At the beginning of 2020, when coronavirus was only starting to grab international headlines, few would have imagined how the year would turn out as it did.
This time a year ago, PRO put together a list of ten online poker developments to look out for in 2020 (part two).
Our speculations covered a wide range of topics from regulations and market expansion to ambassadorships and sponsorship of poker professionals, predictions on game offerings, network changes and even a bold take on Full Tilt.
No one could have foreseen the pandemic outbreak causing unprecedented global turmoil, and the subsequent impact to the online poker industry.
Even so, with 2020 now in the rear-view mirror, it is time to look at how our predictions for the year panned out. And while we did not foresee the industry doubling in size as the world was forced to stay indoors over months of summer, we did predict many of the industry’s other major developments.
Online Poker Will Return in Switzerland
Did we get it right? Yes, almost at the end of the year!
For much of 2020, regulated online poker remained on hold despite licensed online casino gambling proliferating. This finally changed at the end of November after the global online network iPoker, powered by Playtech, became the first regulated online poker room to launch its operations, beating PokerStars.
A network skin quietly went live on November 23 thanks to its partnership with Swiss Casinos, ending an 18-month-long blackout.
The site shares liquidity with the international dot-com market, offering full access to the suite of iPoker games except for the network’s lottery sit and gos Twister and its fast-fold cash game Speed. Swiss Casinos’ Head of Online Patrick Mastai explained to PRO in an exclusive interview last month why launching took so long and its plans for 2021.
PokerStars, thought to be partnered with Casino Davos, one of the casinos in the country to have been approved by the local regulator, is expected to be the next to offer online poker in the country—though it remains to be seen if it continues with its existing partner.
More European Expansion and Approvals in 2020
Did we get it right? Not really.
We predicted that at least one more operator would go live in the European segregated markets. However, little progress was made on this front. 888 did not relaunch its operations in France as anticipated, and Winamax did not receive licenses in either Italy or Portugal.
Run It Once Poker is yet to receive approval from any European regulated market, though the room, along with other operators, did comply with Germany’s “tolerance” policy requirements laid out by regulators ahead of a new regulatory system set to come into effect in 2021.
One positive was partypoker’s parent company GVC Holdings, which extended its reach in Portugal after it bought Portuguese online sports betting operator Bet.PT. This is already approved to offer blackjack, baccarat, roulette and slot machines online for real money and could be expanded into online poker.
GGPoker entered the Estonian market after OlyBet joined its network following the closure of MPN.
TSG Could Retire Full Tilt Brand in 2020
Did we get it right? Yes, just about.
We feel it is time to consolidate brands so that everyone has access to the newest features and most innovative gamesPokerStars is certainly in the process of consolidating its poker brands around PokerStars and retiring Full Tilt Poker. That process is not complete, but major steps were made in 2020—we are being generous and giving ourselves the full point.
The timeline here is not entirely clear. A page on the PokerStars website, titled “Full Tilt shutdown FAQ,” details how the FullTilt.EU desktop and mobile application was made unavailable back in October 13. Players were transitioned over to PokerStars.EU.
The EU client, licensed in Malta, is now used in almost all the jurisdictions that do not have their local licensing, including key regulating markets in Europe. The few exceptions still on dot-com include parts of South America and the few parts of Eastern European and Asia where the company still operates.
“Our commitment to improving PokerStars software and the PokerStars customer experience in recent years has limited the amount of focus and resources we could apply to the evolution of Full Tilt,” the FAQ states. “We feel it is time to consolidate brands so that everyone has access to the newest features and most innovative games which are available exclusively on PokerStars.”
Keeping Full Tilt in sync with these upgrades was obviously an unnecessary extra burden. Indeed, it has already fallen out of step in many key areas, lacking new games like Grand Tour and Tempest. Even Spin and Go Max, now three years old, has not been ported.
While the FAQ is dated October, this went unreported at the time, and only made it onto PRO’s radar in the last few weeks with reports on social media of a forced transition to PokerStars software.
Notably, Full Tilt is still active in the dot-com market and in the UK. However, their web pages have been heavily stripped back, with most links pointing to pages on PokerStars. The primary call to action is to “Download PokerStars,” even though the download is still Full Tilt software. Its full retirement looks imminent.
Run It Once Poker to Expand its Game Offerings
Did we get it right? Yes!
Another correct forecast that came late in the year. In the first week of November, Run It Once Poker finally launched its long-awaited sit and go product under the name SNG Select.
Run It Once’s Select is a unique product, offering players the experience of both a traditional sit and go game or a jackpot “lottery” sit and go (LSNG) under a single player pool.
It marked the first time that the site expanded its game offerings beyond cash games since going live in February 2019.
Anonymous Tables to Go Live on PokerStars
Did we get it right? Yes!
Another prediction ticked off last-minute. Last month, PokerStars launched anonymous tables, dubbed Stealth, on a trial basis in its French and Spanish online poker rooms.
Available only at a few stakes, it marks the first time that the global online giant has allowed players to play without their permanent screen names on display to opponents at the tables.
Anonymous “Stealth” tables went live 14 months after PRO exclusively unveiled the feature. Just as anticipated, all screen names are hidden and replaced by a system-generated alias so players do not know who their opponents are.
The feature is expected to roll out in the global client this year.
Ambassador Shake-Up Will Continue in 2020
Did we get it right? Yes!
We had predicted that 2020 would see a significant reorganization of ambassadorship rosters, and we were not disappointed.
GGPoker added former PokerStars and partypoker ambassador Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier to its roster in April. This was followed by the addition of another former partypoker ambassador Fedor Holz in May.
