When the launch?

Joining the foreign region

Aristocrat multi-player stake

World class

Massive GPI RFID deal in Macau

Nec and Nec

Odrex’s unique game designs

Nick of time

SiP steps first into Macau WAP

Progressive surge in systems

Namco Bandai formally created unveil new icon

Bally Wulff blazes into the Spanish Video sector

Nova Desitec adds a little Zest

Designing the Dead

Riga–rous change

Unicum’s Adventures

Game Technology: Online Poker

The celebrity’s view

Easier than ever for players

 

Game Technology: Online Poker

Nick Hardy asks if we should be afraid of online poker, or if we should embrace the revolution taking place on customer PCs.

 

Over the years, it has frequently occurred to me that the poker gaming industry is a professionally celibate environment.  What I mean by this is that there has always seemed to be an unnatural reluctance to share a bed with anybody else, no matter how exciting and attractive their proposition appeared to be. Thankfully, this mood has softened in recent times and many of those with something to sell have realized that friendly collaboration can be more profitable than fierce competition. Rather than striving for secrecy and exclusivity, today's gaming entrepreneurs seek synergy and partnership as they realize that a small share of something very large is worth more than a large share of something very small.  Nowhere is this ethos better illustrated than in the world  of poker. This greatest of all games is enjoying a global 'boom' but, in business terms, there are two very distinct hemispheres. One of these is online and in cyberspace, whilst the other is live and at a table in a casino near you.  When the online game first came into existence, in the second half of the 1990s, traditional bricks and mortar operators may have been forgiven for believing that it wasn't going to amount to much. Poker's mainstream popularity had been in decline for some years. My own guess is that at precise time, there were more old poker rooms closing than there were new ones opening. 


But although online poker had arrived, in hindsight like the cavalry coming to the rescue, the ‘celibate’ traditionalists still wanted to ignore it. Worse still, some believed it to be a threat, worrying that there was a limit to the amount of disposable gaming income players may have to share around. Fortunately, these fears have proved to be unfounded paranoia. Online poker may be the fastest growing form of gaming in the history of the known world, but it has also provided the live gaming environment with an incredible shot in the arm. Skepticism has given way to synergy and is now clearly understood that these two disciplines can actually make compatible companions.  The recent listing on the London Stock Exchange of the world's largest online poker provider, PartyGaming, was surprising only in as much as the valuation placed upon the business was a massive £7bn, allowing the four founders to not only cash in to the tune of £1.35bn, but also retain  ownership of 73 per cent of the business. The Gibraltar based operator, which hosts PartyPoker, StarluckCasino and PartyBingo, was launched in 2001. In the year to December; 2004, it achieved gross earnings of more than £285m, claiming almost 60 per cent of the global online poker market. The fact that PartyGaming derives 87 per cent of its income from the US, where the Department of Justice deems online gaming illegal, was not enough to put of hungry investors, and the company is now listed amongst the UK's 100 top companies. 

With such an unprecedented level of performance, too  enormous for even the most dedicated traditionalists to ignore, it is time to fully embrace the online gaming phenomenon and understand how ‘poker’, in both its fantastic forms, has evolved into a game where everybody wins. Amongst the live operators, Hilton Group is one that has benefited from this phenomenon. In the year to December last, its betting and gaming profits rose by 28 per cent to a record £394m, with online gaming contributing £31m, an increase of 50 per cent. In the past year, online revenues alone have doubled and Ladbrokes.com now has over 64,000 active players. like many ‘new’ business sectors, especially those in the volatile world of the Internet, the actual size of the online market is difficult to estimate. But it is safe to assume that it is now worth tens of billions of euros a year. Analyst Greg Feehely of Altium Securities says that “sites started emerging around 1996, but the phenomenal rates of growth have only been seen in the last three to four years.”
In Britain, research from Cassava Enterprises, owners of www.888.com,  concluded that online gaming has grown by 566 per cent since 2003. Interestingly for those in our traditional sectors seeking the ‘Holy Grail’ of expansion of the player base, this is largely due its female appeal. While women represented only four per cent of British gamblers in the early 1990s, 20 per cent of British women are now said to visit a casino more than once a year. This statistic backs up findings in a UK Government poll which concludes that “almost 80 per cent of Europe’s online gamblers are British and that between 30 and 40 per cent of them are women.” Having possibly been a little sluggish out of the starting blocks, synergies between the online and live formats are now being exploited to the full, and this crossover is proving beneficial to both. Eastern Europe is experiencing a huge growth in live events, both on local and national levels. Poker rooms now being opened and re-opened with relish, and live tournament poker at all levels is becoming the 'cool' night out that casino operators have been crying out for.

