Pennsylvania Online Poker Still in Holding Pattern

Updated: July 31st, 2019 by Haley Hintze

It’s two weeks and change into Pennsylvania’s regulated online gambling regime and the state is off to a slow start, with just three sites online and online poker still seemingly some months away. Worse, from Pennsylvania poker players’ perspective, is that promised online-poker offerings still don’t have a fixed date for when they might be able to go live.

Track back to July 15, when the first two Pennsylvania online-gambling sites arrived with a soft launch. Pennsylvania’s Parx Casino and Hollywood Casino opened that day, offering online slots and house-banked casino table games, and two days later, SugarHouse Casino, which soon will be renamed as Rivers Casino Philadelphia, followed suit. All three online casinos passed through their initial two-to-three-day soft-launch testing phase, through which they were available only a few hours each day, but they are now available around the clock.

Not so for the online poker offerings that continue to wait for their own go-ahead. As Parx and Hollywood went live with soft launches, Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board spokesman Douglas Harbach confirmed in a brief interview with The Philadelphia Enquirer that peer-to-peer gaming, meaning online poker, was still some distance off. “Online peer-to-peer poker, which involves human competitors, is more complicated and will be launched at a later date,” the Enquirer reported Harbach as stating.

While online poker is viewed as a secondary revenue source for the state and most of the casinos who will offer services online, that’s still small comfort for the Pennsylvanians waiting to play and for the poker-focused sites waiting to offer that services.

While at least 10 of Pennsylvania’s land-based casinos will have online casinos running within the next few months, the poker offerings will be more limited, to perhaps just three or four main players. Harrah’s Philadelphia, a Caesars property, will almost certainly launch its offerings in the state, powered by 888. (Whether a separate 888poker site in Philadelphia will launch as quickly is an open question as well.)

An older, former presence, PokerStars, is waiting, too, courtesy of its deal with Pennsylvania’s Mt. Airy casino. When approved it’ll mark only the second US state has regained access to following its “Black Friday” exodus from the States in 2011.

Then there’s partypoker, another former US giant, which like Stars has reestablished itself only in New Jersey to date. party is partnered with Valley Forge Casino, another planned multi-pronged site that has yet to launch.

However, despite the unexpected delays, getting these new online poker sites running for real money still represents only half the hoped-for process. Perhaps the key phrase regarding Pennsylvania’s online-poker future is “shared liquidity”. The state’s population is 13 million, or about the total of New Jersey and Nevada combined. It’s virtually a necessity for the future of thriving regulated online poker in the US for Pennsylvania’s players not only to be brought online, but to be pooled with those of the three other states (also including Delaware) already online to date.

Though it’s not quite certain, one of the holdups in the process may well be the unfinished legal battle between the State of New Hampshire and the US Department of Justice over the reach of the 1961 Wire Act. New Hampshire won the initial ruling, thus opening the door for expanded gambling of several forms across the US, but the DOJ has yet to follow through on its veiled promise to appeal the decision. The DOJ has less than 30 days to file such an appeal, if that’s going to happen.

Since player pooling in online poker across multiple states would run afoul of the Wire Act re-re-interpretation that the current DOJ tried to champion, that’s an additional incentive for the planned Pennsylvania poker sites to just wait a few more weeks and see how the situation plays out. Despite the DOJ’s threats, it’s not at all for sure that the agency has the willingness to go ahead with what seems like a doomed, uphill battle. Meanwhile, neither Pennsylvania nor the planned sites themselves need to rush to put themselves in the target sights of the DOJ, making a significant investment in a live launch only to have it forced back offline by unexpected events.

So, it’s a bit of a wait-and-see moment. Online poker in Pennsyvania is coming. Yet both the date and the ultimate form of it remain a little bit uncertain.

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