It's been a while since I did any theorycrafting so let's theorize about PokerStarsWynn and the potentiality of FullTiltStation.
Back in December, when the poker industry was running amok during the Reid Bill saga, Union Gaming Research published a research note about what legalized online poker might look like and who would benefit.
At the time, UGR posited that "MGM has the most to gain" due to "a large player database, multiple highly recognizable brands, and a significant number of physical venues". The note also suggested that "the Venetian and Wynn brands will be ripe for participation"; that Harrah's / Caesars would certainly be in the mix by leveraging the WSOP; that the Palms might "disproportionately benefit" because of its customer demographics; and that Station Casinos could be "helped by the Fertittas' UFC ownership."
When you jump ahead to last week the state of the poker market looks like this:
* Harrah's / Caesars - partnered with 888, WSOP.com in play
* Wynn - partnered with PokerStars
* Stations - rumored to be partnering with Full Tilt
* Palms - hosting Federated tournaments, getting cozy with Zynga?
That leaves MGM and LVS as the two biggest B&M operators not currently rumored to be getting into bed with anyone. If FTP does sign with Stations, the leftover pickings for MGM and LVS will be slim.
According to PokerScout, PartyPoker is the #3 online poker operator in the world, ranked by players online. But it's a steep drop from #2, Full Tilt, to #3. If US-facing sites are broken out into their own group, the drop-off from #2, Full Tilt, to #3, Cereus, is even more pronounced. Party, of course, stopped taking US players in 2006.
I have to believe that MGM, a company that has been pushing aggressively for regulated online poker, has an action plan in mind for the day regulation becomes a reality. You don't spend as much time and effort pursuing something as MGM has without knowing exactly how you're going to tackle it if you succeed. Maybe MGM will go it alone; maybe it has a handshake agreement with Party. Who knows, but I'd bet some sort of plan is in place.
Where does that leave LVS?
The only thing that the remaining US-facing online sites can offer LVS is a software platform. The sites in spots #3 through #10 based on players online -- including the likes of Cereus, Cake, Merge and Bodog -- don't even add up to Tilt's #2 ranking. They don't offer a B&M operator access to much of a player database or much of an instant revenue stream. They provide ready-made software which can (presumably) be easily skinned for LVS's needs and that's it.
I don't know much about the pros and cons of the software of those online sites. I do know that I can't see any U.S. B&M operator wanting anything to do with Cereus. The taint of the super-user scandal is strong and ongoing and could be a serious impediment to Cereus being granted a license. Maybe Cake, Merge and Bodog can play three-way RPS for the privilege of partnering with LVS.
Or maybe LVS goes it alone too. But, unlike MGM, I don't recall LVS ever having shifted away from being "neutral" on internet gaming. Are they ready for it? Or will they be the outfit left without a chair when the regulatory music finally stops?
Who knows. Like usual, I'm probably out to left field.
Monday, March 28, 2011
It's been a while since I did any theorycrafting so let's theorize about PokerStarsWynn and the potentiality of FullTiltStation.
Friday, March 25, 2011
(With all apologies to my colleague Chris Hall for lifting his pun. You were right. It's a good one.)
Yesterday Wynn Resorts -- yes, that Wynn -- announced a partnership with PokerStars. The two companies will work together to secure passage of federal-level regulation for online poker in the United States. Assuming that regulation occurs, they'll then seek out a license to jointly operate an online poker site under the name PokerStarsWynn.com.
Steve Wynn, the Chairman of Wynn Resorts, had long been against any form of online gambling, one of the few operators in the Vegas space that held that view. The largest, like Caesars and MGM, have been pro-online gambling for a while; many others were at least neutral. That Wynn has now shifted his stance all the way in favor of online gambling is sea change.
Back in December I said that I expected 2011 would reveal who is making what bets on online poker in the United States. We now have a savvy entrepreneur and highly influential member of the Vegas gambling community aligning himself on the side of regulation. And let's not forget that Stars isn't some fly-by-night operation that most have never heard of. It's the world's largest online poker site not named Zynga Poker. In America, as the money goes so goes the policy.
I did find one sentence of the LVRJ article amusing: "Wynn said he is now convinced Internet gaming is taking place in the U.S. and it's time to legalize the activity." Only now Steve? What took so long? I know your vision isn't the best but come on!
Seriously though, file this one under G for "good for poker".
