You gaze at your opponent, desperate for a read, only to realize he’s wearing a ski mask, rubbermaid gloves, and is hidden behind three inches of plexiglass.
Yet here we are. Some casinos, like the Wynn, get that there is no reasonable way to safely execute live poker in the age of COVID-19.
Others are taking desperate measures to salvage the game, crafting table designs so devoid of anything that could elicit joy, that we’d want to give anyone considering using them a big hug.
For those willing to go this far, gonna do you a solid:— Robert DellaFave (@RobertDellaFave) May 14, 2020
On top of players having to wear masks and dealing with egregious physical barricades, they’ll likely be limited to four-handed play in most jurisdictions. We know for sure this will be the case at Las Vegas casinos.
Isn’t it the norm for a live poker game to break when it gets down to four-handed?
All this, and guidelines suggesting social distancing of six-feet or more will still be impossible to maintain. Admittedly, COVID-19 appears to spread mostly through respiratory droplets projected through the air, but with players constantly handling the same (disgusting) chips and cards, they could be one accidental eye rub away from a really bad beat.
And seriously, how much revenue can casinos really hope to make from this bastardized version of poker? Pots will be smaller, they’ll be at least 25% as many employees as players, and the rake is typically halved for short-handed play. I guess there’s the loss-leading aspect, but that also loses a lot of steam in the COVID-19 era.
There is another way, where players are guaranteed safety, player pools can be enormous, and there’s always a game to be found. It’s just too bad the U.S. has mostly turned a blind eye to it these past nine years.
The pitiful state of U.S. online poker
Online poker is currently legal and running in just four states: New Jersey, Delaware, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. Two others, Michigan and West Virginia, have legalized the activity and hope to flip the sign to “Open” sometime later this year.
Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware share player pools, but only through the WSOP/888 network, which offers an online poker product that has all the aesthetics and innovation one would expect in 2004.
PokerStars is live in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but for whatever reason, those two states have yet to forge an interstate compact. So for now, player pools are segregated from one another.
And lastly, the Borgata operates a pretty mediocre network of sites, but they’re restricted to New Jersey. It’s about as delightful as it sounds.
Players also have the option to take their business to offshore sites, with America’s Cardroom receiving the most attention. Here, players can mix it up with grinders (including Bryan Freakin’ Cranston) from most U.S. states, resulting in some pretty massive prize pools, but will have to deal with the site’s parade of recent issues:
All tournaments have been paused due to some technical issues, we apologize for the inconvenience. pic.twitter.com/kRe7KXAVSQ— Americas Cardroom (@ACR_POKER) April 23, 2020
TL;DR U.S. online poker is in a pretty pitiful state right now, with demand overwhelming supply. Just look at recent numbers…
Looking at recent numbers
After nearly a decade of slow and miserable decline, the appetite for online poker is suddenly insatiable. In New Jersey, revenue from April 2019 to April 2020, grew from a paltry $1.6 million to over $5.1 million.
PokerStars PA alone pulled in $5.25 million last month, with tournament prize pools rising capping out at over $500k. (Just imagine if even 10 states shared player pools).
$515,964 Pennsyl-MANIA final prize pool💥— Matt Primeaux (@mattprimeaux) May 18, 2020
These numbers were pretty much inconceivable just a few months ago, back before stay-at-home and social distancing were buzzwords. With a COVID-19 vaccine miles away, and casinos either saying “No” to live poker for an indefinite amount of time or working hard to make poker as unappetizing as humanly possible, online poker is cresting toward a mini-boom.
Making online poker +EV again
This is a site about maximizing +EV right? So, what the heck does the rise in online poker popularity have to do with value?
First off, a big disclaimer: Online poker is still not as beatable as the good-old-days. We’re talking before operators jacked up the rake, rolled out a bunch of predatory casino-poker hybrids, “froze out” freezeouts in favor of mass re-entries, and swapped out rakeback for pirate booty (eye on you, PokerStars). And yes, there are still tons of raid bosses with their solvers and heads-up displays.
Yet, despite all this, online poker is in as lucrative a state as it’s been in a decade. Sites have been run over by recreational players, who until recently, played live or not at all. This has resulted in softer cash games and inflated tournament prize pools.
Operators have responded by upping their promotional game, and are going full steam ahead with aggressive tournament guarantees. Even the poker streaming community has grown, mainly due to celebrity events and popular streamers like Lex Veldhuis having access to more and better tournaments. Big prize pools = clicks. Clicks = conversions.
As mentioned, online poker rake (especially here in the U.S.) is bad, but it’s still better than live, where casinos gouge the heck out of mostly unsuspecting $1/$2 and $100 tournament players. Online, expect to pay less than half the rake to enter an MTT, and see caps at $1/$2 cash games hovering around 5% up to $3 instead of 10% up to $4-$5 (plus jackpot fees) at live casinos.
And however minuscule, online players will receive welcome offers and some form of kickbacks, whereas player loyalty is often overlooked at brick-and-mortar poker rooms.
These cost reductions don’t really mean squat when the online player pool is swimming with killers, but on a more level playing field, pennies matter.
Time to wake the f up
We’re not going to sit here and pretend 10 states are going to magically legalize and roll out online poker this year. Ain’t gonna happen.
But there are incremental steps that can happen in 2020 that will capitalize on the game’s recent resurgence. Simple steps like NJ/DE/NV and Pennsylvania working out interstate liquidity and effectively doubling the U.S. player pool, or Michigan fast tracking its online poker launch and getting over the absurd notion that liquidity sharing will hurt their lottery.
And sure, legislators in other states, especially those that are starving for new revenue sources (which is basically all of them right now), are encouraged to put aside their moral quandaries and partisan politics and look at online poker as a source of easy, clean, tax money.
Time to wake the f up.