January is typically a time that we see a lot of movement with regard to sponsored online poker pros. Nick and Mike discuss this year’s announcements including the departure of Jason Somerville from PokerStars. On the US online poker front, Michigan has legalized online poker, the Wire Act case had some developments over the holiday period and is partypoker preparing to launch in Nevada?
Mike Gentile: Hello and welcome, everybody, to the Pokerfuse podcast. It is January 9th, 2020. This is episode number 38. I’m your host Mike Gentile, along with my co-host, Nick Jones. This week on the podcast, the godfather of online poker streaming, Jason Somerville, has parted ways with PokerStars. We discuss the impact and take a look at the latest movements in online poker sponsored pros. The State of Michigan has legalized online poker and PokerStars has struck another deal in the state to offer online gaming. We discuss next steps, speculate on when online poker is likely to launch in the state.
Finally, the growth of online poker in the US is tied to the ability of operators to share liquidity across state lines. We’ll update you on the progress in the Wire Act Case and discuss the possibility that partypoker could soon launch in Nevada and share liquidity with New Jersey. January has typically become a time that we’ve seen a lot of activity with regard to sponsored pros in online poker, and this year has been no exception. Nick, what’s happened so far this year with the sponsored pros.
Nick Jones: The big one, certainly, which I’m sure a lot of our listeners will be familiar with is that Jason Somerville, over the holiday period, announced that he was no longer working with PokerStars. In some respects, I originally said it came quite as a surprise to me just due to the close ties that he’s had with PokerStars for five or so years, and quite recently, formed even closer ties with them in terms of the partnership and the studio that he has there in Nevada.
On the flip side, PokerStars has been on this 18-month period now of letting go a lot of their investors. I suppose it’s no surprise that more have fallen, I guess. Jason, along with two more players, the Indian sponsored pro whose name I’ll probably butcher, Aditya Agarwal, who’s been a sponsored pro for also five years, he’s left, and Leo Fernandez, who has been a sponsored pro for PokerStars for like 10-plus years. All those three, we believe, have left the team pro roster.
Mike: Jason did surprise me. I thought he was bulletproof. I figured that his integration into what has seemed to be their priority in Twitch streaming would have insulated him a bit from some of the cuts that we’ve seen PokerStars make recently with their sponsored pro program, but obviously, that is not the case. Jason, obviously, will land on his feet. I think that he’s set himself up pretty well with the Run It Up Studios, as you mentioned, where he is training other streamers, and streamers don’t seem to be going away for online poker. I guess that adds a bit to the surprise factor with Jason.
Nick: Yes. We would have talked about this when we discussed the Daniel Negreanu leaving back in the summer. You never really know what goes on behind the scenes in these discussions. Obviously, it’s Jason who gets to announce it and say that it’s been restrictive, just playing on PokerStars because he can’t play on some other US-facing sites and these things. Maybe there was just a negotiation that fell down, but we know for a fact that PokerStars is aggressively cutting budget here.
We’ve seen 12 or so many big-name pros leave in basically the last— That was just in 2019, actually, including Liv Boeree, Barry Greenstein, Randy Lew, Jake Cody, Kevin, and then we had the trio of big stream too, all now at partypoker, Jaime Staples, Jeff Gross, Kevin Martin. They were all, a year ago, they left. We can say with a lot of confidence that PokerStars doesn’t feel that they have to hold on to these people. Whether it was just a clear case of a no to extending Jason’s contract or whether it was just a negotiation that, ultimately, didn’t work out, we don’t know.
Mike: With Jason, it makes a little bit of sense. As he mentioned, there were some restrictions with regards to playing in the US. The other ambassadors that left as well, and I’m not going to attempt the names there. Those are markets that I think PokerStars is putting forth to push in and so it comes a little bit as a surprise in that regard as well.
