It is a classic hollywood narrative, a high stakes poker game where the odds are stacked and lives depend on the outcome. The setting of the casino has lit up the sliver screen since cinema’s adolescence with audiences never getting bored of that tense final hand or one shot roll of the dice. Whilst movie characters, mainly villains, often resort to the underhanded or almost impossible to win, in reality they could have saved themselves a lot of stress, and possibly a lengthy prison sentence, by doing a bit of online training and winning the old-fashioned, honest way.
That answer to that is a simple one at first glance: it is headed into an era of regulation and accountability, one in which a Full Tilt Poker-like squandering of player funds will be just as impossible as the Absolute Poker/Ultimate Bet insider cheating. An era in which the perpetrators of such schemes won’t have to be held accountable, because it will be impossible for anyone to do anything as vile and despicable as conning people out of their hard-earned money. At first glance, the future does seem bright, and the game may yet get there indeed, but those who know a thing or two about the inner workings of the online poker industry understand that the legalized/regulated sort of online poker utopia depicted above – if it exists at all – is really far down the road, so far down in fact, that the industry may never get there in its current shape and form.
Online poker regulation has been underway in Europe for a while now, and what has been made clear by the process thus far is that small operators, be they honest or crooked, do not have a seat at the table. This fact has been reflected in the dwindling poker room review sections of major online poker portals like pokerstop.com, which saw many of their listed operators evaporate, the sites fallen victim to this current period of transition. Online poker giants like PokerStar and a handful of others have managed to secure licenses in most of Europe’s regulated markets, but whereas before there was one major online poker compact where players from all over the continent and even the world could play at the same table, the post-regulation market has become a mosaic of smaller parts, a fragmented shadow of its former self, where raising proper player liquidity has become a major challenge.
Although the EU has generally been opposed to this market-fragmentation which – at the end of the day – is about favoritism towards local interests, but only if the outside operator looking to break into the market isn’t a PokerStars-like 500 lb gorilla, many of the member states have gone ahead implementing protectionist measures thus essentially denying smaller operators any semblance of a chance to ever peddle their games and promotions to their citizens.
In the US, the outlook isn’t any brighter for the small guys either. As the legalized area of the US online poker market is slowly but surely expanding, having started out in Nevada and having later secured a foothold in New Jersey too, it is increasingly obvious that the new playing ground is by no means level. Local big dogs are muscling in, but since they possess neither the technological prowess nor the required experience in the vert, they strike up deals and partnerships with the major online poker operators to put together a viable business. The two legal online poker operators (Ultimate Poker and WSOP.com) currently pushing the frontlines in Nevada have thus far only managed to shed a light on the incondite nature of the intra-state market, which – in its current state – is basically screaming for inter-state compacts.
Starting up an online poker business under these conditions is no longer a matter of joining an established network and putting up a website, although that may indeed turn out to be a good thing in the long run.