The most high profile of these new even is the European Poker Tour (EPT), sponsored by online provider PokerStars and broadcast on the UK terrestrial station, Channel Five and 20 further countries on Eurosport. The EPT was created by John Duthie, and is a 10-tournament series taking in Spain, England, Ireland, Denmark, France, Austria and Monte Carlo.  Duthie, a television director by p[rofession, won Barry Hearn’s first PokerMillion on the producer, commentator and player on the PokerStars EPT.
The EPT features many of the work’s best players, including World Series of Poker (WSOP) champions Chris Moneymaker (2003) and Greg Raymer (2004), both of whom qualified for their Conrad Brunner, Marketing Manager for the PokerStart EPT explains, “This is a fantastic opportunity for both experienced players and newcomers.  Online players on ours and other sites can qualify for places on the tournament so, in addition to providing great television viewing, the EPT also great television viewing, the EPT also provides millions of eager online players with the opportunity to live the dream.”  For PokerStars, which incredibly provided 1,116 qualifiers for this year’s WSOP, the real thrill is witnessing the growth of the game in Europe.  “World Poker Tournament and WSOP events are heavily US based,” says Brunner,” and the fact that eight different nationalities sat down at our first EPT table in Barcelona underlined its potential.”

It is perhaps no coincidence, and probably therefore a shrewd marketing move, to note that another leading online provider, the World Poker Exchange (WPEX), hosted August’s inaugural London Poker Open, held at the historic Old Billingsgate Market.  Winner Iwan Jones, from Wales, defeated 138 other players to claim the $ 750,000 top prize.  This unique event, billed as the world’s first ‘lifestyle’ poker tournament, drew some of the most accomplished names in the game from across the globe.  WPEX sponsored Max Pescatori was joined by the legendary Doyle Brunson as well as Marcel Luske, Chip and Karina Jett, Gus Hanson, Phill Laak, Wille Tann and David ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott.  Celebrity players included Mimi Rogers, Willie Garson, Jennifer Tilly, John McCririck Nicholas Gonzalez, as well as FHM UK qualifier, Dominic Tofani.
With an exciting programme of events and parties in addition to the poker, the three days possibly gave us all an insight into what the game’s future could hold.  “The electric atmosphere was unparalleled by any previous London based poker event,” said WPEX CEO Haden Ware.  WPEX has also joined PokerStars in the sponsorship of established tournament professionals, as the relationship between the live and online formats becomes ever more inter dependent.  Max Pescatori has joined twice WSOP Ladies Champion SusieIsaacs in the WPEX stable.  Born in Milan, Pescatori has won numerous Poker titles and enjoyed 24 money finishes in 2004 alone.  He wears his signature Italian flag bandana to every tournament and is referred to as ‘The Italian Pirate’.  He has appeared a record eight times at the final table of the Ultimate Poker Challenge television show in the US and placed 2nd at the 2005 Mirage Poker Showdown $ 2,500 No Limit Hold’Em, leaving the table with $ 75,000.