Nick: From the Indian side, they do have another Indian investor Muskan Sethi, I believe her name is, who I think signed up last year or the year before. Then they have like a big non-poker ambassador, like a TV presenter who signed up a year or two ago, as well. They’re definitely important markets, and Leo Fernandez he joined— I’m just looking here in 2009, so how long is that he’s been with PokerStars?
Mike: Nine, 11 years.
Nick: Yes, 10-11 years. I think he’s Argentinian, I believe. Doubt he’s American, think Argentinian and big live tournament winner and you would think a critical market— PokerStars might be launching under license in Buenos Aires this year or next year, that’s definitely on the cards. It seems odd, it seems like a lot of the people they lost, it seemed odd that they lost Maria Konnikova just before her book was released, talking all about how she’d become a poker pro a lot by winning like PokerStars live tournament.
A lot of this is strange and PokerStars is still investing a lot in streaming, they signed up a stable of kind of lesser-known Twitch stars, like half a dozen of them I think back in the summer. It’s not from a raw numbers perspective, they still have quite a lot of people on the roster but in terms of the big-name people that a lot of poker players will be familiar with, there’s very few left really.
Mike: It’s interesting that you make that point about them still pursuing streamers. I wonder how are they training them, are they providing them the resources that was done previously, under the deal that they had with Jason Somerville and the Run It Up Studios? They were providing a full suite of training for the streamers to get them on board. Now that that partnership has, at least on the face, dissolved with Jason as an ambassador, I wonder if there’s something still behind the scenes where he’s providing those services to PokerStars and their future streamers?
Nick: Yes, I don’t know. If I were to ask you without looking who is still on the team pro roster, how many do you think you could name?
Mike: Well, Moneymaker for sure.
Nick: Yes, and definitely Moneymaker I think the standout face of PokerStars. Now, he’s been an ambassador for what, like 13 years or something. I think back when the Negreanu thing, we talked about Negreanu couldn’t go no one safe really, and I think we talked about Moneymaker and thought at the time if that’s absolutely someone you could see cut. In fact, what’s happened is, again, maybe through a contract negotiation thing he’s massively increased what he’s doing for the company. He is flying to a lot of stops in Europe and he’s going to play like the Saatchi live stops. He’s the face of a lot of the PSPC promotion this year. Maybe it was all or nothing, but he’s definitely sticking around all this year. Sorry, I interrupted you on your flow there of naming other pros.
Mike: No, no, that was a good point. I do think that they are consolidating behind Moneymaker. I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but it’s definitely the effect that we’ve seen. Others that I could name, I’m going to struggle, I can tell you that right now. I know Jen Shahade because she’s Pennsylvania related and that was something recent that happened. Beyond that, Fatima, I believe is still around. Is Lex a sponsored pro or just a streamer? I’m not entirely sure.
Nick: Yes, I mean technically, yes. If we break it down like that there are now only eight team pros. You named three of them. Chris Moneymaker, Fatima, and Jennifer Shahade, and then there is André Akkari, he’s still there and he’s still a big name. Then the new additions Ramón Colillas, and Kalidou Sow, who were both— One was a PSPC winner. One’s a platinum pass winner. They’re both on the pro roster, and they were already added in the last year. Then on top of that, you’ve got, as we mentioned before, Muskaan Sethi in India, and Celina Lin who promotes PokerStars in the Asian markets. I think that’s it on the pro front.
Mike: Yes, that is quite different from the roster that they’ve had in previous years and just because I know that we’ve talked about it behind the scenes here. I posted an article that we did. What was it? Last year on F5, that was the 10-year challenge? Last year compared to 10 years ago with the PokerStars Pro lineup look like?
Nick: Yes, that’s right.
Mike: Yes, that was pretty interesting to look at. The difference was pretty dramatic then. I would imagine that if we looked at it again today, it would be even more.
