The world’s largest online cardroom, PokerStars, has officially withdrawn its real money services from some thirty countries, along with sister company Full Tilt Poker.
The news will devastate players in the newly prohibited countries, many of whom will have accrued loyalty points – known as FPP and FTP on PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker respectively. Said points can be exchanged for a number of rewards ranging from micro tournament buy-ins to 4-figure cash bonuses which may leave some of the more frequent players seriously ticked off. It is unclear whether these can be used and, if they can, if limitations will be placed on what they can be used for. Thankfully players will still be able to withdraw funds from their accounts, according to a spokesperson:
“Affected players can log into the relevant software and cash out their remaining balance using the ordinary withdrawal methods available to them, and they are welcome to do this at their convenience.”
Unfortunately, this will be of little consolation to the vast majority of players.
This is the latest twist in what has been a sticky few years for online poker. Seasoned players will remember the infamous Black Friday when a crackdown on US laws led to thousands of customers being locked out of their Full Tilt Poker accounts. Worse than that, their funds were also jammed in the system in a drawn-out process that saw thousands leave FT never to return. Phil Ivey, regarded by many to be the best poker player ever, even announced his intention to refrain from entering the WSOP and to instead sue the company, before later relenting.
Tarnishing the reputation of Full Tilt, Black Friday was eventually resolved when PokerStars agreed to buy the company before the umbrella company in turn was purchased by Amaya Gaming Group. Since then Full Tilt has rebuilt plenty of its user base, minus the US contingent, but this latest episode will feel like history repeated for the unfortunate residents affected.
Although no official list has been released to date by PokerStars or Full Tilt, we can confirm that the list of countries which can no longer use the software for real money includes Malaysia, Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Qatar, UAE, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Senegal Afghanistan, Palestinian Territories, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda and the Vatican. Further countries which can no longer access the companies’ tables are Iran, Libya, Sudan, Iraq, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Cuba, Syria, Myanmar and Yemen.
Under the guidance of new owners Amaya Gaming Group, the company has stated that a new, transparent ethos is the reasoning behind the cull. Countries which do not have a clear-cut policy on online and/or poker gambling have been the ones to suffer. The aforementioned countries are seen as “grey areas” and therefore Amaya Gaming Group has decided to avoid any potential controversy or conflict by withdrawing its services.
An email sent to relevant players stated:
“Our management team and advisors regularly review our operations market-by-market to assess commercial opportunities and business risks for our brands. Following a recent review we have decided to stop offering real money games to players who are physically located in, or have registered address in, a limited number of countries.”
On the one hand, this could be seen as a positive direction on a path to clarity. Given the past of Full Tilt Poker, the last thing the company needs is to be caught in a fresh scandal, and by cutting off said countries it has stopped playing with fire. On the other hand, customers are looking for stability in a cardroom that has proved incredibly unreliable in the past. The fact that Full Tilt has been reinstated for two years and now countries are being pulled could be viewed as just the latest hiccup in an increasingly volatile company. Moreover, some would view the sudden retraction as somewhat disrespectful to loyal customers. A staggered approach with due warning may have calmed the storm somewhat.
Although the move comes as a surprise to most, the cardrooms have been receiving a revamp for some time now. Players on Full Tilt will have noticed an influx of emails, promotional offers and new tabs on the software’s lobby promoting their new casino games. Blackjack, roulette, slots and even a live casino are available with stakes ranging from as little as 10¢ to $1,000. This new angle will see a completely new angle from the companies, with plans to eventually expand into a sportsbook.
The strategy to eliminate certain countries from its real money accessibility is likely part of a plan to ensure the smooth re-introduction of the US market. Having recently settled their tricky application with New Jersey regulators, Amaya Gaming Group are looking for PokerStars to make a triumphant turn to the US in the near future. The company was originally mooted to make software available to the US as early as October 1st 2014, but this was later retracted and no definite date has yet been tabled.
Interestingly, Canada has not been included on the list of prohibited countries. Canada is one of many countries that does not currently regulate poker, therefore suggesting that it is no different to any of the other regions listed among the “grey areas”. Interestingly, however, Amaya Gaming Group has its headquarters located in Canada. Will this hold sway, or will Canada become one of the increasing number of countries that are being told to get clear or get out?
Whilst this is indeed bad news for many countries, both the US and UK markets will have nothing to worry about. It will be business as usual on the UK’s shores, with a new software download the only remit for gaming as usual, whilst the US will just be glad to have PokerStars gradually making a return to a continent which has a huge thirst for online poker.