The poker world is not immune to the coronavirus as poker operators cancel a slew of live events. Nick and Mike run down which upcoming events have been cancelled so far and speculate on the fate of some of the bigger events happening later in the year.

The full year financial reports for the parent companies of PokerStars and partypoker are out, the guys bring you the top line figures and discuss what might impact online poker’s success in 2020.

The Global Poker Awards were handed out last week in Las Vegas, and members of Team pokerfuse were in attendance. Find out what the guys thought of the event as they highlight some of the notable awards.

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Full Transcript

Mike Gentile: Hello and welcome, everybody, to the Pokerfuse podcast. It is March 11th, 2020. This is episode number 45. I’m your host, Mike Gentile, along with my co-host Nick Jones.

Mike: Today on the podcast, COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, is spreading globally. We take a look at some of the live poker events that have been canceled as a result and others that are on our radar for possible future cancelation. Parent companies of the two biggest online poker operators in the world, they’ve released their financial reports for 2019. We take a look at how poker performed at PokerStars and partypoker.

Mike: Finally, the 2nd Annual Global Poker Awards were handed out last week and we were in attendance. We highlight some of the winners and categories and discuss our experience in Las Vegas.

Coronavirus Causes Poker Event Cancellations

Mike: The news that is taking center stage in the poker world and the rest of the world as a matter of fact is the spread of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. We’ve seen some poker operators cancel live events. Nick, what can you tell us about that?

Nick Jones: By the time this goes out, the picture may well have changed again. At the time of talking on Wednesday, we’re still collating all the announcements that we’ve had with so far at over 20 live poker events have been canceled, rescheduled or postponed over the next two months. It’s almost at this point, everything over the next month has been affected in some way. It includes some pretty big events from PokerStars, partypoker, WPT, Winamax all kind of reacting to the spread of the virus.

Mike: I guess it’s prudent to do so at this point. I find it hard to imagine that things are going to get better anytime soon. It looks like the events that have been canceled so far are ones that are in the more immediate future, but that leaves the question of some of the bigger tournaments that are just a little bit farther down the road such as the WSOP and the PSPC. WSOP set to kick off end of May and run June through mid-July and then we have the PSPC in August.

Nick: Operators have tricky decisions on the hand as do any organizers of any large event. The ones that we’ve seen canceled over the next month or two, some of them are basically forced by federal government decisions to ban any large gatherings or large conferences. Particularly, Italy has just announced a complete lockdown of all their cities. It’s impossible to run any events. I think the Italian Poker Open had an event, I think, next month or later this month.

People’s Poker also had an event in Italy, so those two had been canceled. That’s almost just a reaction, if anything, just to being forced. Similar situation in Spain. PokerStars has canceled the next three PSPC events. One’s in Spain, one in France, and one in Germany. Some of those are a bit more proactive. The situation is not so bad in Germany right now and I guess that event in theory could have gone ahead.

I actually think that should have started now potentially. That might be a very late cancelation. Events in Asia had already been canceled. Some had already been canceled weeks ago. WPT has officially canceled or postponed their stops in Vietnam, Taiwan. There’s no chance these we’re going to go ahead and some of these announcements came quite late. Some of the bigger ones, Winamax has had to postpone their grand final again in Madrid.

Not really a decision there and that’s, again, easy ones to make. The Irish Poker Open is a pretty big deal. In theory, I guess that could have gone ahead. As you say, these are somewhat straightforward ones to cancel. The big question is, where we’re going to be in a couple of months? You see really no suggestions, predictions that this situation is going to be resolved or improved in two or three months’ time. Operators have got some really big questions still to answer.

Mike: One notable one that was not canceled is PokerStars’ stop in Sochi. Interesting that that was left off the cancelation list. I’m not entirely sure why. It could be due to the prevalence of the virus in that area. I’m not entirely sure.

Nick: Yes. Russia seems not to have suffered as much as mainland Europe. Obviously, it’s a lot less travel in and out of it. Maybe with these such events, there’s a contractual obligation to continue these. Most of the participants will be Russian players. Internal travel is still pretty unrestricted, I would guess. The partypoker Sochi event is currently going on or just completed.

