Are The Days Numbered For Michigan Online Poker, Even As The Top US Market?

Written By Hill Kerby on January 17, 2024
Close up of a crystal ball and a fortune teller's hand. The crystal ball show an image of a bad poker hand. Online poker's days may be numbered in Michigan due to recent scandals.

Last year was a monumental one for online poker in Michigan. But does it face an difficult future? 

In 2023, interstate poker finally came to reality, resulting in the Michigan online poker sector claiming the top market share among all regulated US online poker markets before the end of the year.

Numbers should continue to grow in 2024, especially in the shared liquidity markets at PokerStars MI and New Jersey.

What about elsewhere, though? Only seven states have legalized online poker in more than a decade. Additionally, concerns about cheating have recently grown to new highs in international markets and on illegal offshore poker websites.

Recent cheating scandals threaten online poker’s future

Multiple possible online poker scandals have surfaced in 2024, and we’re only in mid-January.

A security breach at GGPoker, the world’s largest international online poker site, led to a player with the screen name “MoneyTaker69” gaining access to their probability of winning the hand at all times.

While the player did not gain access to their opponent’s holdings, a la the UltimateBet super-user scandal of 2007, GGPoker announced that it confiscated $29,795 in “unfair winnings.” 

In the press release, GGPoker added:

“We sincerely apologize for the incident, which has caused many poker players to worry about the game’s integrity and shaken their trust in GGPoker to provide the best poker experience. We take this incident very seriously and continue to work hard not to disappoint poker players. Additionally, we are actively recruiting to double the size of our technical security team and are enlisting help from renowned security professionals to ensure that online poker is safer than ever.”

At the same time, another post on 2+2 forums went viral, centered around an alleged “bot farm” with $10 million in winnings on the unregulated poker site ACR Poker. The site responded by issuing a $100,000 bot challenge, only to retract it less than 48 hours later due to negative feedback and maybe concerns they would owe some people $100K.

Online poker lags nationwide, adding concern

Online poker experienced a boom after Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event. It began to decline in 2006 after the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act (UIGEA) passed and fully came to a halt in 2011 on a day known throughout the poker world as Black Friday.

Legal online poker came in the wake. Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware all legalized online poker in 2013. Since then, only four states have followed: Pennsylvania (2017), Michigan and West Virginia (2019), and Connecticut (2021).

Furthermore, these seven states operate in a fractured system:

  • Pennsylvania has a fully ring-fenced online poker ecosystem, blocking it from the rest of the country.
  • Only one site in Michigan (PokerStars MI) operates with shared liquidity. The other two – BetMGM Poker and WSOP.com are only for in-state players.
  • Delaware does not allow interstate poker tournaments. Its state-licensed software only allows for merged cash game player pools.
  • Despite having the richest gambling history in the US, Nevada only has one regulated poker site (WSOP.com).
  • New Jersey sites operate differently: PokerStars shares liquidity with Michigan, WSOP with Nevada and BetMGM/partypoker with nobody.
  • Connecticut and West Virginia online poker have yet to go live, years after legalization.

Conversely, live tournament poker has encountered a second wave. The 2023 WSOP set attendance records for the summer and the Main Event (10,043 entrants). Turnouts have not slowed since on tours like the World Poker Tour (WPT) and Mid-States Poker Tour (MSPT), which makes an annual stop at Michigan’s FireKeepers Casino.

However, cash games are not thriving to the same degree. WPT commentator Tony Dunst, a top player during the online poker heyday, recently raised concerns over the opportunities available to make a name for oneself in the game as he did two decades ago.

Dunst made a post on X, saying, 

“How do young players come up in the game anymore?? Online poker is dust and full of integrity concerns. Live cash north of ~5/10 is mostly private or regfests. Live tournaments are fine, but not a reliable way to build a bankroll with expenses/taxes/variance.”

The post drew answers from players of all skill levels and accolades. One, in particular, stood out to me, and I’ll address it below.

Regulated markets, such as Michigan, offer a blueprint

Frank Funaro, a New Jersey notable who I can hardly call up-and-coming after his fifth-place finish in the 2022 WPT World Championship for $1.3 million, commented, “If you don’t live in a state with regulated poker, it’s extremely difficult.”

Funaro’s Hendon Mob poker database boasts nearly $2.8 million in live tournament earnings. Even with these accolades, his $3.3 million in online earnings surpasses that. Those results come from WSOP online events with shared player pools between New Jersey and Nevada. We can assume that number is even greater when factoring in PokerStars NJ/MI.

Regulated online poker provides the blueprint for a safe, secure and convenient way to play the game for recreational players and aspiring professionals alike. However, we need to reach the tipping point that brings the majority of US states into the discussion before the scales tilt back to mid-2000s levels.

Michigan’s model provides a blueprint for prospective states to follow, with interstate poker opportunities written into law. West Virginia is following in Michigan’s footsteps, recently joining the interstate compact before its launch. Connecticut should be the next domino to fall.

Growth is happening slowly, but some might argue it’s too slow. Industry analyst Steve Ruddock mentioned another poll that asked if online poker is headed toward its death before 2030, where many answered yes. 

Yes, it’s been a decade since legal online poker launched in the US. In that time, we’ve gone from crawling to learning to walk. Now, Michigan is beginning to run.

Will it learn to run and begin soaring? Or will we run out of gas? 

Whether it’s my love for poker or the eternal optimist inside me, I hold out hope for online poker’s future.

Michigan – and the other legal online poker states – can grow plenty more. It’s just a matter of whether or not they will.

Photo by PlayMichigan
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Hill Kerby

Hill Kerby comes from a background of poker, sports and psychology. He brings all of these areas into his writing, where he feels fortunate to be able to create value in the growing, legal betting industry.

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