Wait… What About Online Poker? How 2021 Looks For Michigan Players

Written By Derek Helling on January 4, 2021 - Last Updated on July 22, 2021

For online poker enthusiasts in Michigan, all of 2020 must have felt like waiting for the flop. The good news is that 2021 looks promising for Michigan online poker.

The last few weeks of 2020 set the stage for what could be the actual launch of online poker sites in the Wolverine State. While that seems probable, it’s far from a sure thing. There are plenty of pieces to this puzzle, and not all of them will be ready by the time mid-January arrives.

That time frame is when the Michigan Gaming Control Board expects to launch online gambling. Online poker, however, does not have the upper hand.

Where Michigan poker online sat as the calendar turned

A late push by legislators and regulators in 2020 is the reason for optimism in 2021. Nearly simultaneously, the MI Legislature and the MGCB pushed things forward.

Early in December, the MGCB gave conditional approvals to both MGM/partypoker and PokerStars poker Michigan as operators. While the provisional licensure is just a step in the regulatory process, it’s an important one.

Essentially, it puts the two online poker brands on track for permanent licenses. Unless something unexpected surfaces in the MGCB’s continued reviews, they should become the first two poker operators in the state.

That development came a few weeks after the Michigan Senate moved to make the market more lucrative for future operators. In early October, the upper chamber of the Michigan Legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill that would authorize multistate pacts for online poker.

Then, on Dec. 17, the House finalized its vote, moving the bill back into the Senate for final passage. On Dec. 29, the Senate gave its concurrence, shipping that bill off to MI Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Without such a provision, Michigan poker players will only be able to play against each other. Successful execution of a pact with other jurisdictions such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania could open up the pool of players greatly.

So to start 2021, there are a couple of nearly licensed operators and a multistate poker bill has cleared legislative hurdles. The rest of the story will play out in the weeks and months to come.

Could other poker brands come to Michigan?

While partypoker and PokerStars appear to have a head start on other contenders, that lead could shrink quickly. Thus far, the MGCB is keeping its lips tight about how many other applications it’s vetting and who submitted them.

Poker fans are probably the most curious about 888 Poker and the iconic WSOP branding. There is a potential path into the Great Lakes State, albeit a convoluted one.

Caesars and 888 are partners in other jurisdictions. The two brands could expand that deal to include Michigan as well. However, Caesars has no brick-and-mortar presence in the state, so there are more dots to connect.

Caesars has a deal in place to buy William Hill (yes, that William Hill). William Hill has a market access agreement with a tribal casino operator in Michigan. That’s anything but a straight path, but it’s a path nonetheless.

Other online gambling brands with market access deals for MI and provisional license approvals include BetRivers, Golden Nugget Online Gaming, and Parx. But none of these three hold a candle to WSOP and 888.

Regardless of which operators get to market first, the primary question is when any of them will be live in MI? Right now, that’s the greatest mystery of all.

When might Michiganders finally be able to play?

Currently, that’s anyone’s guess. There’s no telling how long it will take the MGCB to finalize its licensing of partypoker and PokerStars. The operators seem as in the dark as everyone else right now.

A spokesperson for BetMGM said there’s “not a ton to share right now.” A person in the same role for PokerStars commented that “once more information is available, we’ll share it.”

While the MGCB does expect to authorize online slots, sports betting, and table games by the middle of January, that may not include poker. MGCB spokeswoman Mary Kay Bean spoke to that effect last month.

“We don’t know whether poker will be among the games included at initial launch. It will depend on an operator’s readiness to offer poker (their games have been evaluated by independent testing labs and our own gaming lab) and their desire to do so.”

For companies like BetMGM and The Stars Group, that own partypoker and PokerStars respectively, getting other online gambling verticals up and running in Michigan may take priority. That’s because online slots and table games along with sports wagering products bring in more revenue.

Thus, online poker launches could happen later in the year simply because they’re lower on the totem pole. Legal matters that could affect both the future and present of online poker could prompt hesitation as well.

How a New Hampshire lawsuit could affect online poker in Michigan

The federal Wire Act of 1961 continues to have many ramifications six decades later. A lawsuit that began in New Hampshire could have a lot to say about online gambling across the country, let alone Michigan.

For most of those 60 years, the US Justice Department conveyed no intent to expand its interpretation of the Wire Act beyond what the act explicitly included, sports betting. That all changed in 2018, however.

That year, the DOJ issued a new opinion on the act. It stated its language barring the transmission of gambling information across state lines could pertain to all online gambling. That, in theory, would include poker.

Litigation continues on a challenge to that interpretation by the NH Lottery. There are many possibilities right now, but a court ultimately upholding the current interpretation would be a death knell to multistate poker games.

Before a definite ruling comes, it’s possible that the DOJ might reverse course. President-Elect Joe Biden has yet to nominate a new US Attorney General. A new AG could issue a new opinion reversing the DOJ’s course, making the NH Lottery lawsuit moot.

That sequence of events could dictate what happens in the MI Legislature on the same subject. A positive result there could make getting to market quickly in MI more attractive for operators.

Will Gov. Whitmer approve multistate poker?

Just like with how quickly the MGCB will authorize operators to start taking bets, it’s unclear how much support there is for a multistate online poker pact in the governor’s mansion. If enacted, the bill would allow for a pact, but would not necessarily set one up immediately. Whitmer may hesitate to see what shakes out on the federal level.

The state could enact a multistate pact with NJ, PA, or both on a contingent basis. Essentially, the language of the deal would say that upon federal legislation or a favorable court decision, players in the disparate jurisdictions could compete against each other.

If and when such games are available, that would make online poker in all three states much more attractive for operators.

Online poker may never approach the hold of slots or sports betting, but the ability to play across state lines opens up a number of marketing possibilities.

Should online casino and sportsbook products go live in MI this month, that would enable regulators to turn more of their attention to getting legal Michigan poker ready to go. It may come later in the year, but right now, early 2021 looks like a good bet.

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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a freelance journalist who resides in Chicago, IL. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law. Recently, he has written about the expanded gambling industry in Michigan, including online sports betting, online casinos, and the cornerstone land-based casino market.

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