Not Much To See Here: Our Initial Impressions Of Pennsylvania Online Gambling

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After months … no years, of anticipation, the Pennsylvania online gambling industry has finally launched.

All three sites of it.

Unfortunately, what was expected to be a sort of shotgun launch more closely resembled a few scared horses limping out of the gate.

So far, we have three online casino sites that are alive, and to varying degrees, well. They are Play SugarHouse, Parx Casino, and Hollywood Casino. There is no online poker, and no timeline has been provided for the launch of any new sites.

So what was supposed to be a celebration for the legal and regulated online gambling industry turned out to be a few halfhearted whoops and hollers. There are some positives, however, signaling that good times may very well be coming soon.

Play SugarHouse: A strong foundation

Of the three sites we tested — and our tests were extensive — we found Play SugarHouse to be in the best spot. This hardly comes as a surprise, as operator Rush Street Interactive has vast experience in the New Jersey market, and already supports two sportsbooks in Pennsylvania (Play SugarHouse Sports and BetRivers).

Play SugarHouse PA is built on the same strong foundation as its NJ counterpart. The interface is clean, responsible, and stocked with features that give it a fun, social casino kind of vibe. In addition, SugarHouse offers a bevy of depositing options right out of gate, including Online Banking (ACH), a prepaid card option (Play+), and cash transactions at the SugarHouse Casino cage in Philadelphia.

The splendors of the cashier extend to withdrawals, where our ACH payout request was approved in minutes. We have never experienced an approval so quickly, not even in the mature New Jersey market. Maybe that’ll change when the site gets more popular, but we’ll take it for as long as we can get it.

Also in place is its game-changing loyalty program: iRush Rewards, which without question offers the best benefits and most significant cashback rate of any online casino in the regulated U.S. space.

The ability to use our New Jersey registration credentials to sign up was also a nice perk, as is the shared wallet with the sportsbook.

Now the negatives. The most obvious difference between the PA and NJ version of Play SugarHouse is the game selection. Moving from a site that featured hundreds of titles across various formats, to one with 40 or so slots and a few roulette games, was disappointing. At least the sole provider on the site is NetEnt, which does offer up solid games with generally high returns. But man, we waited nearly two years for one provider at launch? Surely, this will change, right?

iRush Rewards, while still good, isn’t quite New Jersey good. There are no bingo games as of yet, and the Bonus Store is missing some options. The inability to clear bonuses on video poker games (there are none), which generally offer better returns than slots, is a drag, especially since all SugarHouse bonuses, including the 100% match up to $250 welcome bonus, only require a 1x wagering requirement.

The mobile app is available for direct download on Android, and iOS users can make use of a workaround that allows them to play on their mobile browser. Give Play SugarHouse credit for getting around the oppressive environment for gambling apps on the App Store.

Play SugarHouse PA has a strong root, it just needs to grow some branches.

Parx online casino: Things that make you go hmm

We were pretty hyped about Parx Casino. Here we have Pennsylvania’s highest revenue producing casino paired with GAN, which powers one of New Jersey’s most high-profile online casinos, Betfair Casino.

Recipe for success? Sort of.

On the plus side is the interface, which piggybacks off the ultra-modern design of the main Parx Casino site (the online casino and sportsbook are in fact embedded in the main site). Vibrant, easy-to-navigate, and chock full of account management features, exploring the site was a delight. We’d even go as far as saying that we prefer the Parx interface over Play SugarHouse.

That’s not to say there weren’t a few hiccups, like the software constantly reminding you how long you’ve been playing, sometimes two hands/spins in a row.

The deposit and withdrawal options were on par with Play SugarHouse, with notable omissions including PayPal and Neteller. Still, our ACH deposit was processed instantly, so no complaints. Withdrawals can be processed with ACH e-Check, check by mail, cash @ the Parx Casino cage in Bensalem, and a Play+ prepaid card. Parx was slow to handle withdrawal requests, often taking 3-4 days to give the thumbs up on an approval. We found that pretty poor given that cashiering volume is likely still fairly low.