Nick: Yes, absolutely. I think the change in just the last year or last two years is perhaps as dramatic as the eight years prior to that. On top of those pros, they then have that team online roster, which includes, as you mentioned, Lex, there’s also Ben Spragg and Fintan Hand who’ve been streaming for a long time. There’s Mikhail Shalamov who I’m not familiar with. I think he might be a fairly recent addition, Russian, if you he didn’t guess from the name there. Felix Schneider and Arlie Shaban and then the OP-Poker team as well. There’s definitely people there still representing the Twitch streaming side.
Mike: We’ve also seen some activity outside of PokerStars when it comes to sponsored pros. Nothing from Party Poker, but we have seen GGNetwork dive in and supplement their pro roster after adding Daniel last year. Who did they add?
Nick: Yes, not soon after they surprised everyone with signing up Daniel Negreanu in November, December time. They have added Felipe Ramos, again, an ex-PokerStars ambassador from, I think he left the company 18 months, two years ago, something like that, has also now just signed. Ramos announced this on Twitter. I don’t think there’s been any other formal announcement. I think it’s flown under the radar a bit of other people.
Mike: Ramos is what? Brazil?
Nick: Yes, Brazilian.
Mike: Okay. It’s interesting that we’re seeing Fernandez and Ramos gone from PokerStars and GGPoker picking up. I always thought that South America was a big target for PokerStars when it comes to emerging markets, but their philosophy behind sponsored pro seems to either indicate that they just don’t see sponsored pros as the shoe in the door or it could be that perhaps, their focus has shifted away from South America.
Nick: I could absolutely see Leo Fernandez get picked up, because again, although he’s more of our radar, I think he is a very well-established pro. He’s always on the live tour, has had a lot of success on the live tour. It was interesting to see since the Negreanu announcement and it was basically Daniel on Twitter saying that he’d signed with GGNetwork, nothing else has really happened. Maybe I’ve missed it, and correct me if I’m wrong here, Mike, but when he was an ambassador of PokerStars, he was doing loads of blogs. He was talking about PokerStars a lot on Twitter a lot and getting involved, and obviously going to their live stops and that kind of thing, but he was that front and center ambassador. This so far has felt very much like he did a tweet that he was an ambassador and that’s been it so far.
Mike: Yes, that could have been part of the appeal with signing with them is just less responsibility, number one. Number two, I think that when it comes to events to promote, live stops, for example, GGPoker is not exactly at the same level as PokerStars is with live stops. That could be another factor there as well, but it’s something that came at a period of time where the holiday period followed, for example. Maybe we will see a big push in 2020 with Daniel Negreanu when it comes to GGPoker.
Nick: I just wonder, if not, I wonder what GG is hoping to get out of it. Because if he’s not— You’re quite right in saying they don’t have a live tour at the moment, to my knowledge, but he’s not there on Twitter talking about new GG features or doing blogs about why GG is really good. Ultimately, he lives a lot of time in Las Vegas where he won’t be able to play on the site. As I understand it, when it was all announced, he was involved in a promotion where he was going to be playing on December 23rd, this final table online.
Mike: Right. Yes.
Nick: I’m not sure if that went down. Obviously, that would have required him to be flying out of Nevada, if that’s where he was just before the holidays, to play a real money online poker tournament. I haven’t heard anything about that since that happened.
Mike: Yes, I haven’t looked into it myself. It’s quite possible that he did. He has family in the Toronto area in Canada, so it’s very possible that he was out of the country anyway during that time period, but if we look at what else GG has done with their other ambassadors— Who’s their top guy that they had before Daniel? Do you know?
Mike: He has a very unique distinction in the poker world.
Nick: Tell me.
Mike: He is the number one on the money list.
Nick: Who’s that? Bryn Kenney.
Mike: Yes, yes. If we look at what they’ve done with Bryn Kenney, it hasn’t really been a lot. If we look at him as the model for what we expect Daniel to do, perhaps it will be a bit more quiet than the exposure that he’s had over at PokerStars.
Nick: Quite right. Well, there you go. Two new ambassadors basically at GGNetwork. Three have left PokerStars. I would expect lots more news in 2020. This trend continuing. Stay tuned for probably more comings and goings.