Thursday, March 24, 2011
It all started innocently enough, as these things usually do. Kevin Mathers tweeted a link to a consolidated "Joe Sebok" thread on the 2+2 forums. Sebok is the son of Barry Greenstein and president of PokerRoad. About a year and a half ago he joined scandal-plagued UB as a sponsored player and a media and operations consultant. Since then, and as details continue to trickle to light about the UB cheating scandal, Sebok has been a favored whipping boy for many at 2+2.
I rarely read 2+2. Although there are interesting and useful nuggets of information that can be mined there, the signal-to-noise ratio is so bad that it kills any desire I have to go prospecting. When someone I trust links a thread I will usually at least scan it but that's as far as my participation goes.
During yesterday's scan I noticed Mason Malmuth posting in the thread. Two statements he made caught my eye. "2+2 is where the poker community is," and "our site is now essentially the discussion center of everything poker". Malmuth has always struck me as extremely egotistical (par for the course with 90% of the moderators and participants at 2+2, Kevmath excepted) and those statements fit right into the mold.
I tweeted back at Kevmath, "I find it hilarious that Mason thinks 2+2 is the poker community. I know so many people who won't set foot in there."
I was surprised at what followed -- a rather lengthy Twitter-discussion of what the poker community is and is not, and how it means different things to different people. I thought The Entities at Wicked Chops put a nice period on the discussion by closing it out with the statement, "65M+ people play poker in US alone. 20-25k go to 2+2 daily? Important but not central hub & not [a] thorough representation of poker community" (Caveat: I have no idea about the accuracy of their numbers.)
I should be fair to Malmuth. It's natural to have a self-centered view of the world. We can only experience the world through our own eyes and our own ears. It often leads us to make erroneous assumptions that the world we experience is the world everyone experiences.
There's no doubt in my mind that for some people, like Malmuth, 2+2 is their poker community. There's also no doubt in my mind that many other people (I can list players, industry types, fans) don't even know of 2+2's existence or believe that 2+2 represents everything detestable about the poker community. And this doesn't even touch upon the other poker forums -- PocketFives, for example -- that capture a similar segment of the community that 2+2 represents.
In Las Vegas, there is a community of local grinders, spanning all manners of limits. Yet there are regulars in the Vegas poker scene who would be offended to be included in that community and associated with people that they find offensive (for whatever reason and in whatever manner).
For many people with whom I regularly interact, the poker community is the tournament circuit. Yet what percentage of poker players or even industry types will ever spend more than a few days on the circuit? And how exactly do you define "the circuit" these days, with so many different tournament offerings spanning the globe?
What about people who are recreational players online and/or live but who never look at poker training sites, poker forums, or anything having to do with poker's internet presence (besides the poker sites themselves)? I'm willing to bet those people represent a larger segment of the industry than many would expect.
The point I'm trying to make is that there is no one poker community. Poker represents different things to different people, based in no small part upon their own demographic background and their own experiences. The industry may be small, in terms of "percentage of people in the world who regularly play poker in some form", but it is incredibly diverse, both in the types of people it brings to the table and the manner in which they experience the game. That's one of the beauties of poker.
In my opinion, Malmuth is dead wrong. 2+2 is not where the poker community is. 2+2 is where a certain segment of the poker community is. Focusing on the I in community, as Malmuth has done, misses everything that is fantastic about the game of poker. For that, we need to look at the you in community.
Monday, March 21, 2011
Zynga is a name that many people don't know. It's the company behind several popular Facebook games, including Mafia Wars, Farmville and Zynga Poker. It's also the name of the company that hosted its first ever live-poker event at the Palms this past weekend, a two-day convention called Zynga PokerCon.
I didn't attend PokerCon because I'm a big fan of virtual goods or play-money poker or even Facebook. I attended because Zynga Poker has become the 800-pound gorilla in the poker industry room. Zynga holds itself out as "the world's largest online poker room" (37 million total players; 7.6 million players daily) and speculation has been rampant in the industry about Zynga's future business plans. Also the convention featured a $125 turbo tournament with a $100,000 prize pool that was capped at 500 players. Overlay!
I wasn't the only industry member whose curiosity was piqued by PokerCon. A very wide cross-section of "insiders" attended the two-day soiree, all with the same basic question: What is Zynga up to? What does Zynga hope to get out of this event?
The answer isn't any clearer after PokerCon than it was before.
At time the convention felt like it was transporting us all back to poker circa 2006. At other times it felt like a Star Trek convention (I presume -- I am not nearly geeky enough to have ever been to a Star Trek convention), and at still other times it felt like a bit of a flop. Throughout, Zynga's angle was never clear.
