Ultimate beginnings

Ultimate beginnings

Monday, 1 July 2013

Online poker is back in the US and it has a name – Ultimate Poker

“I fell in love with poker as soon as I learnt how to play as a teenager,” wrote high-stakes poker player Jay “pr1nnyraid” Rosenkrantz recently. “I obsessed over online poker during college; played and taught professionally for five years after graduating. Online poker was my passion, my game, my past and my present. It was supposed to be my future. It was my identity, and now it was snatched from me by forces I couldn't control.”

Rosenkrantz’s reaction to effective shutdown of online poker in the United States by the Department of Justice is typical of many Americans to whom poker was not only a game but a livelihood. Black Friday, April 15, 2011, signalled the end of the dream, and Rosenkrantz’s new film BET RAISE FOLD: The Story of Online Poker documents the anguish of a generation of players who had grown wealthy and successful from online poker. Many were forced to move to Canada following Black Friday in order to resume their careers. The average American, meanwhile, was reduced to playing “social poker games” such as Zynga Poker, dull “all-in” fests where the lack of real currency involved divested the game of meaning and destroyed the dynamics.

But finally, after a torrid two years, some good news. In March, it emerged that the hundreds of millions of dollars held by the DOJ for the repayment of US Full Tilt players would soon be redistributed and an independent claims administrator has been appointed to handle the project. And then, on April 30th, 2013, at 9am Las Vegas time, the first ever completely kosher, fully-regulated hand of online poker was dealt in the history of the United States.

UltimatePoker.com, no relation to the scandal rocked UltimateBet.com, may only be able to accept players within Nevada right now, but the fact that it exists at all represents a triumph for those who have fought tooth and nail for online poker regulation in America; a fight that for so long looked to be in vain. Other states, notably New Jersey, will shortly follow in Nevada’s footsteps, but The Silver State is currently the only jurisdiction far enough down the regulatory compliance road to offer real-money poker.

As other states embrace regulation, it is possible that intra-state player pools may be shared but that would seem to be some way off. For now, it’s expected that other sites will go live in Nevada in the third quarter of 2013, most noticeably WSOP.com, whose advertising billboards in Las Vegas are currently hinting as such, but Ultimate Poker has the advantage of being first off the blocks.

“It’s a new day in online gaming,” said Tom Breitling, Ultimate Poker Co-founder and CEO on launch day. “Nevada is first, and Nevada should be proud. Nevada took the leadership position on this.”

While being first into the market may be an advantage, however, it also puts a lot of pressure on the fledgling poker site. Other potential operators will be watching closely and the success or failure of Ultimate Poker will have ramifications across the entire country and could wildly affect future regulatory endeavors. If the site fails to produce the revenue that analysts have predicted, state legislators may be forced to think twice about online poker’s ability to plug their deficits, particularly when you consider the tortuous rigmarole and political sensitivity involved in moving towards regulation.


The site

But what about the site itself? Well, it’s functional but unpolished, as you might expect. Don’t forget this is Ultimate Poker 1.0 and the likes of PokerStars have had over a decade to hone its product. Ultimate Poker certainly has the resources to spend millions creating a Ferrari of a poker site but that may not be in everyone’s interests at the moment. It’s about taking tentative steps in this new market, offering a highly functional yet toned down product. Currently, it only offers NLH and LH with limits capped at $5-10 and SNGs in the $10 to $25 range. Its early days, and no doubt Ultimate Poker will improve as its market grows.

“We’re going to work really hard to provide the best possible product,” said Chan. “Other than that, it’s just a matter of continuous improvement.”

The factors that Ultimate Poker has focused on are those which offer reassurance to the players. For the first time in almost 10 years, players can deposit funds to a poker site via credit and debit cards – a fact that reinforces the idea in the mind of the recreational that online poker is legit.


The team

Whether online poker thrives or fails in the US, it’s clear that Ultimate Poker has a formidable team behind it. Tom Breitling and Tim Poster are dot.com boomers who co-founded Travelscape.com, which, in 1999 grossed $104 million in sales before it was sold to Expedia for over $100 million. They then acquired the Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas, which they sold for $215 million.

Joining Breitling and Poster are the Fertitta Brothers, who own the Station Casino Properties and, crucially, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a billion dollar sports enterprise which they purchased in 2000 for just $2million, and from which Ultimate Poker takes its name. The Fertita’s are banking on a big crossover between online poker and UFC, and will rely heavily on cross-promotional marketing. The numbers add up – like online poker players, the typical UFC fan is a young internet-savvy male. UCF is the fastest-growing sport entertainment operation of the last decade, now eclipsing WWE and boxing – with over a million followers on Twitter and 10.5 million Facebook “likes”.

Enter poker player turned-mixed-martial artist Terence Chan, whom Ultimate Poker perused for two years before he agreed to leave his previous sponsors, Poker Stars, to come on board as an ambassador for Ultimate Poker.

“I thought back to my PokerStars days and how much fun it was to be part of a poker startup, to watch a business grow from infancy into something massive and awesome,” blogged Chan of his decision to jump ship. “I know from experience that being part of a startup is crazy work. Stuff always goes wrong and there are always challenges and hurdles you didn’t anticipate. But more than anything I’m excited. … There’s so much talent here, all channeled towards the same goal, that I can’t imagine anything other than success and good times.”

Joining Chan is Antonio Esfandiari who, before signing up, was the most marketable free agent on the planet, the all-time money winner in tournament poker, thanks to his success at the Big One for One Drop. Antonio’s presence is as much about rebuilding trust with the American public after Black Friday as it is the kudos of attracting a marquee signing. Antonio is a familiar face to American TV poker fans and the hope is that recreational poker players will feel like they’re reconnecting with an old friend.

And as the first site into the new market, trust, says Tom Breitling, maybe the most important key to online poker’s success in the US.

“Everyone knows there is a pent-up demand,” Breitling said. “Everyone knows this is a real business waiting to happen. It’s just a matter of the states legalising what is a new environment of trust.”

“We like to think of it as the day that trust returns to online gambling in the US,” CEO Tobin Prior was recently quoted as saying. “Now you can visit a site and be fully certain that your money is safe and that you’re dealing with people you trust.”

Tags: Ultimate Poker, Antonio Esfandiari, Terence Chan.