker to quit his job if he wanted to. “Pastoring is my passion and where I get fulfillment and purpose in life,” he told me. “Playing poker is a profession that fuels my competitive nature and provides a nice living.” Thurston plays regularly on offshore sites, primarily at the Merge Network.
Chris Perkins is a professional poker player based in Pittsburgh. He mostly plays live cash games and online poker tournaments. He’s a regular player at all the major unregulated sites.
Gutzler, Thurston and Perkins are three of the many poker players who will benefit from legalization of online poker in Pennsylvania. I spoke with all three about what they’re expecting next year when the market launches.
Moving volume to PA sites
While unregulated sites based in places like Costa Rica and Antigua have been the only option for many players since Black Friday (April 15th, 2011, when the federal government effectively shut out the last remaining international companies from the US market), many long for a safer, more stable online poker environment. All three of the players we interviewed are enthusiastic about moving their play away from offshore sites and into the regulated player pool.
While Thurston only plans to keep a small bankroll on Merge to use when he travels outside the state, Gutzler and Perkins were more guarded about purging their offshore play. Perkins plans to move all his play to regulated sites assuming the product quality and game selection are up to speed, but in the case of the latter, that’s a big if. New Jersey sites are still struggling to keep players busy with their small traffic numbers, particularly when it comes to tournaments. Gutzler doesn’t get to play a ton of hours and wants to make sure the tournament offerings are worthwhile before moving away from his current sites.
The liquidity situation will be improved once New Jersey merges its player pool with Delaware and Nevada, and if Pennsylvania joins that same interstate liquidity pool, it would provide a nudge for players considering giving up offshore play. Gutzler, in particular, was enthusiastic about the potential tournament offerings in a four-state pool. “Joining these other states would be nothing short of amazing,” he told me.
Player experiences, both offshore and regulated
All three of the players I interviewed have played on legal New Jersey poker sites in addition to their offshore play. Perkins played a couple of the major series, such as the NJCOOP on PokerStars and the PartyPoker GSSS. Gutzler said he’s earned more than $13,000 playing on a friend’s couch.
While everyone was pleased with the ease of depositing and withdrawing, the player pool was underwhelming compared to what they’re used to. Gutzler and Thurston both noted some frustration with not being able to hop in new tournaments whenever they want.
Meanwhile, offshore sites have improved meaningfully in the last year or two. Both Thurston and Gutzler mentioned bitcoin withdrawals as a game changer on the banking side, which is key since deposits and withdrawals have often been less than dependable over the years. But Perkins, who says he’s never had any big problem so far, still points out, “the fear that you may never get paid out is always in the back of your mind.”
The traffic on current offshore sites still doesn’t compare to the international pools players were used to before Black Friday, but the US still needs a few more states to come on board before regulated sites will be able to compete on size with their offshore counterparts.
Missing the big brands
Gutzler is looking forward to playing on PokerStars in his own house for the first time since 2011. “There’s a reason that Pokerstars came into NJ and almost instantly took over the #1 spot, and its not just pre black Friday nostalgia,” he told me. “They have the name, the advertising power and the [aggressive mindset]to push the envelope and see how far they can take it. I also think they have the best structure in NJ.”
Perkins is similarly enthusiastic about playing poker on sites that have been prospering in regulated environments outside the US, noting PartyPoker and 888Poker seem to be the ones that care most about customers. But he plans to play on every site that’s available in the legal Pennsylvania market.
Better opportunities to play for profit
Not every poker player who plays regularly is profitable, of course, but many formerly profitable players have struggled to earn money the last few years.
In Gutzler’s case, Black Friday basically killed his ability to make money at the tables. “I can play on ACR now,” he said, “but with at least 5 hours of late registration in any tournament worth playing, it gets to be so late or just turns into a crapshoot with people buying in for 8 big blinds and just shoving every hand.”
He’s the seen the light in New Jersey, noting that the competition in tournaments he’s played has been “extremely soft,” and he’s predicting an even more friendly environment for grinders in Pennsylvania.
Regulated sites change the game in many ways
Perkins was all in on regulation being a life-changing development. “I have waited years to play regulated online poker. I am looking forward to no longer worrying that a site may steal my money or delay transactions. Since I play for a living, it will put my mind at ease that my funds are always safe.”
Thurston, meanwhile, put a smile on my face when he said he wants to get back to #1 in the state in the PocketFives Rankings. Merge is no longer tracked at PocketFives, and he lost his ranking, which had been as high as 11th in the USA, as a result. “While obviously the money is nice,” he told me, “the rankings stoked my competitive nature, so they were a big motivating factor.”
Meanwhile, New Jersey State Senator Raymond Lesniak recently introduced a bill that could facilitate the merge of NJ player pools with international sites. If that were to pass and potentially become the norm for states that allow online poker, US-based players will flock to states that allow them to play.
In the meantime, these three poker players are among many in Pennsylvania who are eagerly awaiting the day when they can play on legal, regulated sites in their home state.