When Big Stax XXVI starts this Wednesday with Day 1A of a $340 no-limit hold’em tournament that’s expected to draw close to 3,000 players, Parx Casino in Bensalem will once again assert its dominance as the number one poker room in Pennsylvania.
In terms of tables, game options, and revenue, nobody else in the state comes close. You’d have to go to Borgata in neighboring New Jersey to find competition.
But the Pennsylvania poker landscape is about to change. Regulated, legal online poker is coming, and how Parx will approach this threat to its poker pole position is, like poker itself, a matter of speculating based on partial information right now.
Digging the new digs
It has now been more than six months since Parx relocated its poker room from Parx East, a separate building disconnected from everything else going on at the casino, to its new home in the main casino building, just steps from the rest of the action.
The new poker room is smaller — though still the biggest in Pennsylvania — having reduced from 81 tables at East to 48 now (including three in a Bobby’s-Room-esque high-roller area behind a glass wall, where poker pro Bill Gazes was among those who could be seen stacking chips when PennBets visited Parx last week). But a little downsizing seems a worthwhile tradeoff for the upgrade of being in the same building as eight restaurants — compared to just one at Parx East — and all the other casino games.
“There are people who still don’t realize that we’re over here, not in the old building,” Director of Poker Operations Bill Entenmann tells PennBets. “So getting the word out to our player base has been important. And then it took us a little while to figure it out physically — where we’re going to call games, where to do tournaments at. But we’ve been slowly finding our way. We had an issue with people using the slot bay right outside the poker room for smoking, and to use the restroom you had to walk through that area. So we adjusted that to make that area non-smoking in response to our customers. We have a ton of regular players, some are here hundreds of hours a month, there’s always an ongoing dialogue with them. You do your best to listen to the feedback and respond the best you can.”
Numbers never lie
After seven-plus years in the old building and not quite seven months in the new one, Parx poker seems not to have missed a beat. And the revenue numbers paint a clear picture of a room that is without peer in PA.
Total live poker revenue at the 12 casinos in Pennsylvania for Fiscal Year 2017/18 was $57,554,191. Parx accounted for just over 30% of that, posting $17,306,045 in earnings. The next closest poker rooms were Sands Bethlehem with $10,530,642, SugarHouse Casino with $7,907,627, and Rivers Casino way on the western side of the state with $6,636,913. Nobody else topped $5 million.
Soon, however, the live games will only be half of the poker picture.
In 2015, Parx inked a deal with GameAccount Network (GAN) to be the casino’s online gambling partner. On October 30, 2017, Governor Tom Wolf signed HB271, making Pennsylvania the fourth state to legalize online gambling. And on July 12, 2018, Parx became the first of nine PA casinos to submit an application to operate online table games, slots, and poker— at the hefty cost of $10 million. Even though Parx has expressed opposition to online gambling in the past, you don’t invest eight figures if you aren’t serious about the enterprise.
That said, GAN is not known for its poker product, and Parx is sure to face tough competition within the state from several operators with a track record for online poker success.
888 is partnered with Mount Airy Casino Resort and stands to link up with Harrah’s Philadelphia, meaning that the WSOP.com brand is probably already spoken for in Pennsylvania. So is PokerStars, which appears to be involved with Mount Airy. GVC, which runs Borgata’s site in New Jersey, seems to be partnering with Valley Forge Casino resort.
Parx might still find an established poker operator to partner with, but it’s hard to guess who that would be. And Parx might be buried when it comes to shared liquidity. WSOP.com has risen to the top since the player pools in New Jersey and Nevada were combined, and a shared PokerStars player pool covering NJ and PA is guaranteed to be a force.
The brand recognition of the word “Parx” within the Pennsylvania poker world is powerful, but is that enough, especially if its player pool is limited to Pennsylvania and doesn’t include neighboring New Jersey and Delaware?
What the director of poker operations says
Parx did apply for the all-inclusive iGaming license, so it seems the casino wants to make its mark in the online space. And Entenman backs that up.
“We are looking forward to offering online poker once the state provides the guidelines and regulations,” Entenman says. “There are obvious advantages that we could use to benefit our tournament series and even our regular tournaments — to envision an online satellite for a Big Stax event would be fantastic.
“I think online is good for poker in general. Some people are intimidated to sit down and play. And I think online helps that. It helps them learn the game and learn the procedures. I don’t get the sense that poker’s really growing anymore, but I see online as a way to introduce new people. Obviously, we’ve applied, and we’d like to have a good offering. We take a lot of pride in looking out for the players and doing what’s in their best interests. This poker room was always designed in the eyes of the player. We’ve always done whatever we can to look out for the player and give a good offering, so we’d like to do the same online.”
A sporting chance
Parx and GAN made news early Monday morning when they announced plans to partner on offering sports betting, making Parx the first PA casino to declare clear intentions in this newly legal space. According to the press release, the sports betting launch is expected to happen sometime in the second half of 2018 — it’s hard for Parx to get much more specific than that when the state’s regulations are still being written.
The deal covers both live and online sports betting. “Following the execution of this extension and amendment, GAN now offers clients a platform equipped with multiple options for integrated sports betting to be launched seamlessly alongside GAN’s market-leading internet casino product,” said Jeff Berman, GAN’s chief commercial officer. “We welcome the opportunity to deliver sports betting in the retail channel, as well as online, through GAN’s unique platform containing patented technology.”
So here’s what we know: Parx operates the most popular poker room in Pennsylvania, it’s first in line to offer sports betting in the state, and it sees the value in having a leading online poker site.
It will be an uphill battle to rule online poker in the PA, unless Parx has tricks up its sleeve. But at least for now, during this calm before the storm period, it’s doing and saying the right things.
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