PokerStars’ EPT Sochi is still going ahead. Also, PokerStars’ BSOP events in São Paolo, that’s still going ahead. They also have one in Manila, which is also going ahead, I suppose. That’s a bit more surprising because I know there’s some heavy travel restrictions in the Philippines. PokerStars, for those three events, they are going ahead. They’ve taken extra precautions with the operators in those countries.

Again, I guess their feel is that it’s mostly people in those cities or in the country at least to planning to attend. With that said, we’re seeing worldwide restrictions on any gatherings of large people, conferences and, obviously, a poker tournament with chips passing around. It is right at the frontline for the kind of events that you would expect to see canceled or postponed.

Mike: Yes. There’s traditionally already concerns about passing of germs at the poker table, cards, chips, whatnot. People are always commenting about how people don’t wash their hands enough before returning to the poker table. Take that situation and then inject this COVID-19. It really makes for a difficult situation for operators, for players. I don’t see things getting a whole lot better to be quite honest.

I’m not sure what could happen to make the situation more palatable down the road, for example, to allow people to not worry about attending some of these bigger events that are scheduled a little bit later on the calendar. It is potentially possible that we do see additional cancelations, yet it seems like there’s— I think it was maybe about a week ago now that WSOP came out and said, “Hey, no. There’s no plans at this point to cancel.” There’s still hope that these events might take place?

Nick: Yes. There’s multiple factors when an operator has to consider whether they cancel the event. One is just required to or it’s just ethically questionable whether you should allow such things to go ahead. The other is even if you feel like if players want the opportunity, local players in their city to go out and play, you could keep running it. If you think turnout is going to be very low, then you’re going to either miss guarantees.

Some of the first news that we saw were just operators removing guarantees from events. We first saw that at WPT Barcelona. I think a week ago, they removed the guarantees, expecting obviously a lower turnout. That event has now been canceled. Also, just staff. We’ve heard rumors of operating. We’re seeing it in big companies as well telling people to work from home or restrict their personal travel.

When operators run these events, they send a lot of staff out to these places. We’re hearing that some poker companies are putting restrictions in place for their own staff going out there. That’s obviously going to look bad if your own staff are not allowed to go, but they’re still allowing players to go. There are all these factors to consider. With the WSOP, a week or two ago, in an interview, I think Seth Polansky said that they have no current plans.

The situation has escalated significantly in the United States in the last few days. I don’t think there’s been any statement yet. The PR is still there. It’s funny. I think a week or two ago, I think some on the betting markets on PokerShares and on Twitter, people were looking at like getting 12 to one on the WSOP canceling. I think everything you’ll hear now, it’s like even money at best whether it’ll go ahead.

Mike: Yes. One of the things that they do have going for them, as you had mentioned before, about guarantees is that WSOP doesn’t have any guarantees. They don’t have to worry about losing money in that regard. It’s mostly just an attendance thing. Is it going to meet their overhead basically? That should be doable. They also, this year, increased the number of online bracelet events, so that would also be something that I would expect should be able to go ahead. Contrast that against something like the PSPC where they have a huge, what is it, 10 million guaranteed?

Nick: They don’t have a guarantee. They’re committed to giving away $10 million worth of planning passes and they’ve given away half of them. This is huge and the PSPC is perhaps the most interesting one. It’s far enough out. We’re talking August, so I’m guessing it’s going to be crossing their fingers and hoping it’ll still go ahead. They’re still giving away plans and passes. They’re still promoting it as much as before.

Really unfortunate position for them because this is the point they’d really start ramping up, giving away more all the live events, all the road to PSPC events they got coming up, giving away a bunch online. I think we talked in the last podcast about it’s still 10 a week that they need to give away and then this happens. What the contingency plan would be with all these platinum passes out there? I’m guessing put pause and reschedule for six months or a year.

Mike: I don’t think that’s out of the question. They do have money. I would assume that has been output contractual obligations with the casino, hotels, flights, and such. Considering the magnitude of this issue, that might be small potatoes.

Nick: This is the thing with casinos and with the WSOP. If they cancel the WSOP, that has huge ramifications for the casino business as a whole. What signal does that send? If you can’t have large gatherings in casinos, that’s not just what the WSOP dance. Just day-to-day business, right? That is what they do, is they gather lots of people in one room to share chips and gamble and drink and dine together. That’s what casinos are. That has to be the decision that might have to be made.

