A mere 3,125 days after Black Friday, legal online poker has arrived in Pennsylvania.
PokerStars, which disappeared from the U.S. market along with Full Tilt Poker and UltimateBet after the Department of Justice seized their domains on April 15, 2011 and re-launched as a regulated site only within New Jersey’s borders in March 2016, is now live — in “soft launch” mode — in the Keystone State as well. Throughout all of the ups and downs of this decade, PokerStars has remained, globally, the biggest name in online poker. It has about 70% global market share.
The Pennsylvania legislature passed an expanded gambling bill in October 2017 that made iPoker legal in the state, along with casino games and sports betting. There are five regulated online sportsbooks available in PA (and a sixth, DraftKings, tentatively scheduled to launch within hours of PokerStars’ debut), the first of them having opened its virtual ticket windows in June. The first online casinos launched in mid-July, and there are now three of those.
But for whatever reason, online poker has been slowest out of the gate, taking more than two years since the legislation passed to deal its first hand. In July, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board was playing it close to the vest, with Communications Director Doug Harbach telling Penn Bets, “At this juncture, all I can tell you is that online poker will be available when one of the operators which plans to offer it is ready to do so.”
Rumors soon leaked that PokerStars had the inside track, with various September and October dates floated.
Instead, the wait dragged out until Nov. 4. Online poker players in PA have been sitting idly as their hands timed out. But now, at long last, their laptops and smartphones are telling them they’ve reconnected.
Limited hours for now
PokerStars PA, available for download to computers at pokerstarsmtairycasino.com, is not available 24/7 yet. It is expected to be available as an iOS and Android app for phones and tablets, but wasn’t yet as of the web launch.
Those with existing PokerStars NJ accounts need to create a separate account for PA.
Players can enter cash games, sit and gos, or tournaments for real money, but only at limited times until the PGCB has been able to properly test the game play and security measures. The tentative schedule for this week:
- Monday: 2 p.m. – 10 p.m.
- Tuesday: 2 p.m. – 12 a.m.
- Wednesday: From 2 p.m. on
Promotions out of the gate include the following:
- 100% deposit bonus, up to $600
- $30 in free play upon first deposit of $20 or more
- $30,000 worth of freerolls over the next two weeks
PokerStars secured its land-based partner in the state in August 2018, linking up with the modest-sized Mt. Airy Casino, located in Mt. Pocono. Mt. Airy launched its online sportsbook two months ago, as the partnership between PokerStars parent company The Stars Group and media giant FOX brought FOX Bet to the state. The PokerStars online casino launched in conjunction with the poker product on Monday.
As huge and mainstream as the FOX name is, early returns haven’t suggested it’s poised to dominate online sports betting in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It’s likely that the impact of the FOX association on PokerStars’ revenue in PA will be minimal, barring unexpected product integration on FOX Sports broadcasts.
’Stars not exactly shining in New Jersey
In general, online poker participation and revenue has been a disappointment in New Jersey, and after a strong start, PokerStars lost its position as the clear leader in the state back in the spring of 2018. That was when WSOP/888 took the lead over ’Stars, powered by their ability to share liquidity between Jersey and Nevada.
From its first full month of operation, April 2016, through April 2018, PokerStars won every month. But times have changed since PokerStars racked up $2.3 mm in revenue in that first full month. The numbers have steadily trended down, and the last time PokerStars won any month was October 2018.
In September 2019, WSOP/888 led in revenue with $716k, followed by PokerStars with $501k and PartyPoker with $421k. Combined, those only add up to about 71% of the business PokerStars alone was doing when it debuted in NJ.
PokerStars is currently a distant second in New Jersey cash-game traffic behind WSOP/888, with the most recent PokerScout data showing ’Stars averaging a mere 70 cash players at a time, compared to 220 for WSOP/888. At least PokerStars is comfortably ahead of third-place PartyPoker, which averages 18 players at its tables.
The balance of power swung definitively when the Caesars-powered sites in Nevada and New Jersey were able to combine their player pools. The biggest question looming over PokerStars and other online poker sites in Pennsylvania — now that the question of “when will one of them launch?” has been answered — is whether shared liquidity is coming to the state.
In Jersey, that has proven to be WSOP/888’s only real advantage over PokerStars; otherwise, WSOP has gotten more attention for its snafus then its triumphs. But that one advantage alone has been enough.
In Pennsylvania, PokerStars now has the first-mover advantage to go along with its brand-recognition advantage and long-standing reputation as the most reliable poker site and, to an extent, the one that saved online poker. The brand has alienated some, particularly among the professional community, by changing its rewards policies and, more recently, by limiting players in some countries to four cash-game tables at a time. These moves speak to PokerStars’ apparent priority of appealing to casual players over hardcore grinders.
What’s the outlook?
There’s no denying: PokerStars and online poker overall have lost momentum, whether you’re comparing the situation to 2016, 2011, or the post-Moneymaker Effect glory days of 2003-’06.
Whether PokerStars coming to Pennsylvania can reverse the trends is a big ol’ “TBD.” For now, Pennsylvanians can play again without driving to New Jersey or taking their chances with an offshore site that can’t be held to account. That’s highly positive news. How much more positive it will get depends on if, and how soon, the PGCB and PokerStars are able to connect players in Jersey and elsewhere with those in the Keystone State.
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