After talking with David McCaman, Head of Marketing for Hands-On (formerly FunClick) about the basics and background of WPT Texas Hold ‘Em Poker on Facebook, I was very interested to talk more about some of the ironic coincidences of the online poker industry, as it relates to virtual payments, and the notion of gambling.
As discussed in part 1 of our interview, WPT Texas Hold ‘Em looks to blur the lines between real and virtual experiences, stakes and currencies, platforms, partnerships and more, to give Facebook players the chance to feel like a true WPT-made millionaire. But with so many for-cash options available these days, is it enough? To answer that, let’s take a quick look at the landscape.
Online gambling – putting real cash on the line in games of chance – has long been debated in the US legal system… On October 13, 2006 the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) was signed into legislation. 4 years later, it went in to “full effect” last month. I won’t try and explain the UIGEA, but it basically puts a big damper on trying to play for-cash in the US. Read more here.
Online poker is a billion dollar business, so you can bet (wink wink) that the UIGEA is not cool with everyone. Since the ruling, some sites (such as PartyPoker) shut down US-facing operations. Some members of Congress have introduced bills to overturn or revise the UIGEA. Some poker fans have signed petitions, created or joined organizations dedicated to legalizing online poker in the US. And some companies have gotten creative with circumventing the rules.
Don’t tell me you can’t gamble online in the US – everywhere you look you can pay to play. What the heck else do you call it when virtual chips cost real money? The part where things get silly – the problem – is cashing out.
US players CAN play for virtual chips, or for-cash on a number of sites that “bend” the law for online gambling wisely. There’s also big new market for skill-based online gaming, which falls into a different category when it comes to for-cash legality. Virgin Games, for example, takes advantage of the “skill clause” with their new for-cash website.
ClubWPT.com, one of WPT’s other license partners, offers another interesting take on the rules – as poker is still considered by law to be a game of chance, ClubWPT requires players to pay a premium subscription and then offers “free-roll” tournaments for real cash and prizes.
The House ALWAYS Wins
Payback time? Not so fast. Like most Facebook games, WPT Hold ‘Em players start with a stack of free, virtual chips ($20,000 to be precise). WPT tables offer players several ways to spend their virtual currency, to try and amass the largest stockpile of all their Facebook friends. Players can take part in sit-n-go or new tournament games, customize their avatar, send gifts, and spend chips as they go.
But be the best or grab your wallet, because – when you run out of chips, you either have to complete sponsor activities, wait for tomorrow’s daily lotto (where you typically get ~$1,000 free chips each day), OR spend real cash to buy more virtual chips. So technically, you CAN spend real money on Facebook poker, but the legal line in the sand means you can’t WIN real money.
“The California poker bill is still being debated, especially the notion of skill vs. chance. For now, putting real money at stake in-app is not allowed for Facebook (or iPhone). However, you can purchase virtual chip packs with real money (175,000 chips = $10).” McCaman says, “in the future, it could be as easy as adding a “cash out” feature.” For now, Facebook bragging rights will have to do. That is, besides special tournaments that will award real-world prizes.
“Facebook rules and regulations must be honored, but Hands-On will definitely explore for-cash areas when viable. Compliance and customer service issues are huge. You’ve got to have all your ducks in a row when you start involving people’s pocketbooks… When users are spending real money, there’s no room for error.”
Place Your Bets
Compared to Facebook’s rigid safety standards, most for-cash poker sites seem like pretty shady business. There are currently more than 500 online poker websites, of which, the majority are “skins”, operating on large shared networks (21 networks total). There are however less than 20 stand-alone poker sites on the web today.
Still, if online gambling is illegal in your state, why spend real cash on poker? Wouldn’t it make more sense to open your window in a moving car and throw dollar bills into the wind? Well, probably not. When you buy into virtual chips on Facebook in WPT Texas Hold ‘Em, prizes like real-world tournament entries could win you cold hard cash in the long run, that is, if you win ;)
WPT on Facebook is a “crossover”, offering something between free and for-cash play that blurs the lines between the likes of ClubWPT and Facebook. Free play can win Facebook users a seat in exclusive invite-only tournaments to play against top poker pros and celebs.
Still, I see it as an uphill battle when companies are trying to raffle off 1-in-a-million odds of taking home a *chance* at winning *anything*. It’s got to be tough convincing players it’s worth the bother. Then again, as McCaman will tell you, it depends on the quality of the gameplay experience. If it’s really fun, people don’t care if they’re making money (or wasting it, for that matter).
I have a sneaking suspicion that Facebook’s virtual payments system will open new doors for real-cash play. People are already buying in, and it only seems fair to let them cash out. Only time will tell. What do you think? Weigh in on the great poker debate in the comments below, and check out WPT Texas Hold ‘Em Poker on Facebook for yourself.
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