Mike: On the positive side, at the onset of this outbreak, we did see Macau close down their casinos, but then they did reopen. I believe they are currently open and running right now. Perhaps there’s hope that this can get past the initial wave and maybe there’s enough mitigating plans to be put in place to be able to let this go forward.

PokerStars and partypoker Report 2019 Financials

Mike: Last week on this podcast, we talked about some positive financial numbers from Unibet. We have since seen financial reporting from the two of the biggest online poker operators. The Stars Group, a parent company of PokerStars; and GVC, parent company of partypoker. Nick, how do those company financials shake out?

Nick: Starting with PokerStars, by far the largest operator, no real way to stay to other than it’s a very tough year, disappointing year for PokerStars in terms of their revenue from online poker. Since 2016, they had fractional growth into 2017 and, again, into 2018. In fact, 2018 was their largest in four or five years. A couple of percentage points growth. 2019 reversed all that.

Annual revenue was down around 12%, slightly less in terms of constant currency, but it’s still a pretty sizeable chunk of decline. This is like diluted now in the much larger company revenue. Poker is less than a third of company revenue due to all their acquisitions of UK sky betting and gaming and let’s say like the Australian businesses. With that and the growing casino and sports, poker takes a step back. When you just look at those numbers, poker was certainly disappointing in 2019.

Mike: What did they point to explain some of the decline that they saw in 2019? Usually, they will highlight some factors that they want to convey to investors as to the reason why things either go up or down.

Nick: It’s 100% disrupted market. I would say that less time is spent discussing online poker specifically than a year or two ago when it was 70% plus of the business. Also, say, they’re not doing investors calls at the moment as the merger with Flutter is pending, so they put pause to that. The slides and press release dedicated to this section is 100% of the markets that they had to withdraw from or operating is trickier. It was the same story throughout the year from Q1 through to Q4.

The same 10 to 12% decline every quarter. Each time, it was blamed on the same thing. Withdrawing from Slovakia a year ago, withdrawing from Switzerland six months ago, fewer payment processing options in the Netherlands, in Norway, apps being removed from the old App Store. When they say disrupted markets, it’s basically gray markets or unlicensed, unregulated markets. They argue that in their regulated markets, which is the growing part of the business, revenues were flat to slightly gray.

Mike: Was there any mention of Russia? That’s been a big topic of discussion when they released their financials recently. I was just wondering what the execs over at the Stars Group had to say about Russia?

Nick: No mention of Russia in their Q4 or I think even their Q3. It wasn’t until the first period of last year when they really highlighted that as their major issue. With that said, I still think it’s a large part of the disruption they’re facing. They’re still lacking some additional enforcement and difficulty operating with payment processing. With that said, they did release this dedicated Russian client. Maybe that’s proving a success, that model, the method that they’re using to continue operating in the country. They made no note of it. Again, details were very few and far between. I think other than literally mentioning maybe Sweden, Switzerland, and Slovakia, there was no other kind of exploration of the topic.

Mike: Are they on track for the merger/acquisition with Flutter?

Nick: Yes, I think so. The old site, I think it’s still pending internal due diligence and exploration and then there’s competition and marketing authority investigations. I think it was temporarily approved or pending approval in Australia. There was positive news out there. I don’t think it’s even being triggered in the UK yet or that might have just started. I think it’s about six months out, but that is still going ahead for all intents and purposes.

Mike: Okay. What about GVC, partypoker parent company? How did the poker results come out from GVC?

Nick: They had a better year. They reported that their revenue grew 8% in 2019 year over year which, against the backdrop of the largest poker market leader, by a long shot declining so much more, that’s very positive. Inside those numbers, it’s not quite as impressive. Perhaps, their poker has been growing every year since 2015. The prior two years have been growing more like 30 or 40%, so 8% is significantly down on the growth that they’ve seen before.

Also, they reported after the first half of last year, the growth was 12%. That means the back half of the year, the growth was much less. We estimate it more like 2.5 to 3%, something like that. There’s definitely a slow-down. They talked about that in Q3. I think we probably talked about it on the podcast about— They said explicitly to investors, their effort to catch bots resulted in revenue being a slow-down.

