2019 Online Poker Legislative Recap
Positive strides were made across the US online poker legislative landscape in 2019, including PokerStars going live in Pennsylvania

Regulated online poker in the US made some leaps in 2019, and if the market can have a similar legislative year in 2020 as it did in 2019, things will be moving along quite nicely. In 2019, Pennsylvania online poker went live, West Virginia entered the regulated arena, and Michigan redeemed itself.

Pennsylvania Goes Live

As the saying goes, it’s better late than never. Following up on Pennsylvania’s regulation of online poker in late 2017, Kevin O’Toole, executive director of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, announced in April of 2019 that that PA online poker would go live on July 15.

The announcement was a very welcomed one, especially by players in the Keystone State. With a population of 12.8 million, Pennsylvania would become the largest state to have regulated online poker, topping New Jersey’s 8.9 million. Just days after O’Toole’s announcement on when Pennsylvania online poker would go live, it was revealed that seven casinos had been approved to operate online poker in the state, including PokerStars and partypoker. After plenty of time had passed between signing of the bill and the PGCB’s announcement on when online poker would go live in Pennsylvania, things were finally moving forward.

As the days rolled by, more and more poker players become anxious for what was to come in Pennsylvania, but unfortunately the launch date of July 15 was not going to happen. Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months as the wait went on. Finally, the poker community received the news that PokerStars was to begin testing real-money online poker in Pennsylvania on November 4.

PokerStars PA’s soft launch proved a success and the site officially went live on November 6, 2019.

Less than two weeks after opening its virtual doors, PokerStars PA announced the first-ever Pennsylvania Championship of Online Poker. The series called for 50 events and $1 million in combined prize pool guarantees. The inaugural PACOOP got off to a roaring start, so much so that organizers opted to bump up the guarantees for the events not once but twice.

As 2019 came to a close, PokerStars was the only operator live in Pennsylvania. The site has shown solid numbers, both in tournaments and cash games, and it will be interesting to see which operator decides to be next in line. With other operators in play, we’ll be able to get our first look at the competitive landscape in the Keystone State, although PokerStars PA has done well to get a head start by launching in November 2019.

The best thing to come from PokerStars PA’s launch was the lack of hiccups exhibited elsewhere, like when New Jersey launched, for example. The regulated online poker industry is more mature in the US and a lot has been learned and improved upon in the time since NJ launched regulated online poker. Going forward, we anticipate other states that come on board will have a similarly streamlined launch phase to what we saw in Pennsylvania.

Michigan Redeems Itself

At the end of 2018, it was thought that Michigan was going to be the next state to regulate online poker. Just days before Christmas, Michigan lawmakers passed a bill to legalize online poker. All that was needed was a signature from Gov. Rick Snyder and Michigan would be off and running towards launch. Snyder had other plans, though.

Days after the bill was sent to Snyder’s desk by lawmakers, Snyder vetoed the bill.

Just about one year passed and a bill that included regulated online poker was back on the governor’s desk in Michigan, only this time it was the desk of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Unlike her predecessor, Whitmer signed the bill into law. With a state population of nearly 10 million, it is hoped that Michigan regulated online poker will be similar to what can be seen in Pennsylvania upon launch.

Whitmer was involved in the process of drafting the bill, which lended itself to greater confidence that the bill would get signed into law once it reached her desk. The bill does have language in it that does not allow for interstate liquidity, as Whitmer had concerns over online slot revenues potentially leaving the state. Things might eventually change for Michigan to allow interstate player pooling, but we’ll have to wait and see in that regard, just like what’s happening in Pennsylvania.

West Virginia Legalizes Online Poker

Before Michigan became the sixth state to legalize online poker and before regulated online poker went live in Pennsylvania, West Virginia became the fifth state to welcome legalized online poker. Via passing of the West Virginia Lottery Interactive Wagering Act, online poker is now regulated in the Mountain State.

The bill was approved overwhelmingly by both the House and Senate in West Virginia before it was sent to the desk of Gov. Jim Justice. Justice did not act on the bill before the 15-day deadline, which allowed the bill to become law.

Those in West Virginia are still waiting for the next steps to take place, as regulators are currently working on putting everything in place that will lead up to launch.

Although one of the smaller states in the US in terms of population, with a figure of 1.8 million, the more states that are on board with regulated online poker, the better.

Wire Act Only Applies To Sports Betting

Entering the 2019 WSOP, there was some uncertainty surrounding the WSOP.com online gold bracelet events that were set to take place across the interstate player pools of Nevada and New Jersey. But at the beginning of June, Judge Paul Barbadoro of the US District Court concluded that the Wire Act only applied to sports betting.

“I hereby declare that § 1084(a) of the Wire Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1084(a), applies only to transmissions related to bets or wagers on a sporting event or contest,” Barbadoro wrote in conclusion. “The 2018 OLC Opinion is set aside.”

The new opinion came following the Department of Justice’s claim that the Wire Act applied to all forms of online gambling, which is what caused the uncertainty to surround the WSOP.com online gold bracelet events. The new opinion, however, gave the green light for interstate WSOP.com online gold bracelet events to move forward without issue.

As regulated online poker continues to try and make strides, the new opinion from Barbadoro was very much viewed as a win. What followed was a record-breaking year for WSOP.com online gold bracelet events.

WSOP.com Named Official NFL Sponsor

Although WSOP.com, which is currently live in Nevada and New Jersey and has interstate player pooling across the two states, did not launch operations in a new state in 2019, it did have an exciting bit of news announced. In November, it was announced that WSOP.com was named an official sponsor of the NFL.

The partnership stemmed from an earlier announcement at the beginning of the year when Caesars Entertainment Corporation, parent company of the WSOP and WSOP.com, was selected as the first-ever Official Casino Sponsor of the NFL.

As part of the partnership, WSOP.com launched the ‘Sit ‘N’ Go to the Super Bowl’ promotion to provide players with the opportunity to win a trip for two to Miami for Super Bowl LIV.

Looking Ahead To 2020

As we said off the top, if 2020 continues with the same sort of advancements that happened in 2019, regulated online poker in the US will be moving along nicely. What this means is one or two new states coming on board and at least one more operator going live in Pennsylvania.

Both Michigan and West Virginia have passed bills to regulated online poker, but timetables have yet to be determined for when sites will go live. It seems that online poker will be live in Michigan before West Virginia, but for now we’re left waiting to see what’s next from these two states. Best hopes are that Michigan, due to its size, has an efficient timetable to and through launch, mirroring the success of Pennsylvania’s launch.

In Pennsylvania, look for WSOP.com to go live sometime in 2020. Of course, without interstate liquidity sharing, WSOP.com players in Pennsylvania will be separate from those playing in Nevada and New Jersey. Competition within a market is almost always a good thing and having a powerful brand such as the WSOP alongside PokerStars in the market should help raise the bar for what’s offered to PA online poker players in addition to providing a second option of play.

WSOP.com going live in Pennsylvania, if it were to happen ahead of the 2020 World Series of Poker, could positively affect the massive live festival that takes place in Las Vegas every summer, too. An online gold bracelet event likely wouldn’t be in the cards, but satellites offering players opportunities to win their way to compete in WSOP gold bracelet events in Las Vegas would certainly be expected. WSOP.com has already started running satellites for the 2020 WSOP for players in Nevada and New Jersey.

With a new governor in office, Kentucky is a state to watch in 2020. Rep. Adam Koenig tried to push through legislation in 2019 but ultimately fell short in an effort to legalize both online poker and sports betting. Koenig has said he will try again in 2020 and his efforts could be supported by one very important person.

The state’s former governor, Matt Bevin, was against gambling. The state’s new governor, Andy Beshear, who previously served as Kentucky’s attorney general, appears to be very much for regulated gambling. As attorney general, Beshear urged legislators to allow legalized gambling. Much like a new governor helped get regulated online poker over the finish line in Michigan, Beshear could be pivotal in Kentucky getting legalized online gambling, including online poker.