With PokerStars taking the lead on Nevada intrastate regulation (as reported by the Las Vegas Sun and noted by Wicked Chops), I'm content to put this one on the back burner for now. It's unlikely Zynga will contribute to any regulatory efforts. Until those efforts bear fruit Zynga is likely to remain in the back corner of the room, making everyone else slightly edgy by its mere presence.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Even if you've been living under a rock the way I've been for the last few weeks you probably heard Full Tilt's announcement yesterday regarding the Onyx Cup Series. It's a series of six high buy-in tournaments ($100k to $300k) that will take place in Macau, Las Vegas and London. High finishers will receive points; the player with the most points at the end of the series will be awarded the Onyx Cup. Online qualifying for the series starts today.
Full Tilt created a promotional video for the series hosted by Ali Nejad. The video stressed that this series allows "pros to play against pros" and therefore will highlight who is the best.
Like many, I have a number of questions about the series.
1. Is the move towards "super high-roller events" an acceptable way to highlight the best players? There are plenty of pros out there who can't afford to shell out $1 million for a tournament series. Good bankroll management (if there is such a thing anymore) suggests a bankroll of $15-20 million is needed to play such a series comfortably. Not a net worth of $15-20 million. A bankroll.
Instead what this event may do is give a very small number of players with extraordinarily deep bankrolls and/or other income streams the opportunity to play in a club-like environment with similarly situated pros. There will likely also be a handful of super-rich amateurs who don't mind dusting off $200k to play in a small-field event with Tom Dwan and Phil Ivey. The recent cash games in Macau are instructive on that point.
Restricting the field by buy-in does not necessarily highlight the best players in the world. It highlights the richest players in the world. While there is some overlap in those two categories (as there should be), many of today's richest players in the world have become that rich through ownership interests in online poker sites. Good for them, but those ownership interests give them a cushion the rest of the poker world lacks. To me the format does nothing for determining the best of the best.
2. Who is going to qualify for this event? The FTP promotional video mentions that online qualifying for the series starts today. I'm trying to imagine who will want to qualify for this series. To the average FTP grinder, $100k (or more) is a sizable chunk of money. Will that type of qualifier really want to burn six figures just to play in a small-field event with a dozen of the world's top poker players?
For mid-level pros the prospects are only marginally better. These players can't afford the $100k buy-in. How many will want to put a syndicate together or take other backing or, on their own money, play the online satellite equivalent of an EPT Main Event (let's say the buy-in is $8,000) for a 1-in-13 shot at qualifying for just one of the Onyx Cup events? Some will, no doubt. They'll eschew proper bankroll management for the fairy tale of coming through a satellite field for $8,000 and turning that into $1 million or more at the Onyx Cup. But I'd bet that it will be a tiny number of players.
For those that do, likely what will happen is their six-figure buy-ins will disappear into the bankrolls of Erik Seidel or Phil Ivey or _____ [insert your own Full Tilt Pro], never again to return to the lower echelons of the poker economy from whence it came. Not because those players are necessarily the best, but because they're very good and sheer numbers dictate that outcome more often than not.
3. Is this series "good for poker"? My guess is that it's good for Phil Ivey. It's good for Patrik Antonius. It might even be good for Full Tilt Poker. But what's good for Full Tilt isn't necessarily good for poker.
The branding potential for players like Ivey and Antonius is through the roof. They are already recognizable quantities. Now they'll have the opportunity to play in small field, high buy-in events. Along the way they'll probably attract some Chinese businessmen or other super wealthy amateurs who won't mind dropping six large to play with them. Even if they go 0-for-the-series, there's an upside for them.
But this strategy also risks stunting the growth of the rest of the poker industry. What poker should be doing is nurturing the growth of the next generation -- the ElkYs, the Jason Merciers, the (ugh, Lord help me for saying this) Sorel Mizzis of the world. It helps keep the game fresh, which in turn helps keep TV viewers' interest.
Last year a colleague who was working the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship with me said, "Ah, now I can see what poker was like in 1996." It was a brutal remark that had the ring of truth. There was some change this year at NBCHU but the field still felt overly reliant on "old-school" players. That will eventually become a problem for the brand. Televised poker doesn't need to move away from the old-guard players who were around 10 years ago when the boom hit, but relying on them exclusively will cause the product to become stale.
Is the Onyx Cup good for poker? Look. I'm no seer. I can only make an educated guess right now based on limited information. My intuition says, "No," but I'd love for Full Tilt to prove me wrong. I guess we'll see.