Podcast listeners who tune in every week. The last time that we recorded, we were waiting for the Michigan governor to sign a slate of bills into law that permits online poker and other forms of online gambling. Mike, take us through what’s happened in the last two or three weeks in Michigan.
Mike: Well, the governor signed the bill. It is law now in the state of Michigan, online poker, online gaming sports betting. All legal. The lawmakers were able to punch it over. What did we refer to the last time? The punch it over the goal line. That is definitely a positive for online poker fans in the state of Michigan. We have also seen PokerStars establish another deal in the state of Michigan. Similar to the other States in the US, online gaming, online poker has been approved but the companies, the providers need to form some partnership with a land-based casino.
In the state of Michigan, there are three commercial casinos in the city of Detroit and I believe 23 other casinos throughout the state. Not exactly sure that number but those are all tribal casinos. We saw PokerStars this week announce that they have struck a deal with, wait, let me get it. The Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indian Gaming Authority. You had the names last segment. I get this one.
Nick: It was interesting reading your articles on both Pokerfuse and PRO. What I found interesting was the PokerStars and the stars group already had a partnership in place for access to Michigan along with dozens of other States. They’d been following these partnerships over the last two years. They did already have access. This was, as I understand it, first skin access, so this basically locks down that they are going to be the primary provider for this tribal casino.
Mike: Right. They were in a bit of a tricky position when the law did get passed because they had struck a previous deal with Penn National Gaming where that would allow them the option of second skin access, but the law in Michigan requires that— You can have two skins but two different brands, one for casino, one for poker. Obviously, the stars group wants to get in and offer both poker and casino as I’m sure other operators do as well. That would have probably left them on the outside looking in when it comes to access to Michigan.
They went ahead. They struck this deal with the tribal gaming. I believe they have two casinos throughout the state. They will have some land-based promotion as well but this gives them first skin access and allows them to brand using their Fox Bet and PokerStars brands.
Nick: Remind us just how big of a deal is Michigan in the— It’s the sixth state now including West Virginia, which is yet to come online. Where does Michigan sit in terms of importance with the other states that have legalized online poker?
Mike: There’s a lot of things you can look to. Population obviously is one. The income of the state to determine how likely people are to have extra disposable income to spend on online gaming. Probably the biggest factor to consider with Michigan is that it builds on the other states and that makes it an even bigger deal. The more states that legalize online poker, obviously, the more accepted it becomes, the more likely that other states will see that as a model, look at their success and follow suit as well. Until we see things clear up with the Wire Act, it’s probably going to be less of an impact that it would be if shared liquidity was uncontested in the US.
Nick: We’ll be talking more about that in the next segment because there’s been a lot of news on that front as well. Just on the Michigan front, as I understand it, Mikey, it’s signed into law now, so the next step is over to the Michigan Gaming Control Board to sketch out the regulations and ultimately start a licensing suitability procedure. They will be setting the timeline.
Mike: Yes, it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. They can go the way of New Jersey who went from soup to nuts, I think in like nine months, or it could be more along the lines of Pennsylvania, which took, I think it was nearly two years from the time that they signed that bill into law, to the time they actually launched online poker. If I had to identify which one I think it would be closer to, I think they’re probably going to be closer, along the lines of New Jersey. I don’t see it taking that long. It’s still probably a long shot that we would see online poker launch before the end of 2020.
Nick: It’s unfortunate really because one would like to say as more states come online, the regulators would have learned from the work that their previous regulators have done. There’s basically stuff that you can just copy. You can go and talk to them and learn best practices and the third-party provider’s geolocation and all that are already set up and can demonstrate. There’s a lot of work done.
Yet the Pennsylvania process was so much poorer, slower than what we saw in New Jersey, which, in retrospect, the New Jersey process was really quite slick for poker. We had a coordinated synchronized day-one launch with a bunch of online poker rooms going live and promoting. Pennsylvania couldn’t have been further from that. That was like four or five years later. It makes it very hard to predict which way Michigan will go.
