After many years of promises and little progress, suddenly shared poker liquidity in Europe is progressing in leaps and bounds. As of mid-January, PokerStars players in France can compete against those in Spain and vice versa; Portugal should be joining the party very shortly, and multiple other cross-border networks are expected to come online sometime in March.
Naturally, this is huge news for players in those countries, because the low traffic of segregated markets limits the available games on offer and the ability for high stakes players to find action. But you should care about what’s happening even if you don’t live in one of those countries, because the emergence of this new market presents both immediate opportunities and long-term implications for players in other parts of the world.
A brief history of ring-fencing
When the US Department of Justice cracked down on online poker in 2011, it marked the end of the “Wild West” years of online poker and stimulated other governments to start taking the issue seriously. The solution settled on by France, Italy and Spain was the so-called “ring fence” model, whereby online poker was legal, but the servers had to be located within the country’s physical borders and monitored by local regulators.
The idea of ring-fencing is that it’s safer for the players to trust their own government’s regulatory authority than some overseas licensing body, some of which have dubious reputations. From the government’s point of view, meanwhile, people are going to play illegally if they can’t play legally, and ring-fencing allows the government to tax the revenues thus produced rather than allowing money to flow out of the country. It also allows greater oversight to prevent gambling sites being used for money laundering purposes.
It’s never been a popular solution with players, however, for the reason I already mentioned, that it limits the pool of possible opponents and therefore the tables available. It also means smaller fields and smaller prize pools for tournaments, and dead times in the wee morning hours when almost no one is online, because everyone is in the same time zone.
Slow start, fast finish
The governments of the ring-fenced countries have long been open to the idea of sharing liquidity between themselves, but although movement on the issue was mostly forwards and rarely backwards, it was at times painfully slow. So, when agreement was finally reached late last year and the final legal obstacles were removed, many of us watching the industry remained skeptical about what the timeline would look like for the individual regulators to get their nitty-gritty worked out, for cross-border licenses to be issued, and for operators to work out their own technical issues.
That worry seems to have been unfounded, at least in the case of France and Spain. PokerStars obtained its cross-border license from the French regulatory body in December, and from there it was almost exactly a month before Spain added its rubber stamp. PokerStars was apparently well-prepared for the green light, because it was then less than 24 hours before its French and Spanish sites merged into a single network.
Earlier this week, Portugal gave its approval to PokerStars – currently the only online operator in the country – and although there are still a few minor legal formalities to take care of, it will likely only be a few days, possibly a couple of weeks at the outside, before PokerStars is able to throw the switch and add Portguese players to its network.
Meanwhile, French site Winamax has obtained its permission from the French regulator, and if PokerStars’ timeline is indicative, should get the go-ahead from Spain sometime in March. The iPoker Network is also planning on a March launch.
Shared liquidity in Europe is of interest to players elsewhere in the world for the reason that the ring-fencing model being used there is strictly one way: Players within the countries in question can only play on their own country’s sites, but there’s no restriction at the legal level against foreign players also playing there, provided their own countries allow it.
Not all operators choose to allow this, however, partly because there hasn’t been any obviously good reason to do so. Players with access the global online poker market will generally prefer to play on dot-com sites where traffic is higher, and there’s little point in offering a product no one wants.
Even so, Winamax has always allowed foreign players, and PokerStars.fr did until shortly before liquidity sharing began. The reason for its change in policy became apparent earlier this month, when it began accepting foreign players once again to the newly-shared network, but via the PokerStars.es site. It turns out that Spain’s tax rate is lower than France’s, so the purpose of the maneuver was to force existing foreign players to re-register through the Spanish site.
No more Italian foot-dragging
European cross-border networks will get considerably bigger once Italy joins France and Spain. This was always expected to be the case, but a few stakeholders there experienced a sudden bout of cold feet just as France and Spain were plunging forward.
The quick implementation and instant success of PokerStars’ cross-border operations seems to have kicked Italy back into action, however. It’s natural not to want to be left behind, so the country’s legislators have reaffirmed their commitment to go ahead with shared liquidity. That said, the vacillation has delayed progress on the legal front somewhat, so it’s unclear exactly when full four-way liquidity sharing will happen, though it’s probably still likely to happen sometime this year.
The advantages of the European market
That still leaves the question of why, if you’re a dot-com player, you would want to register to play on European sites. The PokerStars Europe network now has more traffic than even 888poker, PokerStars’ closest dot-com competitor… but it’s still only a quarter the size of PokerStars.com.
Considering only PokerStars, chances are that if you’re going to play with them, you’d prefer to use dot-com most of the time. These days, all PokerStars sites tend to run the same promotions, so there’s no advantage to be found there. Cash games and sit-and-goes will likely be similar too, just with less traffic.
One reason you might want to have a PokerStars.es account is tournaments, specifically major tournament series. Historically, special tournament series on PokerStars’ European sites have been scheduled at different times of year than dot-com’s big TCOOP, SCOOP and WCOOP offerings. Already, the newly-combined network ran a special series called FRESH, with €5 million in combined guarantees including a €1 million Main Event. If you’re a tournament player, keeping an eye on what’s going on in Europe is probably smart so as to take advantage of that sort of opportunity.
Meanwhile, it’s easier to make a case for anyone to consider opening a European account with Winamax, simply because the company doesn’t have a dot-com site, so there is no equivalent-but-larger product. Winamax is something of a hidden gem, too, largely unknown to players outside of France but recognized within the industry as having some of the best games on offer.
The greatest virtue of Winamax is probably its creative approach to poker. PokerStars may have brought the jackpot sit-and-go to prominence with Spin & Go, but it was Winamax which pioneered the concept with Expresso. It also has a permanent “Cash Game Bingo” minigame which served as the inspiration for PokerStars’ Card Hunt and Card Match, and frequently runs unusual promotions, huge multi-flight tournaments and so forth. You may or may not actually prefer Winamax to other options, but it is at least something different that anything you’ll find if you stick only to dot-com sites.
Implications for the US
None of this helps you directly if you’re in the US, Australia, or anywhere else that has banned online poker outright. To remain in good standing with local regulators, European operators have to play by the book with jurisdictions elsewhere.
The implications are huge for the fledgling US regulated market, however. Europe’s move away from the ring-fenced model seems to have persuaded US legislators of the virtues of shared liquidity. New Jersey has announced its plans to allow its operators to pool liquidity with Nevada and Delaware, though in practice this only means WSOP/888 as PokerStars is forbidden from acquiring a Nevada license due to its actions pre-Black Friday, and PartyPoker has not made any attempt to enter that state.
More importantly, Pennsylvania’s recently-passed legislation provides for shared liquidity from the get-go. When the first online poker sites launch there in this year’s second half, they will be segregated at first, but are expected to join the other three states in very short order.
Chances are that this will be the norm going forward as other states begin to legalize online poker. The addition of Pennsylvania will double the existing player pool in the US regulated states, and the resulting market will be large enough that other states should be unlikely to want to go their own way. And assuming Europe’s shared-liquidity experiment continues to be free of conflict and scandal, it will go a long way to convincing the rest of the world, including the US, that cross-border liquidity-sharing is in everyone’s best interests.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada.