When Amaya closed its blockbuster $4.9 billion acquisition of PokerStars in early-August, it was widely assumed that the online poker behemoth would gain entry into New Jersey sooner rather than later – sooner meaning sometime before the end of October.
Yet here we are, a mere two weeks away from the other Black Friday, and there’s been no word regarding when, or even if, PokerStars will make its triumphant return to the United States.
Online poker players previously set on the idea that PokerStars would already be a force in New Jersey are left wondering “what’s the holdup?” as they watch the state’s stagnant online poker industry struggle through another week.
So what is the holdup? The answer may lie in a multitude of factors.
A little history
In the days following Amaya’s announcement that it had entered into an agreement to purchase the parent company of PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker, David Rebuck of the NJ Division of Gaming Enforcement (DGE) told Pokerfuse that he was “encouraged by this development and the expanded opportunities it might provide for New Jersey’s Internet gaming industry.”
Later that month, it was announced that PokerStars’ application was up for review by the agency, effectively ending a two-year license application suspension forced by the DGE.
Having more than satisfied the DGE’s demands that key personnel operating within PokerStars’ infrastructure be removed, PokerStars’ reentry into the U.S. market suddenly appeared imminent.
Shortly after, rumors began circulating that PokerStars would launch in New Jersey sometime in October. These speculations reached a fever pitch when New Jersey State Sen. Raymond Lesniak indicated that an announcement from the DGE regarding Stars was only “weeks, not months” away.
Optimism was at all-time high. But as October turned into November the Senator’s tone began to change, and since, credible news sources such as Pokerfuse have reported that PokerStars will not launch in New Jersey until 2015.
Granted, delays in the U.S’s regulated iGaming sphere aren’t exactly uncommon – one needn’t look further than California’s six-year plight to legalize online poker to realize that – but given that New Jersey’s other poker rooms all launched within four months of receiving licenses, combined with the fact that PokerStars’ application had already been at least partially reviewed prior to the Amaya acquisition, it seemed quite reasonable to assume that PokerStars would be a presence in NJ by October.
What caused the delay?
Based on Senator Lesniak’s recent Twitter exchanges, it can be concluded that politics are at least one of the underlying forces driving the PokerStars delay.
On October 28th, Lesniak engaged in a rather frank interaction with another user indicating that it’s New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie causing the hold up:
@Xorc1stPoker waiting on Christie, hopefully not like waiting on Godot
— Senator Ray Lesniak (@SenatorLesniak) October 28, 2014
But doesn’t the DGE have the final word on whether a license is approved? Technically yes, but based on Lesniak’s statement, it appears that the Division will not act without the Governor’s approval. This raises the question as to why Gov. Christie, who in the past has vocalized his commitment to revitalizing Atlantic City, would want to push off PokerStars’ entry. Clues were revealed on Tuesday, as part of a second Twitter exchange between the Senator, NJ poker players and members of the poker media, including OnlinePokerReport.com’s Chris Grove.
Poker Stars in time out because they would boost AC and hurt Adelson’s attempt in Congress to shut down Egaming
— Senator Ray Lesniak (@SenatorLesniak) November 11, 2014
@ridenomore Christie just giving Adelson time during Congressional lame duck session to kill Egaming
— Senator Ray Lesniak (@SenatorLesniak) November 11, 2014
The Senator went on to state that the aforementioned is his “opinion based on 37 years of political insight.”
Based on the myriad of anti-PokerStars rhetoric that has filtered its way into major NJ-based publications over the past few months, it’s quite apparent that online gambling opponent Sheldon Adelson is vehemently against PokerStars returning to the United States.
Not only will PokerStars’ launch in New Jersey likely inspire a revitalization of Atlantic City’s fledgling gaming economy, it could set off a domino effect where other states on the proverbial iGaming fence let down their guard and cash in on a suddenly prosperous new market.
Should that happen, Adelson’s plight to institute a federal iGaming ban will invariably suffer, and as a result he may feel less inclined to support Governor Christie in his 2016 Presidential election bid.
Considering that Adelson spent $92 million on losing candidates in 2012, it would behoove Gov. Christie to give the go-ahead to a company that was A) indicted by the DOJ in 2011, and B) has the ability to alter the face of the Garden State’s brick & mortar casino industry – at least not until Adelson has had ample time to systematically deconstruct all the progress iGaming champions have made during the past three years.
Or maybe the New Jersey version of PokerStars’ software simply isn’t ready for prime time.
PokerStars is all too familiar with the problems that plagued New Jersey’s other poker sites at launch, some of which continue to dissuade grinders from playing on regulated sites to this very day. For PokerStars to release a product riddled with bugs and server issues would be nothing short of a disaster.
And while PokerStars does have experience operating in segregated markets such as Spain and Italy, New Jersey’s regulatory environment presents hurdles that the company doesn’t often encounter such as the Garden State’s geolocation model and the nonacceptance of features like peer-to-peer transfers.
Then there’s the fact that the PokerStars client is in the midst of a transition.
PokerStars 7, an extensive upgrade to the company’s already pioneering online poker software, has been available in Beta form in most markets for only the past several months. It’s conceivable that PokerStars originally planned to submit PokerStars 6 for review, but has since opted to launch PokerStars 7 in New Jersey, thereby extending the testing process.
It’s for one or a combination of the aforementioned reasons that PokerStars may have opted to push back its launch date.
PokerStars has experienced its fair share of controversy in the past month, and in the entire Amaya era for that matter. Unpopular changes to the site’s rake policies have prompted resistance from players, most notably in the form of semi-organized sit-outs and forum rants.
PokerStars has withdrawn from dozens of gray markets. Further changes to the site’s VIP program are expected in the newly regulated UK market in 2015. And players are becoming increasingly paranoid that Amaya will bring about Stars’ ruin.
Maybe PokerStars is waiting until players regain confidence before embarking on a new journey.
Either that, or PokerStars is holding back until traffic in New Jersey completely bottoms out, so that the company comes off as a sort of grand savior when it finally does launch its poker product. Admittedly, that’s a bit far-fetched, but given the company’s history, I wouldn’t entirely put it past them.
In the case that PokerStars’ entry into New Jersey is being held up by the DGE’s testing process, or by PokerStars itself, then I’d fully expect to hear an announcement within the next several weeks. But in lieu of the Senator’s recent statements, I have to believe that the path towards reentry is more complicated than originally anticipated.
If Gov. Christie views PokerStars as an impediment to his 2016 Presidential bid, it’s conceivable that PokerStars will not launch until the Republican presidential candidate is decided – although in my estimation, that’s a worst case scenario.
Whenever politics are involved in a matter such as this, it’s the individuals who have their ability to choose stricken from them that invariability suffer. Delaying PokerStars’ entry because Sheldon Adelson wants to lead an ill-fated campaign against online gambling, and subsequently bring the United States one rung closer to becoming a police state, only hurts the players who have been unable to earn a living playing a skill-based game for the past 3.5 years.
Let’s hope, that at the very latest, we’ll be greeted by an announcement by the New Year. Otherwise, there is cause for concern.