Mike: Yes. I think part of the reason that we see this disparity in the way the different states handle their online gaming regulation is probably because of the interest in those states. Different business interests make for a unique set of circumstances in each place. Yes, they do have the advantage of being able to learn from what other states have done before them, but those lessons may not always apply, depending on what types of business interests are alive and putting pressure on them in the states?
Nick: Cool. Michigan maybe in a year’s time. Maybe Q1 2021, Mike, the first online poker rooms could be live in Michigan, probably with close liquidity as we’re seeing with PokerStars in Pennsylvania.
Mike: I am holding out hope that we could still see online poker launch before the end of the year. I wouldn’t say it’s likely, but I do think it’s possible. Then the other question is, will they come out of the gate with shared liquidity? There’s a lot of things that depends on, but I also think that’s possible that that could happen as well.
Nick: How about we put a music break in here and then we’ll revisit this conversation of shared liquidity in the United States because there’s been a lot of news going on there as well.
There’s actually been two pieces of news, important pieces of news that have happened over the last few weeks regarding the hope that shared liquidity across state lines in the United States will proliferate. One hand, Mike, we had further updates in the Wire Act Case brought by the— I forget the lottery now. Which state was it?
Nick: New Hampshire. That was it. What’s the latest on that?
Mike: There was quite a bit of activity over the holiday period. We had a deadline, I believe it was the 20th of December that the DOJ had to actually file their appellate brief, which is them explaining to the court why they feel that the district court decision should be overturned. They did get that. They filed it actually on the last day, it was a Friday. Then we saw the very next Monday, New Hampshire come in and asked for an extension to respond. They typically would have, I believe, it’s 30 days to respond and file their own brief, but they came in and they asked for an extension, and therefore their deadline has been kicked down the road to February 26. That is the next shoe to fall in that process. While they did come in and request that before the end of the year, the court did not actually approve that until first business day of 2020. They have been extended, and that is where we expect to see the next things happening in that case.
Nick: The Wire Act reinterpretation, we’re almost approaching a year ago that it was happening. It was early 2019, wasn’t it?
Mike: Yes, it was. I believe the suit was filed on the 15th of February 2019. We are approaching a full year of this case being active in the court system.
Nick: All of this now is just being pushed back in extensions, is this just how these things go? They are slow, they are laborious, there is a lot of bureaucracy and back and forth. Is that just par for the course for these types of things?
Mike: Yes, it definitely seems to be one of the interesting things, the interesting developments that happened as well over that time period was the Attorney General’s Office came in and they had previously had this moratorium or this forbearance period, on prosecuting anybody under the new DOJ opinion of the Wire Act. The language that was used there was that there was a deadline of the 31st of December, or 60 days after a final determination was made in the case.
Well, what happened is they came and they provided an extension to that deadline, which really wasn’t necessary, because we haven’t had the final determination, the case is still working its way through the appellate court process right now. That was unnecessary, but when they did extend that deadline, which they extended to June 30th, so the first half of 2020. What they didn’t include was verbiage that said, “or 60 days after the final determination.” That part was removed. It’s hard to know if that was intentional, so that now that they’re setting a clear, hard deadline of when they will start enforcement, or if that was just an omission, and that there will be the possibility or the probability of future extensions of that deadline.
Nick: What we’ve got, obviously, is this. It’s frozen, like the current status quo in the sense of the one side that is showing liquidity, WSAP and ATA Tech Network across three states is clearly planning to continue doing that until the point that it absolutely feels it cannot. New states like Pennsylvania clearly do not have much appetite to proceed with this whilst this court case is going on. We can assume that while this is carrying on, we’re not going to see for example PokerStars in Pennsylvania being able to connect their player pool in New Jersey.