Parx offers a welcome bonus for new players, and it’s just OK. The $500 monetary cap on a $500 initial deposit is neither special nor horrendous. Same goes for the 20x wagering requirement on slots. What made us utter a few obscenities, however, was the 10% wagering contribution rates on table games and video poker, or 200x. $100,000 in wagers to clear a $500 bonus comes off as predatory.

Speaking of which, the site’s sole blackjack game has some confounding (bad) features, like offering insurance when the dealer is showing a ten, and not providing a warning if a player accidentally tries to hit on, let’s say, a 20. Beyond blackjack, Parx has a few roulette games, Ez Baccarat, a 9/6 Jacks or Better game that looks like it was developed on a Commodore computer in 1977, and a smattering of NetEnt, GAN, and Konami slots. The game library of 46 games is just diverse and eclectic enough for us to give it the edge over Play SugarHouse, but that could easily change.

Parx, unlike SugarHouse, offers players no way to play on iOS powered devices, but that’s expected to change in short order. The online casino app is available for download on Android.

Players can link their Xclub rewards account to their online account, under the presumption that online play will contribute to brick and mortar rewards.

On a final note, we were impressed with Parx’s Responsible Gambling protocols. Features go beyond the standard time, wager, and deposit limits, with a maximum bet limit and reality check, where players can choose to receive a notification at a set time interval, enabled. It’s just unfortunate that players can not set limits by vertical. If one applies a wager limit, for example, that limit counts toward both online casino and sports betting wagers.

With a few more promotions, a few less bugs, and a lot more games, Parx online casino could become a top player in the market.

Hollywood isn’t all glitz and glamour

With 71 games, including titles from both IGT and NetEnt, and seven non-slot games, Hollywood online casino (by Penn National) is winning the early race for game library supremacy.

It also allows players to link their online accounts to their myChoice rewards, which is accepted at more than 35 casino destinations. Players will earn points and myCash that can be redeemed for free play and other rewards at these locations.

Those are the pros. The rest of our experience was decidedly mediocre.

The cashier is fairly pedestrian, only offering four depositing options: credit/debit card, ACH, Play+ prepaid, and PayNearMe. No PayPal, no Skrill/Neteller, and no cash @ the casino cage, at least not yet.

While we’re on the topic of “no,” there is no deposit bonus either. Instead players get $25 on the house when they register an account, and the funds can be converted to cash after a 1x wagering requirement is met. That’s all fine and good, but when Play SugarHouse is offering $250 in 1x bonus money, it just doesn’t hold a candle.

The value issue extends to the games themselves. While NetEnt return-to-players (RTP) are static and generally high (96%+), IGT grants operators some flexibility over returns. We can’t pinpoint the RTP of slots (which could be as low as the low 90%s for some games) but the IGT Game King video poker games offer some pretty horrendous paytables, like 8/5 Jacks or Better, 6/5 Bonus Poker, and 8/5 Double Double Bonus. These are unplayable in our opinion and should be avoided. If the video poker returns are any indication, then the IGT slot returns may be tuned toward the low end as well.

Powered by IGT, the online casino platform is solid. It doesn’t exactly pop like Play SugarHouse or Parx, but the screens load quickly, we didn’t experience much in the way of disconnects, and the mobile app (Android only) is a virtual clone of the main site, right down to the fact that nearly every game on desktop was ported to the app.

Overall, the lack of a deposit bonus, low returns on video poker (and possibly slots), and the lack of a dedicated iOS app make Hollywood Casino a tough sell in the early going. The initial launch of an online casino is a time to be extra generous, not penny pinching.

What’s next?

Unfortunately, we don’t know. There haven’t been any announcements as to when the next online casino site will go live, and no one seems to be in any rush to launch an online poker site. Responses to inquiries were vague and the PA Gaming Control Board has stated that no interstate compacts are currently in the works.

Our best guess is that a major brand like Harrah’s will be next to follow with an online gambling product, but even that’s just speculation.

The next PA Gaming Control Board meeting is slated for August 14. We may learn more at that time.

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Robert is a veteran writer and analyst for the gambling industry, with a particular focus on the emergent US online gambling market. An avid poker and gambling enthusiast, Robert offers unique perspectives from both the vantage point of the player and industry professional, and is fit to cover a broad spectrum of topics.

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