They called it in Q3. They hoped that that would perform better in Q4. We think that slow-down probably extended into Q4. They were laughing a very good fourth quarter in the year prior. With all that said, in spite of these things and, again, it’s interesting, the headwinds we just discussed about PokerStars, that affects all businesses. Partypoker operates in Russia. They’re online poker.

If they had to withdraw from Switzerland and Slovakia, it painted much with the same impact there. The fact that they still grew and grew 8%, they will certainly welcome it. We’ve certainly seen like in 2020, investment hasn’t ceased in any way with all their insane leaderboard promotions and more millions online and new life tools, so they are doing everything they can, I think, to keep that growth continuing into 2020.

Mike: They’re continuing to update their client. We saw the mobile client recently revamped. They’re doing a lot of things to try and court players. Did they point to anything in the financials to attribute their growth to?

Nick: Not really. Again, poker often doesn’t get much for looking at all investors and the investors calling the press release. In particular, there wasn’t really much discussion, so I’m just trying to look here. There’s literally one statement. They pointed the rollout of the new mobile app. That’s expected to quote strength and acquisition capability in 2020.

Mike: Okay, so that’s more forward-looking.

Nick: Yes. Again, they talked about the slow-down due to the impact of their ecology changes in H1, but that’s it. It sits inside the wider online gaming portfolio. It’s probably one of the larger brands in that portfolio. It makes up, I don’t know, tab 13, 15%, something like that. It’s a very wide portfolio with a bunch of bingo brands and casino brands and stuff. I think that grew 13%. Poker was slightly smaller than the grievance hits within, but it’s within the same bounds. I guess they’re fairly happy with that.

Mike: Well, 2020 is going to be with the COVID-19. It’s going to be difficult to tell, but I would imagine that we should see an uptick in online poker traffic based on people staying home more, playing less live. That could reflect well in the financials. I believe that a lot of these live events are not huge money-makers as far as revenue goes for the operators and are there maybe to promote online. It will be interesting to see when the Q1 and Q2 numbers roll out if there’s been any correlated change that we could point to and say, “Hey, wow, this is a factor that happened because of the coronavirus.

Nick: I’m not overly optimistic it’s going to have like a material effect. I can’t see that being a huge number of live poker casino players who would switch to online poker specifically over a couple of months in summer where it’s quiet anyway for online play. I could be wrong if we all go on house quarantine for the next two or three months, then sure. Outside, there’s pretty extreme outcomes. I’d be surprised if we see a big impact. I would say PokerStars did say in their financial results.

They talked about— What was the quote? Something about a big pipeline, deep pipeline of new product launches and marketing plans. They didn’t say poker would return to growth in 2020. They said that will help poker business in 2020 and into 2021. They were pretty modest in their expectations and projections. They said in the past, their plan is every year to grow poker by small single percentage points. They’re saying less than that this year.

They said that they expect disruptions to continue into 2020 and then improve again in 2021. We know the Netherlands is not going to happen this year. Sweden still continue to be tough. There’s anticipated headwinds in Spain, in the UK now with stricter, responsible gaming measures. They’re fairly measured about their expectation this year, but they did say they’re going to continue investing in the product, continue trying to get it on a stable footing and look towards future growth next year.

The Global Poker Awards Are Over!

Nick: Team Pokerfuse has just returned back from our trip to Las Vegas to attend the Global Poker Awards.

Mike: It was quite an interesting trip. Great event. It’s being billed as the 2nd Annual Global Poker Awards, which was a bit shocking for me, but I guess it is under that name. Previously, it was the American Poker Awards and the European Poker Awards. They have combined and this is the second annual one. Nick, you were up for an award, but it didn’t exactly play out in your favor.

Nick: It’s an absolute travesty. I’m shocked and saddened by my failure to take home the prize. It was given to a very worthy recipient, Joey Ingram, who was up for four awards. He scooped two of them, including Journalist of the Year. I got a pretty nice shout-out in his acceptance speech, so I guess I’ll take that as a consolation price.

Mike: You did get a very nice shout-out in his acceptance speech. Thanks to Joey for that and for listeners that may not be familiar with your dry sense of British humor. I believe that was tongue-in-cheek the way you were talking about being disappointed.