“We are well on our way to being one of the leading online gaming destinations in the world,” says WPEX CEO Haden Ware.  “Our tournament play sponsorship of Max and Susie marks the beginning of a Property team recruitment effort we have initiated, with additional announcements to follow shortly.”
      So how does all this activity affect traditional gaming?  Millions are now being staked online but despite an influx of new players, particularly women, some of this must be money that was previously staked elsewhere, suggesting a negative impact.  Former Marseilles and Ireland centre forward, Tony Cascarino, now a professional poker  player and gaming journalist, is not convinced that the negative impact is significant.  “I play online now and again but I like the face-to-face interaction and ambience of a real poker room.”  This view is endorsed  by the 2004 WSOP  Champion , Greg Raymer, who believes that has provided a huge boost to the live game at all levels.  “Online play is like training school,” he explains.  “Novice players learn and make mistakes in private and at low cost.  They improve and, through the online qualification system and their own increasing confidence, graduate to the live poker environment.”
      This idea of online poker as an ‘entry’ mechanism for live gaming is echoed by Cascarino.  “You gamble from the comfort of your own home and use the anonymity to reinvent yourself.  The combination of pleasure, escapism and profit is hard to resist.  Some play for 10 hours a day, aiming to make £ 300.  It is a job to them.”  In all probability, what is more likely is that any player expenditure that has moved has moved migrated from AWP machines.  It is a small poll, but I don’t know a single serious AWP player who hasn’t adde4d online poker to his repertoire.  Across Europe, online poker is now the biggest and richest competitor ‘street’ gaming has ever seen.  However, on a positive note, poker’s re-establishment as a core product in casino, alongside blackjack and roulette, is fantastic news for everyone in  live gaming supply chain that has taken an almighty kicking from slot machines in recent years.  Business development, in terms of creativity and innovation, depends upon strong competition.  When it comes to the casual player, with a limited budget, there is a new competitor in town and the traditional industry should welcome the challenge and prove to players just how creative and innovative it can be.

      And if they need a clue as to the appeal of poker, and the direction in which the player’s mind might be moving, they could do worse than consider the key ingredient in the game, the element of skill.  Despite what legislators might believe, this fact is undeniable.  Everybody who plays poker improves and so increases their chances of success.  As in all leisure pursuits, the longer the game the more likely the best player is to win.  This is a fact that is continually proven.  As Mae West once asked WC Fields, “Is poker a game of chance?” His reply..?  “Not the way I play it.”

POKERSTARS’ LARGEST EVER ONLINE TOURNAMENT

If poker event can now be compared to the WSOP or WPT , it must now be the World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP)  at PokerStars.com.  Now entering its fourth year, the WCOOP attracts players from more than 80 countries, making it the most accessible and international of all poker competitions.  The first event of the 2005 WCOOP kicked off with a $ 500 buy-in No-Limit Texas Hold’em tournament.  A record 3,062 players entered, making it the largest major online poker tournament ever.  “I was thrilled with the response to this year’s WCOOP,” said Nolan Dalla, Director of Communications for PokerStars.com. 

“Poker continues to boom and shows no signs of slowing down and this is especially true for online poker.  In this first event alone, the total prize pool amounted to $ 1,531,000, with a first prize of $306,200.  In all, 324 players received prize money, second in number only to the 2005 WSOP main event.  PokerStars was the first site to launch features that have become industry standard.  These include sophisticated multi-table tournaments, integrated game statistics, players’ notes, personalized images, time bank for tournaments and big Betfair’s ring games, satellite tournaments and multi-table sit-and-go tournaments.  To date, PokerStars has dealt over two billion hands and run more than 12 million poker tournaments, awarding over $1bn in prize money.  It is the site where the 2003 and 2004 World Champions of Poker won entry to the WSOP, justifying its claim that it is the site’ where poker players become world champions,’ I was overwhelmed by this year’s WCOOP,” said Lee Jones, Tournament Director and PokerStars’ Poker Room Manager. “We exceeded our $ 8m prize pool guarantee by nearly 60 per cent, making the WCOOP the third largest poker tournament series of any kind so far this year.  No other tournament in history has provided such easy public access to the excitement of high-stakes tournament poker.”

