Dmitry Starostenkov: US players have missed legal online poker for 10 years

A bill to legalize online poker in New York has been filed by J. Gary Pretlow as further amendments to the state’s gambling laws are sought in 2023
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Dmitry Starostenkov, CEO at EvenBet Gaming talks to SBC Americas about online poker and its place in the rapidly changing US regulatory landscape.

In what ways do you think online poker will differ in the US to other countries as more states become regulated?

Poker, whether offline or online, has always been a special game in the US. The culture and traditions of poker were born here, and it’s as symbolic for the country as Mah-jong is for China or Rummy in India. That’s why the initial online poker boom started in the US, and explains why in every state where online poker becomes regulated, operators start working almost immediately.

The US players have been sorely missing playing online poker legally for almost 10 years, as during all this time we’ve been in touch with our ex-partners and the interested parties, waiting for the legislation to start.

Online poker will still be a niche in the igaming market, but in the US this niche will certainly be bigger and more important.

With poker being synonymous with US gambling, how can individual online operators differentiate themselves in the market?

Right now, that’s not hard: with separate regulation in each state and interstate traffic allowed only in three states, the differentiation is geographical. If the situation changes, we would bet on the operator’s reputation and the balanced tournament schedule as the main factors for acquiring players. These two have always been important for the US audience.

Which states are best to approach from an online poker regulatory point of view and which ones do you expect to become more accepting next?

Of course, these are the three states that can share the poker traffic: New Jersey, Nevada, and Delaware. We would also recommend approaching those which are already regulating online poker and are likely to join the Multi-State Internet Gaming Agreement: Michigan and Pennsylvania.

As long as the success in poker depends highly on the operator’s liquidity, having potential access to a larger user database is always beneficial. Yet, one should have in mind that it would also mean competing with the global heavy-weights already present in these states, such as 888 Poker or PokerStars. Differentiation would be the key!

Do you think it is likely that there will ever be a national US online poker regulation? What are the obstacles to this? 

I don’t believe it’s possible in the next two or three years, at least. The current federal government policy is to keep online gaming regulation at the states’ level, so the best outcome we can hope for now is that more states will introduce poker regulation and join interstate traffic agreement.

Operators will still need to go through licensing in each state separately though. It’s very possible that this is all that will ever happen, the US is so diverse with respect to state legislation that a national gambling regulation of any kind may simply not be a possibility on any timeline. 

How important is player safety as more states become regulated and what steps should be taken to ensure it?

With the current compliance and regulation policies, we’d say that the poker players in the US are going to be well protected if they play at the legal operators’ websites. The safety requirements for gaming software and financial transactions are high, so the main risk factor would be the growth of scam websites “pretending” to be licensed operators. As online gaming gains momentum, monitoring all such activity becomes harder, so players should be careful.

Is there an example of a state that you would consider as “perfectly regulated,” or at least a very well regulated one? What would it take for this to be the case? 

Not really, at least for online poker. As I’ve mentioned before, high liquidity is crucial for poker to be successful and interesting for the players, and while most of the states are having traffic fences around, poker is not going to be as strong as it could be.

What is the proportion of mobile use to desktop in the US at the moment? Do you expect this to change in the near future?

Almost the same as in Europe, as the latest data show; the share of mobile traffic is around 50-55% according to different data. There are several reasons for a high proportion of desktop devices: the percentage of the “old school” players and the skilled ones that are used to playing in the multi-table mode; the conservative audience in general. Surprisingly, the mass new tech adoption in the US is much slower than in Asia and in the emerging markets. And, finally, there are regulatory obstacles that stop operators and vendors from investing into highly attractive and functional mobile products.

We expect that the mobile share will grow, but much slower than in Asia or South America.