Nick: Yes, it was. It was an interesting award and you very much got the vibe there. In my mind, I’m not sure if you’ll agree with this, Mike, but it still has quite focus on live events. When you look at the awards, there’s lots for the different poker tours and there’s a lot of the people in attendance or perhaps because it was in Las Vegas were from that arena. There are some awards for things like Poker Journalist of the Year and Industry Person of the Year in particular.

They’re just such broad categories. The four people that are up for Journalist of the Year, myself, Joey Ingram, we probably couldn’t be further on the spectrum of what you would classify a poker journalist. Our output, types of content are completely different and the types of topics we talk on are completely different. There was Haley Hintze, who does great work over at FlushDraw.

Again, just a very different personality, I guess, in poker and the kinds of things she writes about and the kind of detail she goes into. Lance Bradley, who’s the editor of PocketFives. Again, perhaps a bit more focused on life, but they do some online stuff as well of folks in the US market. The category is so broad. It was so difficult to put a percentage chance on who was going to win it because I think a lot of people there knew Joey.

Very few people there knew me or probably like Haley Hintze for example. It was similarly with Industry Person of the Year. Maybe, Mike, you got up there who was nominated, but I knew Phil Galfond was up there. We both thought like he really had to win it because he’s done more in the industry than Phil. The person who won it was the Triton poker guy.

Mike: Yes. Paul Phua.

Nick: Yes. Again, I’m not saying he shouldn’t have won. Their contributions to the industry of poker, so different. One is online and one is live. One is super high stakes Asian focus poker tour. The other is a European online poker room. I think even Rob Yong wasn’t in that category.

Mike: Right, yes. He wasn’t even nominated.

Nick: Again, whether you like the guy or not, his impact in the online poker is so wide. There was perhaps one takeaway other than it was a great night. I think the production quality of the livestream was really good. I watched some after the fact, it’s excellent. Some of these categories are just so broad. They tried to cover so much that you’re left with these really broad categories outside of perhaps the live poker ones where that gets really specific. You’ve got mid-major poker tour and things like that. The same doesn’t apply to perhaps the more online-focused awards.

Mike: I agree with you. The online sphere seems to be second fiddle in these awards. Hopefully, we’ll see some changes to that in some categories added perhaps to reflect the importance of the online game and the poker industry overall. I wanted to ask you. What awards stood out to you if any?

Nick: Well, I can’t remember. It’s interesting. I was so focused on my award, which came as the second last one. I was sitting there for an hour and a half going, “Am I going to win? Am I going to win? If I do, I’ve got a speech. Is this stupid? I’ve even got a speech and all these things and watching other people that the rest is mostly a blur. I’ll be honest. Maybe you can take the lead on that.

Mike: Sure. Okay. Let’s start with the two that were off the top and not really a surprise. That’s the GPI Female Player of the Year, Kristen Bicknell, for the third year running, takes down that event. That’s just amazing. The same with GPI Player of the Year, Alex Foxen. His second year in a row. I think those two really stand out because they are such achievements. It’s pretty competitive out there. To be able to do that two years running and three years running is quite the accomplishment.

Nick: Pretty incredible for a poker power couple. One, 24 years on the troll. One T is on the— Pretty staggering achievement.

Mike: Another award that stood out to me was Drew Amato winning for— I believe it was Photograph of the Year.

Nick: That had to win. If that didn’t win, I was going to flip the table and walk out.

Mike: [laughs]

Nick: It’s such a good photo. It’s the one where I don’t even know whose picture of. Do you know his name?

Mike: No, I don’t even remember. I just remember the Ace.

Nick: Yes, discarding the Ace. It’s such an amazing moment that we captured. The other pictures were good but were mostly like set-out photos and this was like capturing a moment that otherwise wouldn’t have been captured, so that had to win. That was awesome.

Mike: Others that stood out to me were Media Content of the Year (Written), which went to Martin Harris for his book Poker and Pop Culture.

Nick: That was another category where, again, you’ve got a book up against a news article up against a mainstream news article up against something else. You look at it, it’s like, “I don’t know.” I’m not sure if we talked about this on the podcast, the categories before, but I know me and you did even when we were on the panel voting for some of them. It’s like, “How do I compare a book, which probably took 18 months to write, to an article that probably took six hours to write?”

