Bill O'Driscoll, Reno Gazette Journal
RENO, Nev. - Nevada will lead the nation into the world of legal, real-money Internet gambling with Tuesday's launch of a Las Vegas-based online poker site.
UltimatePoker.com will deal the first hand at noon ET to in-state gamblers in what its operators, as well as industry observers, see as a watershed moment for gaming.
"This is, for Nevada, a new day," said Reno gaming analyst Ken Adams. "There's been a huge amount of speculation on what online gaming means. Estimates in New Jersey run from $20 (million) to $30 million to $2 (billion) to $3 billion. The only way to find out is when it starts. Up to now, we've been talking in theories. Now we'll get a peek at reality."
Ultimate Poker is a subsidiary of Station Casinos LLC of Las Vegas, which operates 16 locals-oriented casinos throughout Southern Nevada and touts itself as the nation's first provider of legal, secure online poker.
Other states, notably New Jersey and Delaware, are scrambling with plans for full online casino-style gambling but are still working out regulatory and other routes to operational status.
Nevada broke from the pack in February with fast-tracked legislation authorizing online poker, and Ultimate Poker is setting the pace after final approval from gaming regulators earlier this month for a 30-day field trial starting Tuesday.
"Being the first is a big deal. It's important for Nevada. Nevada is the first to go live," said Tom Breitling, chairman of Ultimate Poker.
Added CEO Tobin Prior, "We have a lot to learn, but everybody's talking about it. Lots of people are dealing poker in an unregulated environment. This is the first step for the proper, legitimate environment."
Online poker will be available 24/7, but there are restrictions. Players must be at least 21 years old and physically within the state's boundaries to play, two rules which Breitling is confident his company's "complicated and sophisticated" software can police.
And so far, only online poker will be played - with bets as little as a penny - on personal computers from accounts funded by MasterCard, checks, wire transfers or person-to-person at any Station casino.
For Northern Nevada, Breitling said, Ultimate Poker has plans for marketing its online poker but will settle for using word of mouth and the media for now.
Locally, casinos, which have struggled amid a 30 percent decline in Washoe County gaming revenues over the past decade, are watching.
"We continue to look at our options as far as getting involved in online poker," said Bill Hughes, spokesman at the Peppermill Resort Spa Casino in south Reno. "We have a beautiful poker room, and we feel comfortable that our local players will continue to play live poker in our poker room."
At the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa, whose application for an intrastate online gaming license was approved last year, "We are still evaluating potential interactive software providers at this time," said spokeswoman Ashley Brune.
Breitling said casino poker generates just 1 percent of all gaming revenues in Nevada, and he believes the online option, starting with Limit Texas Hold 'em and No Limit Texas Hold 'em, will only grow new business.
"We see very little cannibalizing. We believe it creates a new industry," he said. "Online poker will only be complementary to the core industry."
He said the key demographic is the 21- to 45-year-old male who "embraces technology" and has disposable income.
Still to come are broader concerns, notably online gambling crossing state lines, which will require interstate compacts and could spur federal regulatory attention.
"Clearly, things are moving at the state level. But we think there is a very real possibility for compacts," Prior said.
To that end, he sees California as adding "a lot of value" to a compact.
"California has the largest market in the U.S., and Nevada has the best regulatory bodies. The hardest one will be the first," he said of any compact.
For now, Tuesday's launch is the key opening volley, Adams said.
"There are lots of questions. How much traffic can it generate? How will they market it?
"This is like 1978 in Reno when the MGM-Grand opened. We'd never had a corporation like that before, that big a player," he said. "This is a new era, and we really don't know what to expect. There are a lot of what-ifs. But certainly this puts us on the road to understanding."
Reno Gazette Journal