LAS VEGAS — A Las Vegas-based casino subsidiary launched the first fully legal poker website in the United States on Tuesday morning.
The site, run by Ultimate Gaming, is only accepting wagers from players in Nevada for now, but it likely represents the next chapter in gambling nationwide.
Internet poker, never fully legal, has been strictly outlawed since 2011, when the Department of Justice seized the domain names of the largest offshore sites catering to U.S. customers and blacked them out, a day refered to as “Black Friday.”
More recently, the federal government softened its stance on Internet betting, and three states — New Jersey, Delaware and Nevada— have legalized some form of online wagering within their borders.
With Tuesday’s launch, Nevada wins the race to bring Texas Hold ‘em back to the Internet.
“There was black Friday, and now we’re going to have ‘trusting Tuesday,’” said Ultimate Gaming CEO Tobin Prior. “Players won’t have to worry if their money is safe. They are going to be able to play with people they can trust and know the highest regulatory standards have been applied.”
About 20 other companies— including Zynga Inc., the creator of FarmVille— are preparing to open their virtual doors in the Silver State.
UltimatePoker.com will look familiar to anyone who participated in the poker craze of the 2000s. Only the account setup and login process have changed. Instead of checking a box certifying they are older than 18, players will click through a lengthy setup process involving Social Security and cellphone numbers. Only those older than 21 will be allowed to play.
Ultimate Gaming hopes to win the trust not only of players, but of regulators and politicians.
“It’s an opportunity to show the world how to properly run online poker,” Ultimate Gaming chairman Tom Breitling said.
Earlier this year, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval approved legislation that gives him the ability to sign interstate Internet gambling deals with other governors.
Players around the world currently wager an estimated $35 billion online each year, according to the American Gaming Association. A fully realized U.S. online poker market could generate $4.3 billion in revenue its first year, and $9.6 billion by year five, according to London-based research firm H2 Gambling Capital.
Still, with federal efforts to legalize Internet poker stalled, it may be a while before a critical mass of states link together to lure professional players back from overseas and drive up jackpots.
In the coming months, Ultimate Gaming will have to prove that its technology and 111 employees can prevent minors and out-of-state players from wagering real dollars, and guard against money laundering, according to chief technology officer Chris Derossi.
It will also have to pay 6.75 percent of its revenue in Nevada state taxes.
It’s unclear how much of a boon the new market will be to the cash-strapped state. In 2012, the Pew Center on the States analyzed 13 states that had recently legalized new types of gambling, and found that more than two-thirds of “failed to live up to the initial promises or projections.”
The gambling industry is hoping the return of Internet poker will revitalize interest in the game and help brick and mortar casinos capture a younger market.
The rise of Internet poker is generally credited with helping spark the poker fad of the last decade. The end of online gambling is thought to have helped quash interest in the game.
In the coming months, the industry will be watching closely to see if poker players come flocking back from their new hobbies, replacement computer games and illegal offshore gambling sites.
“This is a really huge moment for our company, the state of Nevada and the gaming community,” Breitling said. “We’re hoping to make poker fun again.”