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Free online poker sites prepare casinos for switch to real thing

| Friday, Nov. 2, 2012, 8:56 p.m.
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Online games, expected to go live by early 2013, are another step as the casino industry prepares for widespread legalization of Internet poker — and, possibly, other forms of gambling — in the United States.

Pocono Downs casino is poised to become the first in Pennsylvania to offer its brand of free-to-play online poker.

Mohegan Sun will use a Bally Technologies iGaming system for poker games through the websites of the Wilkes-Barre casino and of the giant Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut.

The online games, expected to go live by early 2013, are another step as the casino industry prepares for widespread legalization of Internet poker — and, possibly, other forms of gambling — in the United States.

“That's really why we're doing this. If enabling legislation occurs, we can flip the switch, so to speak,” says Mario Kontomerkos, chief financial officer of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority.

Bally and Mohegan Sun announced the deal, the first on the East Coast using iGaming technology, on Oct. 10. The link to Mohegan Sun poker will be on the casinos' websites: www.poconodowns.com and www.mohegansun.com

The move toward legalized online gambling has been picking up speed since the December announcement that the U.S. Department of Justice had reversed its ban on most Internet betting. In response to questions from Illinois and New York about selling lottery tickets online, the department said the federal Wire Act prohibits only sports betting in interstate and foreign commerce.

Legal experts say the narrowed interpretation allows states to legalize and regulate online gambling within their borders and opens the door for nationwide regulation.

So far, all the action has been at the state level.

In June, Nevada became the first state to issue Internet gaming licenses; those went to Bally and a fellow slot manufacturer, International Game Technology. MGM Resorts International was in line to receive a Nevada online license, possibly as soon as this week, company officials said.

Also in June, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signed a law allowing casino websites in his state to offer slots, poker, blackjack and roulette, starting in 2013.

William R. Eadington, professor of economics and director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada at Reno, predicts online gambling will expand quickly.

“Peoples' general tolerance of gambling continues to increase,” he says. “The ability to draw this dark line that says ‘this is legal and this is not,' that diminishes over time.

News reports say bills to legalize online poker or other gambling have been introduced in 16 states — not including Pennsylvania — and the District of Columbia and the American Virgin Islands.

Many observers say that after a few states allow online gambling, more states will follow suit, because they don't want to be left out.

Kontomerkos says Connecticut is a “fast follower” that would be quick to move toward legalizing online gambling if another Northeastern state — think New Jersey — acted first. He says Pennsylvania is likely to wait longer to act on Internet gaming, as it did in approving land-based casinos. New Jersey is talking about legalizing not only online casino gambling but also sports betting.

MGM Resorts International CEO Jim Murren told Reuters news service this week that some states are talking about forming alliances to develop a viable interactive gambling market. Experts say that when online poker is legalized, smaller states will have to join in a compact similar to the Powerball or MegaMillions lottery programs to ensure enough players for a wide variety of games.

The amount of money that could be involved in legalized online gambling is staggering.

A survey released in October by the American Gaming Association estimates that U.S. residents still spend $4 billion a year in online wagering, even though federal authorities shut down the three largest Internet poker sites in April 2011.

The experts surveyed by the association projected that if some states launch online gaming, the annual spending will reach from $6 billion to $11 billion per year by 2018.

If Congress regulates online poker within a year, the expectations for revenue growth increase to as much as $17 billion a year by 2018, according to the survey says. However, hardly any of the experts think federal legislation is likely within a year.

Kontomerkos says Mohegan Sun spent almost a year developing its online poker site. He expects the free games to drive customers to the two casino sites and help casino executives learn about what online players want.

Mark Gruetze is administrative editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7838 or players@tribweb.com.

‘Pittsburgh poker OPen' tourneys

Rivers Casino on the North Shore plans its second Pittsburgh Poker Open to crown the area's best poker players.

Tournaments scheduled from Nov. 19 to 25 include Triple Chance Hold 'Em, Limit Hold 'Em, Pot Limit Omaha, Seven-Card Stud High-Low Limit, Five-Card Stud, Omaha High-Low Limit and No Limit Hold 'Em.

The Nov. 25 Main Event will have a guaranteed $50,000 prize pool.

Money trail

Slot players lost $41.6 million at Pennsylvania's 11 casinos during the week ending Oct. 28, the Gaming Control Board reported. That's up from $41 million in the comparable week last year, which was before Valley Forge resort casino opened.

The state gets 55 percent of that gross-slot revenue, or what's left of players' wagers after jackpots have been paid.

Statewide, the slot payout rate is 89.94 percent since the fiscal year started July 1. For every $100 bet, the machines return an average of $89.94. Highest payout rate: 90.61 percent at Parx in Philadelphia; lowest payout rate: 89.3 percent at Harrah's Philadelphia.

Figures for Western Pennsylvania casinos:

Rivers: 89.98%; weekly slot revenue of $4.63 million, down from $4.97 million last year.

Meadows: 89.8%; weekly slot revenue of $4.28 million, down from $4.39 million last year.

Presque Isle in Erie: 89.93%; weekly slot revenue of $2.43 million, down from $3.07 million last year.

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