A few months later, GGPoker announced GGSquad, a new roster that focuses on content creation and community engagement. The roster was led by six poker streamers including Kevin Martin, another former PokerStars and partypoker ambassador, as well as streamer Patrick Tardif, who signed with partypoker back in February 2019.
Not all ambassadors continued their tenure with GGPoker. American professional poker player and topper of All-time Money List Bryn Kenney bid farewell to the company in November.
Meanwhile, partypoker signed one of its biggest stars, Kevin Hart, as its global ambassador and partner. Notably, Hart had previously joined forces with PokerStars, featuring in advertising campaigns alongside Jamaican athlete Usain Bolt.
GGPoker signed up a controversial figure Dan Bilzerian in December.
PRO also rightly predicted that 2020 could see the contracts of PokerStars pros Chris Moneymaker, Celina Lin and Fatima Moreira de Melo expire. Indeed, within a week after PRO published an article on it, De Melo, the last remaining sports star to represent PokerStars, parted ways with the company.
Moneymaker, who served PokerStars for 17 years, chose not to renew his term and announced his departure on New Year’s eve along with the trio of Team OP-Poker, Kalidou Sow, and Mikhail “innerpsy” Shalamov.
In the same month, PokerStars had signed a new deal with Neymar Jr., one of the world’s greatest sports stars, to promote the company’s global brand. However, the signing of Neymar was not the only celebrity signing by the operator: There had been some targeted deals, with big stars in India (cricketing star MS Dhoni), Russia (actor Vladimir Yaglych) and for the sports book (David Ginola).
Also, as anticipated, Run It Once Poker announced its first official ambassador, Kevin Rabichow, a high stakes no limit Hold’em player and coach at the Run it Once training site.
Pennsylvania Will Have Multiple Online Poker Rooms in 2020
Did we get it right? No.
This was a surprise: PokerStars remained the sole operator in Pennsylvania throughout 2020. While there were hopes that partypoker PA under Roar would make its entry into the state and end the de facto PokerStars monopoly, this has still not come to pass.
But there has been forward progress. The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) did grant approval in October to Roar Digital to allow the operator to offer online poker and other iGaming verticals, so a partypoker PA launch should not be too far off.
Another operator, 888, also received its approval as an Interactive Gaming Manufacturer in the same month. But it remains to be seen whether 888 or its partner WSOP go live in Pennsylvania in early 2021.
GGPoker Network Will Thrive in 2020
Did we get it right? Yes!
GGPoker was already showing signs of impressive growth before 2020 had begun. By the end of the year, it has more than tripled in size, as measured by cash game traffic.
The growth has been quite astonishing—more than anyone would have anticipated. The operator grabbed the headlines pretty much throughout the year.
It started 2020 by signing former PokerStars Team Pro from Brazil, Felipe Ramos. It then announced GGMasters, the operator’s $150 buy-in marquee freezeout tournament that quickly doubled in size. In February, it launched a rebranded jackpot-style sit and go game Spin & Gold with an insurance feature.
From April onwards, GGPoker was unstoppable. It shocked the poker industry by striking a deal with the World Series of Poker to host a $100 million-guaranteed Super Circuit Series—at the time, the largest guaranteed online tournament series in history. It also hosted the WSOP Online bracelet series on its platform, giving players the opportunity to win WSOP gold bracelets outside the US for the first time.
At the start of the year, no one would have imagined GGPoker would break the record for the world’s largest online poker tournament. Yet it did so comfortably with its $5K WSOP Online Main Event producing a Guinness World Record prize pool of $27.5 million.
The network also continued to make significant updates to both policy and product. It made real names mandatory for some high-stakes players, and introduced innovative features to its client such as SnapCam, allowing players to record their reactions, Final Table Betting and more.
Today, it averages in excess of 4800 seats to become PokerStars’ main competitor, overshadowing the likes of partypoker and 888poker.
Sky Poker to Move to PokerStars, Ladbrokes to Partypoker
Did we get it right? No, and yes.
While Ladbrokes did eventually move to partypoker platform in mid-year, Sky Poker continues to operate independently in the UK market.
In November 2018, The Stars Group, owner of the Skybet brand, reiterated it planned to move Sky Poker over to PokerStars software. The transition was expected to happen in early 2020 and be “relaunched as Sky Poker by PokerStars.”
Whether the coronavirus pandemic stalled the process or the acquisition of TSG into Flutter shifting the priorities, Sky Poker today remains a separate entity.
Ladbrokes on the other hand has successfully moved from the iPoker network to partypoker as expected. The migration came in May following on the heels of Coral which made the switch in January 2020.
iPoker to Gain MPN Skins
Did we get it right? Yes!
Following the closure of the MPN poker network in May 2020, iPoker was, as anticipated, the biggest beneficiary, gaining close to a dozen MPN poker rooms. It nearly doubled its brands from 11 to 20.
Naturally, traffic grew 25% overnight. Today, it averages close to 1200 concurrent cash game seats. Year-over-year, it has nearly doubled its cash game traffic thanks to the addition of new skins coupled with coronavirus-fueled growth.
Given the unpredictable year, a final score card of 7.5 out of 10 seems respectable. Those that missed all still look very likely in the first half of 2021.
|Online poker in Switzerland||Yes – iPoker/Swiss Casinos||1|
|Euro expansion||Not really||0|
|Full Tilt retirement||Yes, just about||1|
|RIO expands games||Yes, SNG Select||1|
|PokerStars anonymous tables||Yes, Stealth trial in EU||1|
|More PA poker rooms||Surprisingly none yet||0|
|GGPoker will thrive||Beyond expectation||1|
|Sky to PokerStars, Ladbrokes to Party||Ladbrokes did||0.5|
|iPoker gains MPN Skins||Yes||1|