Mike: Pennsylvania has definitely been conservative with regards to the new DOJ opinion. They’re definitely making sure that they don’t cross that line. Whether or not we see somebody like Michigan also take that approach or if they take the approach that is more similar to New Jersey, who has not rescinded its provisions that allow for shared liquidity. That’s to be determined. It’s very possible that Michigan comes online and says, “You know what? While this is still being decided, we are going to allow PokerStars or whoever else launches in the state to share liquidity with these other states that have legalized online gambling. That’s possible. It depends on the risk factor of each and every regulatory body and each state as they come online.
Nick: Which is with all that in mind, surprising the news that came this week or the kind of the leaks information that hinted the partypoker US operation which is partypoker and Borgata and playMGM have a combined network in New Jersey. The hint that that might expand into Nevada. We know and we would have talked on this podcast that GVC, partypoker’s parent company, were approved for interactive gaming in Nevada, and that equates to only online poker in Nevada effectively. There are proof of that, but then there were no further moves. That was a bit surprising at the time and we thought maybe it’s a preparatory step, getting ready in case this Wire Act clarification, but then we saw what was effectively a customer email which was then shared on Twitter by Kev Math, Kevin Mathis, that hinted that there was this new name The PartyPoker US network and a promotion which was so sizable, it did suggest that they might be expanding into two new states.
Mike: Yes, it was a bit surprising. When I first saw it I said, “Well, US network could be just confined to New Jersey.” Because technically, it is a network you have multiple skins operating on the same platform, but as you pointed out, the size of that guarantee in that tournament falls a bit. It seems a lot bigger than just New Jersey alone. You combine that with last year partypoker getting approved in Nevada and even just as we’re recording this, it was just yesterday that GVC went before the Gaming Control Board in Nevada and received approval for sports betting.
There is definitely some activity by GVC in the state of Nevada, the timing of the promotion, there’s a 250,000 guaranteed tournament scheduled to take place at the end of March, which is just a couple of months before the start of the WSOP, which I’m sure if GVC and partypoker are looking to launch in Nevada, that that has to be on their radar because that is the biggest time of the year in that particular market for online poker.
Nick: Yes. If they were going to get the word out and promote it, that’s exactly the time that you would want to do is the build-up to that. I think the point that you make there, Mike, is absolutely key and one that I think I’ve seen missed in a lot of the discussion around this is, it’s the size of that promotion because in New Jersey, that network is the smallest of the three.
It’s still sizable but they’ve definitely took the foot off the gas in the last year or two when PokerStars entered the market, they were trying to compete for the biggest guaranteed tournament series, the Garden State Super Series. The last year or two they’ve really just eased off on that. They haven’t run it or it’s been really quite small like $200,000 or $300,000 guarantees rather than million dollar plus series that we saw in the past.
For them to come out with this much bigger promotion out of nowhere really does suggest that they have big plans. Otherwise, without that factor, as you say, absolutely this could have just been an internal name that they’ve got that wasn’t meant to be used publicly, hidden, maybe something in the future. This would be reading it into it way too much just because one customer support or promote marketing guys said PartyPoker US Network. hose two factors combined does give some weight to this idea.
Mike: Yes. We’ve also seen over the past year there has been changes internally behind the scenes with regard to the PartyPoker Network, specifically with Roar Digital coming in and taking over operations for their high gaming. That has been a change. It could be the reason that things are starting to ramp up again. There was likely a transition period there where they were getting their feet on the ground and trying to get the lay of the land and perhaps now they’re ready to start reviving New Jersey.
That’s definitely a possibility. They also have their eyes on Nevada. We have not yet gotten confirmation from GVC that they do plan to launch in Nevada this year or early this year, but it is something that we’ll definitely be keeping an eye on and trying to see how that plays out in the very near future.
Mike: Well, that wraps up this episode of the pokerfuse podcast. As a reminder, please give us a like and a subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. You can also follow us and interact with us on Twitter. Nick is at @pokerprojones. I am @SpookyBugs. Thanks, everyone for tuning in.