Professional’s view

Of all the players I have met in live card rooms over the last couple of years, almost every one of them has played poker online prior to coming to the casino.  It is such an easy-going and non-threatening way to be introduced to the game of poker.
      It is truly a great way to get started.  So many people become intimidated when faced with all the new stuff going on in a live poker room and it helps if they’ve gotten some of that introduction in the safer environment of an online poker room, sitting in their own home.
      Online poker is also a great introduction to the game because you can play for any price you wish to risk.  At PokerStars, there are free play money games where you can learn the basics.  Once you get familiar with the games and the software, you can move into low stake games and up the ladder as you win.  This way, everybody can pick a price they are comfortably with to start.  Even the smallest games in a live card room are big enough that you can easily lose $100 or more in a bad night.  And that’s a lot more than many people are willing to risk when they’re new.
      I think the main benefit of live poker to online poker sites is glamour.  While there are lots of great reasons to play online, and many more people play online poker than play live in public card rooms.  As such, many people who play online dreams about the day they get to play live.  And such, many more people ply online sites, because it rules the desire of their customers to play more online poker, and thereby improve their skill level, so as to come closer to that dream level, so as to come closer to that dream of winning big in a live game.

Operator’s view

It is fair to say that the UK’s advertising interest in poker has rapidly increased  over the past couple of years.  Whether you are watching television  or reading a lifestyle magazine or national newspaper, the subject is likely to crop up.  This phenomenon is largely due to an increase in public awareness rather than poker being new on the agenda for us or for the gaming industry as a whole.
      Grosvenor Casinos for instance has had a strong poker following for over 20 years.  Our UK casinos have always held major poker festivals and if you speak to any of the players on the circuit they will have played  at some of our events over the years.  So how has this hype come about and what are the synergies between online and live poker?
      There are several contributing factors.  Sites like our own www.bluesqpoker.com have opened up a whole new market for operators and players alike.  They have attracted many new types of player including women, students and beginners in addition to established players.  The option of playing online offers players just that; another option.  There are some who may look to vary their experience by playing online as well as participating in live tournaments and others who simply like to play from the comfort of their own home.  It really is the player’s choice.  From a player perspective, these options also offer different experiences and benefits.  Playing online provides players with a certain anonymity that they will not get in a bricks and mortar casino.  But playing in live events creates an atmosphere that cannot be simulated elsewhere.
      In addition, online card rooms give new players the opportunity to practice their skills and improve before migrating to a live table in their local casino or taking on some bigger tournaments and tougher competition.  For some, this is a step they strive to reach but others have no desire to progress or change their experience.  They simply like to keep that anonymous face.

      The second factor is the rise of celebrity players, who have added an element of glamour to the game.  Celebrities such as Ben Affleck, Zack Goldsmith, Helen Chamberlain and even sports personalities such as Jimmy White have played in some of largest events in the world.  This has created a very accessible public relations angle for the game which press around the world have run with.  In the UK, the world of ‘celebrity’ is a phenomenon in itself, so it is only natural that the two together create interest from the general public.  In essence, that is what the celebrity involvement has done; it has brought poker into the public domain.  This in  turn has helped position poker and other casino games as mainstream leisure pursuits.
      The brings me on to what we believe is the final contributing factor, television Poker on the television is a fairly new concept in Europe, but one that is increasing rapidly.  There are now several dedicated poker channels, as well as wide coverage on satellite, cable and terrestrial networks.  Some events are filmed in a casino environment an some in a simulated casino in a studio.  This enables viewers who have never been in a casino to have a look at what it is like.  This can only help to dispel the myth of casinos being dark, smoke-filled environments and show what the reality is.  This exposure must help viewers to make a conscious decision as to whether  they would like to try their luck at online poker or even visit a bricks and mortar casino to play or enjoy any of the many other experiences on offer. 
      In summary I would say that although the public perception is that poker has just arrived on the social scene and become fashionable, this is a very different perspective to ours and I am sure many other casino operators.  Poker has been part of our business offering for many years.  It is enjoying heightened media attention, but the overall customer interest levels high.  As the popularity of poker increases, we will continue to reassess whether we are doing just that.

 

 

 

 
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