Commentary: What is ‘Tanking’ Pennsylvania So Long to Join Poker Compact?
Talk about going “in the tank.”
Poker players know the expression, which has a different definition in their game apart from other competitions where “tanking” means not giving an honest effort.
Rather, in poker, going in the tank means that a player is taking a long time — perhaps, even an excessive amount of time — to make a decision during a hand. He or she sits there, usually in stony silence, thinking and thinking and thinking.
Well, sometimes tanking is very prudent. There are tough decisions in poker.
However, Pennsylvania has been in the tank more than a year now and there’s no telling when the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf is going to check, raise, call or fold on allowing the state’s online poker players to play their game in the best environment possible.
The issue is whether Pennsylvania joins the Multi-State Internet Gaming Agreement. Bottom-line, by joining the agreement (aka MSIGA), Pennsylvania would be allowing the commonwealth’s players to face players from the other member states of the compact: Delaware, Nevada, New Jersey and most recently, Michigan.
In poker, more is better. In tournaments, having more players available means a greater variety of poker styles can be offered, and prize pools are bigger. In cash games, a larger pool of players also means that operators can also offer a wider range of games and at different price points.
Poker Needs LIquidity
The concept of having more poker players available is known as “liquidity” and poker needs liquidity to thrive.
That’s what has been wrong with intra-state poker. There just aren’t enough players when the games are so severely geo-fenced. It gets to the point that when players join an online intra-state table, it’s like being at an in-person home game where everybody knows everybody.
All of which brings us back to the concept of a multi-state compact. In America, states that have legalized certain types of real money online casino games (principally poker) are able to band together so that players in their respective states can play as if they were all in the same jurisdiction. An instance of that occurred in 2020 when the Word Series of Poker was able to have players from Nevada and New Jersey compete in a blended pool tournament in the mostly online WSOP Main Event.
As it now stands, with Michigan joining the multi-state compact for online poker, there’s a potential player pool of 14.8 million adults in the four compact states.
Pennsylvania, the only remaining state with legal online poker and with operators who are dealing games, would add 8.8 million adults, increasing the potential player pool by 60% to 23.6 million. West Virginia and Connecticut have also legalized online poker but neither state has seen an operator begin to deal games.
How the Compact Started
The history of the compact is that it was formed in 2014 with two relatively small states, Delaware and Nevada. New Jersey joined in 2017. Pennsylvania legalized online poker in late 2017 but didn’t see games start to be dealt until late 2019. But by then, a problem had come up in 2018.
The Trump-era Department of Justice did a reversal on an Obama-era DOJ opinion that had put poker (and other gambling activities) outside the reach of the Wire Act. When the Trump-era DOJ did that, its new opinion created concerns for entities, both governmental and commercial, who had been considering pursuing interstate gaming. In short, it pumped the brakes on interstate online poker.
However, in January 2021, the New Hampshire lottery spearheaded a legal challenge to the then-DOJ interpretation of the Wire Act and prevailed in a federal Circuit Court of Appeals. When the Biden-era DOJ failed to appeal New Hampshire’s victory, it was assumed that non-sports interstate gaming had a greenlight again.
That history is important because it may explain Pennsylvania’s initial reticence in joining the MSIGA compact as the Trump-era DOJ muddied the waters on inter-state gaming activity. However, as the example of Michigan shows, those concerns have been put to rest – actually, for about 15 months now.
So Pennsylvania, What Gives?
So, now the big question, what is Pennsylvania’s position on joining the interstate gaming compact?
The less-than-satisfactory answer being provided by the Wolf administration is:
“The Wolf administration continues to monitor how the expansion of online gaming in recent years has affected the gaming industry and Pennsylvania residents and continues to review the agreement.”
And how long might that ongoing review take?
There is no “specific timeline regarding the agreement to share at this time,” is Pennsylvania’s response.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board has made it clear that this decision and the initiative to apply to the compact for admission rests with the governor’s office.
A Lot Being Lost in PA
In the meantime, what’s being lost is the opportunity for poker-dealing operators, including PokerStars, WSOP.com and others, to offer a more robust product. Also being lost is tax money that would serve whatever public good tax money is supposed to serve. And lost is the opportunity for Pennsylvania online poker players to engage in a far more entertaining poker-playing experience.
What also needs to be mentioned is that savvy players can search out online poker games with greater liquidity offshore. So, Pennsylvania’s glacial pace on joining the interstate compact is a benefit to those non-U.S. licensed websites.
As bewildering as Pennsylvania’s failure to describe a timeline for when (or if) it may join the interstate compact that four other states, including two adjacent ones, have joined, is the question of whether the Wolf administration has some reservations about joining MSIGA and what are they.
There has been no answer on that, either.
At the poker table, it’s OK for players to “tank.” However, after a reasonable amount of time, other players can call “Clock” on the tanking player, and the thinker has one minute to make a decision.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be anyone to call clock on the Wolf administration, and it is the commonwealth’s poker players who suffer.
A longtime reporter and editor who began writing on casinos and gaming shortly after Atlantic City’s first gambling halls opened, Bill covered the world Series of Poker and wrote a syndicated column on travel to casino destinations for a decade.