It already felt like the legalization of online casinos in Rhode Island got lost in the shuffle of the news cycle but what got essentially no attention, and justifiably so, was that technically the bill legalizes online poker in the state as well.
Having spent a large chunk of my career in poker, I can tell you from experience that the poker community is always eager to believe the next online poker boom is on the horizon. Accordingly, some have jumped on this news and expect another state to start slinging cards in a matter of months.
I am here to rain on that parade.
Little appetite for online poker, even with player pooling
First, let’s just take a look at the general appetite for online poker in the United States. Currently, there are six states which are legally allowed to offer it: Delaware, New Jersey, Nevada, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
West Virginia legalized online poker in 2019 and not a single site has entered the state since. The state has 1.7 million people in it compared to the 1 million residing in Rhode Island.
Should someone want to launch online poker in the state, regulators have previously said they would be willing to join the Multi-State Internet Gaming Agreement (MSIGA), but even with that carrot dangled in front of operators, no one bit. Brands with online poker offerings like Caesars and BetMGM are operational in the state for online casino but have not even announced plans to offer poker.
A few years ago, the MSIGA was sold as the answer to make regulated online poker in the US profitable and tenable. However, even that has not panned out as people have hoped. The lack of participation from Pennsylvania has been particularly disappointing. PA Gaming Control Board spokesperson Doug Harbach has repeatedly noted that it is up to Gov. Joe Shapiro to take up the matter based on the PGCB’s recommendation.
There might be some hope given Shapiro replaced outgoing Gov. Tom Wolf at the start of the year, but so far, there have been no updates.
Operators haven’t maximized existing online poker options
Meanwhile, the existing members of the compact are still not all sharing players with one another. PokerStars has managed to merge its Michigan and New Jersey player base at the start of the year, but WSOP.com still has Michiganders playing on a separate network than its shared NV/NJ/DE player pool. WSOP.com is also the only operator in Nevada, as also-rans Ultimate Poker and South Point Poker went out of business ages ago.
We are currently in the height of the WSOP schedule. Had Caesars believed it was profitable enough to compact Michigan with the other three states, it probably would have done so in advance of the series, which has numerous online bracelets in each of its markets.
It hasn’t though, which begs the question of whether or not it will even bother unless a major state with liquidity like Pennsylvania becomes an option. It is hard to gauge exactly how much money these poker sites are bringing in, as neither Michigan nor Nevada release specific poker numbers for operators. New Jersey, meanwhile, it is difficult to determine how each operator is performing but the state took in $27.4 million in online poker revenue in 2022. Pennsylvania managed $33.7 million, and it is safe to assume Michigan, which is comparable to Pennsylvania in market size, did slightly better.
Deleware generated a whopping $440,000 from online poker. That is a state with essentially the same population as Rhode Island.
RI online casino rules make online poker impossible
Now let’s talk about why Rhode Island, in particular, is just not a market where there is any interest in online poker.
First, there is the monopoly the state gives to Bally’s and IGT. Bally’s has a streaming poker offering, Live at the Bike, so the idea it might have an online poker site sometime down the line is not completely out of the question. However, at this moment, the company has no online poker product.
It also doesn’t have that many online casino markets at the moment. Bally Bet Casino is live in Ontario and New Jersey and only recently completed its Pennsylvania soft launch phase this month, but it is not live in Michigan or West Virginia yet.
Now, let’s pretend Bally’s even did have an online poker site, the way the revenue structure is set up in Rhode Island would make the dubiously profitable idea of ring-fenced Rhode Island online poker even less tenable.
For table games, which is what poker would be classified under if launched in Rhode Island, Bally’s would pay 16.5% of revenue to the state and IGT, keeping less than half for itself.
What’s more, there is a unique quirk in Rhode Island law that would take everything we love about online poker and destroy it. Namely, online table games will require live dealers.
That’s right. Online poker in Rhode Island would take all the speed and convenience of not having a dealer and flush that concept down the toilet. The caveat was inserted in order to avoid a potential legal challenge to the law. While this is an easy enough offering for games like blackjack and roulette, configuring a live dealer set up for poker would be a gigantic undertaking, particularly when you don’t even get to keep half of the profits.
So, to recap, the revenue potential is, optimistically, $500,000 a year, Bally’s only gets to keep about half of that, and the company would need to roll out a brand-new version of online poker that utilizes actual dealers to even be able to offer it under the letter of the law, which means it isn’t likely they could eventually compact it with a Bally’s online poker site in other states even if it did exist.
In other words, don’t hold your breath.