This was not the way anyone in the poker industry would have wanted to see the game experience growth, but early numbers show that efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 are resulting in a significant boost to online poker.
Several counties in Pennsylvania are under stay-at-home orders and all PA residents have been advised to go out as little as possible and observe “social distancing” best practices. The dramatic increase in people spending most if not all of their day at home — and searching for ways to entertain themselves — is amping up the traffic at PokerStars, the lone regulated poker site in the state. (With all casinos temporarily closed, PokerStars is in fact the only legal real-money card room in the state for now.)
In the first days of PokerStars dealing virtual cards last November, peak prime-time hours delivered a little over 700 players in action at once. That was considered a strong start, far better business than ’Stars was generating in neighboring New Jersey. By the third week of online poker in PA, the peak was topping 1,000 and the average traffic was up to 425 players.
Those numbers would continue to rise slightly as awareness of PokerStars’ presence in Pennsylvania increased. They spiked over the holidays (when people were at work less than usual) and settled in January and February at average traffic between 300 and 400 players and peaks between 1,000 and 1,500.
Over the past two weeks, those numbers have more than doubled.
Weekday numbers exploding
Sundays have long been an outlier for online poker traffic, with sites running their biggest tournaments and few people needing to go into offices. So we’ll ignore this past Sunday (which saw a peak of more than 3,600 players at the tables).
Here are some numbers observed during periodic checks at the same times on Monday, March 23, and Tuesday, March 24:
|Time||March 23||March 24|
As you can see, the traffic increases steadily throughout the day, dips a bit as the standard workday ends and people are eating dinner and spending time with their family, and then peaks in the evening — when the kids have gone to bed, there’s no work to be done, and online poker becomes a fine option to substitute for going out and socializing.
Remarkably, by early afternoon traffic is consistently on par now with what peak traffic was prior to the spread of this coronavirus pandemic.
This is purely anecdotal, but as a frequent low-stakes player on PokerStars PA since its launch, I’ve observed my usual games, once filled with a fairly recognizable rotation of screen names, attracting a flood of names I hadn’t seen before — some of whom played at a beginner level.
“We are seeing great results,” Eddie Motl, VP of communications for FOX Bet, the sports betting sister site of PokerStars, told Penn Bets, “with new sign-ups growing steadily in recent weeks.”
Record revenue month coming
Prior to the spread of COVID-19, poker revenue in Pennsylvania had been on a slight downward trend in 2020. In the four months of earnings reported by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, including the not-quite-full month of November, revenue figures were as follows:
- November 2019: $1.965 million
- December 2019: $2.473 million
- January 2020: $2.157 million
- February 2020: $1.830 million
What will PokerStars’ revenue look like in March? With about half a month of “normal” action and half a month of action double or triple that, revenue in excess of $3 million seems a near certainty.
And it will only get higher the next month if social distancing strategies are maintained, which health experts recommend should be the case throughout April.
“You’ve got to figure that all these numbers are going to go up, right?” poker journalist Donnie Peters said this week on the Pocket Fives podcast The Fives. “People right now, they’re flocking to play online poker.”
Perfect time for PASCOOP
The online tournament scene is clearly booming, in Pennsylvania and globally where online poker is regulated.
At PokerStars in PA, the $100 Sunday Special raised its guarantee from the usual $50,000 to $75,000. It went on to attract a prize pool in excess of $100,000, generated via 1,149 entries. The previous Sunday, the same tournament drew a then-record 830 entries and $76,194 prize pool.
Across the international industry, at sites ranging from GG Poker to 888poker, Sunday tournament numbers were way up, none more so than the PokerStars Sunday Million, which ended up with 93,016 runners and more than $18 million in prizes.
The @PokerStars Sunday Million tournament (European/world-wide) has broken the previous record (2011) for entries with 62,116 and counting.
With a $12.5 million guaranteed prize pool and record entries, it's the largest online poker tournament in company history.
— David Payne Purdum (@DavidPurdum) March 22, 2020
Live poker tournaments have all but ceased around the globe, but some of them have been rescheduled as online events. Most notable among those is the Irish Poker Open, the second longest-running tournament series in the world behind only the World Series of Poker. The 2020 edition is being staged online in multiple countries (though not the U.S.) via PartyPoker.
Meanwhile, at PokerStars in Pennsylvania, the first-ever Pennsylvania Spring Championship of Online Poker (PASCOOP) is just around the corner, although the site has yet to announce the official start date. The expectation is that it will begin the first week of April.
“We are looking ahead to PASCOOP with $2 million in guarantees and should have additional details out about that in a matter of days,” Motl said.
This would seem a logical time for PokerStars in PA to begin offering “Zoom” cash games (in which you play against a pool of players instead of a single table, seeing far more hands per hour) as the New Jersey site does; certainly, the player pool is sizable enough to support that format. But Motl said there is “nothing specific I can reveal on that front just yet.”
“I will say,” Motl added, “that our employees, all of whom are working remotely to ensure their personal safety, are coming up with entertaining and creative ways to push our business forward.”