Have the impact is so different and the reach is so different. Maybe that’s just the difficulty. Again, this awards ceremony was a good land. I’m not saying it should have been three hours long and double the categories so that we can have Best Article and Best Book and that kind of thing. It’s one of the struggles of when we have such a wide output of poker media content being able to judge them distinctly.

Mike: Streamer of the Year, Lex Veldhuis. I believe that was two years running for him as well?

Nick: Yes, could be, could be.

Mike: Lex is killing it in that space as is Andrew Neeme for Vlogger of the Year.

Nick: Yes. That’s an easy one there. I think it’s definitely deserved.

Mike: Podcast of the Year, let me get your thought on that. The Grid by Jennifer Shahade.

Nick: I’ve only listened to one episode of that. I liked it. I think that it’s a great concept for a podcast. If you haven’t listened, I think the idea is that of all the 169 two-card combinations in hold 'em, she plans to do an episode on each and find someone who’s got a story about it. I think I say 169, so that’s like the offsuit King-5, sort of the suit to King-5. I’m actually not sure if it’s that specific or even more specific like King-5 clubs or what, but yes, That’s what she’s doing. I think probably one because people heard that as a concept and thought that’s different and that’s cool.

Like I said, it’s such stiff competition. Again, travesty that we didn’t even make the shortlist. What was that all about? Again, like The Chip Race won it last year and they didn’t even make the shortlist this year. They’re doing exactly the same great stuff as they did. If anything, I think it’s improved as most would. It’s the same two people doing it consistently. They’ve had some great guests on there and that didn’t make it. I think it’s testament to the competitiveness in this category. There’s just so many people putting out great audio content now.

Mike: One category that stood out to me, People’s Choice for Hand of the Year, which was won by WSOP main event champion Ryan Riess. The thing that stood out to me about that category is when presenting the nominees, I really would have liked to have seen the hands. I understand it’s an award show and they’re limited on time, but there’s a bit of suspense that goes along with how these hands play out. Some of them could have been taking 10 minutes to play the entire handout. It left me in the audience going, “Oh, oh, I want to see that again. I want to see it again,” but I guess that’s not always something that you can do in a live award show like that

Nick: I didn’t buy it on these criteria and I’m not really that familiar with it, but was it requisite that they were all captured on TV or could it have just been like a crazy handplay online for a million dollars or something?

Mike: Yes. I don’t know off the top of my head. I would imagine that any recorded, whether written or televised documentation of the hand, would be enough for it to qualify, but I don’t know for sure.

Nick: In which case, maybe the hand that won, it’s just a poker news live chip reporting thing of it and there is not like a live hand to rewatch.

Mike: It was the EPT Monte Carlo final tables.

[crosstalk]

Mike: That’s likely to have been livestreamed. One award that was given out for the first time this year was Poker Icon Award. That went to Johnny Chan. When we were there, Sam’s like, “Is that Johnny Chan over there?” Me and Nick look at each other and go, “Why would he be here?” We were unaware that they were giving out this award for the first time. Sure enough, it was Johnny Chan. It was quite interesting to see him there and to see him interacting with today’s poker industry if you will. It was good. I think it’s a good move to try and go back and award some of the legendary names in the game.

Nick: I think that was definitely the highlight of the award show watching it live. I think that was a very well-prepared segment. A couple of nice introductory speeches talking about his life and then himself gave a fun speech at the end. He’s also the one that I really remember because he was the one award after the one that I was up for. At that point, I can relax.

Mike: [laughs] Stress was off.

Nick: Yes. Unbutton the waistcoat and enjoyed the last five minutes of the show. That was cool.

Mike: It really would have been nice to have Erik Seidel present that award to Johnny Chan, I thought, but I can understand why that might not have happened. Anyway, yes, overall, great, great event, happy to see it. Definitely some room for improvement and expansion perhaps. Going into 2020, it will be interesting to see if we can at least get a nomination this year.

Nick: For the podcast.

Mike: Yes.

Nick: We’re shooting for that.

Mike: [laughs] Shooting for that and get you over the top for Journalist of the Year.

Nick: Okay. It’s on.

Outro

Mike: Well, that wraps up this episode of the pokerfuse podcast. As a reminder, please give us a like and a subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. You can also follow us and interact with us on Twitter. Nick is at . I am . Thanks, everyone for tuning in.