More than a year and a half since Pennsylvania passed online gambling licensing legislation, the first real money internet gaming sites – other than sportsbooks – have opened up in the Keystone State. However, the first day of operations on Monday, July 15, 2019 saw exactly zero state-licensed online poker rooms spreading games. Only a couple of internet-based casinos have thus far begun offering their legalized slots and table games to people in the state.
Hollywood Casino, located in Grantville and operated by Penn National, was the first to unleash its online product sometime before noon. The software partner of Hollywood is IGT.
The Gaming menu present leaves a lot to be desired. Early reports suggest that there are only around 40 slots available along with fewer than a dozen video Poker machines and a handful of table games. Oddly, there's no blackjack of any kind to be found within the website.
Hollywood has not yet launched an online sportsbook, so its present foray into internet gambling is its first. Perhaps this partially explains the Spartan nature of its site.
The second internet casino to appear in the Pennsylvania regulated market was Parx, which calls Bensalem home. In partnership with software house GAN, Parx online began its casino gaming business on Monday afternoon.
Though the number of slots that debuted at Parx was in the same ballpark as Hollywood's lineup, management added more of them throughout the day. As it now stands, Parx has the wider gaming variety of the two.
Furthermore, Parx has blackjack, which Hollywood lacks, in addition to a couple of video poker variants and roulette.
Parx had already dipped its toe into the internet betting scene with an online sports wagering site that opened in June. It's thus better positioned than rival Hollywood to aggressively grow its virtual gaming presence.
Limited Hours for Now
There's something else that caught our eye when visiting the Hollywood Casino online PA platform. We tried to gather some info from the firm's website at around 11:30 p.m. ET Monday night. However, we were greeted with the following message:
That's right – you can only play in the casino at certain times. This is because Hollywood is still in its soft launch period, with the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board watching closely for any mishaps, and it won't be able to stay open 24/7 until it passes through this phase. Parx is in the middle of a similar soft launch and is also restricted in this way. Assuming all goes well, this constraint will be lifted in a few days.
Until these teething issues are dealt with and in the past, it may be preferable for Pennsylvanians to explore their options for unregulated online casinos. At these sites, they will at least have hundreds of titles to choose from rather than the paltry selection at these two first PA internet casino destinations.
What About the Others?
The launch of just two casinos and zero poker sites on Day 1 of the new PA licensed online gaming economy is a bit disheartening to say the least. It leaves us wondering when the other license holders intend to unveil their products.
We've heard credible reports that SugarHouse Casino will go live with its casino offering, PlaySugarHouse, on Wednesday, July 17. However, this still leaves the following casinos that have not yet announced exact target dates for jumping into the pool:
- Mohegan Sun
- Mount Airy
- Presque Isle
- Stadium Casino
- Valley Forge
- Wind Creek
All of the above casinos – joined by, of course, Parx, Hollywood and SugarHouse – hold online licenses for both table games and slots. Furthermore, there are seven online poker licensees. They are as follows:
- Mount Airy
- Valley Forge
- Wind Creek
While we don't exactly know what these entities have in mind poker-wise, it's extremely likely that Mount Airy will be the home of PokerStars in The Quaker State. Valley Forge will probably bring forth a poker site in partnership with PartyPoker while Harrah's may employ either the 888 or WSOP brands.
The other entities that have plans for PA online poker are a bit more speculative, but Rush Street Gaming has allegedly developed its own in-house card game software that it intends to supply to SugarHouse Casino, its brick-and-mortar property. Other names being thrown around include IGT (the successor to the ancient Boss Media poker package) and Pala Interactive (a participant in the legalized NJ online poker scene).
Why Is Poker Being Given Short Shrift?
The astute among our readers will have noticed already that there are 10 organizations with casino table game and slot licenses; yet only 7 have sprung for internet poker accreditation. This is all the more surprising when we consider that obtaining table and slot licenses requires the payment of $8 million upfront whereas a three-in-one license covering slots, casino table fare, and poker runs just $10 million.
Or in other words, adding poker to the other two types of gambling would cost just $2 million more than the $4 million apiece demanded of prospective table game and slot licensees. Yet, no legalized internet poker sites are currently active in Pennsylvania, and only PokerStars appears to have any intention of opening up anytime soon.
Part of the explanation undoubtedly lies in the recent Department of Justice Wire Act memorandum, which overturned legal guidance that had been in effect since 2011. Basically, the DoJ opined that the Wire Act prohibited all interstate gambling, not just sports betting as it had previously believed.
If the Justice Department is correct, then interstate compacts to share poker player liquidity, like the agreement now in existence between New Jersey, Nevada, and Delaware, would be illegal. This would have a severe dampening effect on the value of any licensed online poker site because it would make it harder to generate a critical mass of self-sustaining traffic.
The framers of the Pennsylvania law that authorized online gaming clearly intended to pursue such a compact as evidenced by the following language in the bill, which is part of an enumeration of the powers and duties of the Gaming Control Board:
(26) Negotiate and enter into interactive gaming reciprocal agreements on behalf of the Commonwealth to govern the conduct of interactive gaming between interactive gaming certificate holders in this commonwealth and gaming entities in other states or jurisdictions.
New Hampshire challenged the DoJ's interpretation, and the Granite State won an initial victory in court. Still, the federal government said it would appeal the decision, and major corporations and state authorities probably wish to see how the final verdict turns out before beginning any forms of gaming that might be negatively impacted.
The legal aspects of the situation are for sure a large ingredient in the failure of poker enterprises to get the ball rolling with respect to PA internet poker. However, as is usually true, money plays a big role in their decision-making process too.
Simply put, online poker is nowhere near as profitable as online casino or sportsbook endeavors. This is clear to see from the revenue numbers out of New Jersey, the state with the biggest regulated internet gambling economy in the United States.
Figures from the New Jersey Department of Gaming Enforcement attest to the fact that total online revenue for the year ending December 2018 was $298.7 million. Of this sum, just $21.4 million was accounted for by “Peer-to-Peer” games, which refers to poker. The internet gaming win from casino activities increased 25.3% from 2017 whereas poker showed a decline of 11.8%.
When it comes to sports wagering, online bookmakers made $53.6 million – more than double what online poker accounted for. This is all the more remarkable when we reflect upon the fact that the first legal internet sportsbooks in the state began taking bets in August, meaning that their “year” consisted of only five months.
It's easy to see why Pennsylvania corporations are prioritizing casino and sports operations while putting poker on the back burner. Quite reasonably, they are taking the lead with their prime money-making opportunities and relegating less profitable niche gaming to the sidelines.
You Can Play Today
If you're a resident of Pennsylvania who's itching to head to the virtual tables, then you needn't wait for the seven online poker license holders to get their collective acts together. You can join up at a reputable offshore poker site today and play for real money.
These international online cardrooms are not worried about the Wire Act or any other U.S. law because they're based in jurisdictions that are outside the reach of Federal law enforcement. You too are safe because Pennsylvania's statutes don't criminalize the act of gambling unless you're actually a manager or owner of a site.
For a rundown of where you can play online, check out our Pennsylvania online poker page. Residents of other states can instead hop over to our comprehensive USA internet poker guide.