During the 2014 Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in Las Vegas I had the chance to sit down and pick the brain of the man who landed in the #7 spot on Bluff Magazine’s 2014 Power 20 list, Jeffrey Haas, the Group Director of Poker at bwin.party.
Haas and I covered a number of issues, ranging from Sheldon Adelson’s opposition to online gambling to the company’s return to the U.S. market in New Jersey and beyond.
Here is what he had to say.
On Sheldon Adelson and the AGA
When asked for his thoughts on Sheldon Adelson’s anti-online gambling keynote speech at G2E, Haas’s first comments were not directed at Adelson, but rather at the American Gaming Association (AGA) and their current “no position” stance on online gambling.
Haas called the powerful gaming lobby group’s current stance on online gambling, “disappointing” and “astonishing,” before elevating his criticism to an even higher level.
“We’ve been betrayed by the AGA… taking no position is the cheap and easy way out.” Haas definitively stated.
When Haas moved on to Adelson, and Steve Wynn (who also made anti-online gambling comments during his keynote the day before Adelson took the stage), he was just as flabbergasted by what he heard as he is by the AGA’s passive aggressive approach to the problem.
Haas rhetorically asked why two self admitted technophobes were trying to set policy on technology; likening their dismissal of the technology (I don’t understand it so it doesn’t work) to cries of, “BURN THE WITCH” in 17th century New England.
“If disruption and innovation are so important – so critical to continued success- why is the Internet so dangerous?” Haas wondered, before questioning the motivations behind Wynn’s and Adelson’s opposition, “If they were really concerned as they say, they would work with the operators and regulators to bring about more controls.”
Haas called the claims being leveled against the online gaming industry “ridiculous” and again asked, “where is the pressure from the AGA?”
When asked if the online gaming industry needs their own AGA-like trade group to advocate for them, Haas stated, “that’s what the AGA is for.”
On the underwhelming New Jersey market
From there the conversation turned to New Jersey.
The underwhelming iGaming revenue figures the state has produced thus far isn’t lost on Haas, as he said bwin.party originally expected the market to be three to four times larger than it actually is.
Haas pointed to payment processing and black market operators as having a role, but he was also willing to take some of the blame for the poor performance, “We need to do a better job in every area,” Haas said. “We need to be better at everything. Every step needs to improve by 1%-4%.”
No area escaped Hass’s criticisms, as he said improvements needed to happen beginning with the signup process, and then on to the software, and even to their marketing efforts, and customer service.
Haas summed up these all-encompassing improvements as the company being better at “Customer Experience Management.”
Several improvements are on the way according to Haas, beginning with the site’s software, which will see more non-Holdem games added, as well as enhanced mobile capabilities, including the addition of MTT’s by January.
New marketing efforts will also be implemented in New Jersey.
partypoker will host another Garden State Super Series (GSSS) online tournament series in January -which will run alongside the Borgata Winter Poker Open at the Borgata – and there will be a new/renewed emphasis on cross promotion with their national partner, MGM.
“Now that MGM is licensed in New Jersey we feel more comfortable [from a regulatory perspective] to offer satellites in New Jersey to World Poker Tour tournaments in Las Vegas,” Haas said, specifically mentioning the WPT Five Diamonds Poker Classic and the WPT500 at the Aria.
Haas also touched on the need to better display their New Jersey license on their website, and how they are held responsible with player funds. “Education is still a significant factor,” Haas said, adding that the company needs to undo the bad press the industry received from Black Friday, differentiate themselves from unlicensed sites, and reengage with disenfranchised players.
On the positives from New Jersey
The numbers in New Jersey are not living up to expectations, but, “It’s been a phenomenal success form a regulatory point of view,” Haas was quick to add. “Despite what the demagogues are saying, there is not a single documented case of someone playing from outside New Jersey, or a single case of underage play.”
It should be noted, the online gambling industry in New Jersey has also had an impact on the state economy far beyond its official revenue numbers.
According to Haas, the partypoker office in Hoboken currently houses dozens of employees who deal with poker operations, customer support, technology, payments, VIP relations, and several marketing functions. Additionally, the company has ancillary employees across New Jersey and the country – marketing people, lawyers, software developers, and more.
Hundreds of jobs can likely be linked to partypoker alone, and this is true for virtually every licensed online poker company in the U.S.
On the return of PokerStars to NJ
As partypoker and the New Jersey iGaming industry prepares for the arrival of PokerStars, Haas, a former PokerStars employee himself, has mixed feelings, seeing PokerStars as a tough competitor as well as a rising tide that can lift all ships.
Haas expects their rival to have an immediate impact on the market, “God bless PokerStars’ marketing budget,” Haas stated. A clear indication that Haas expects PokerStars to come into New Jersey with all guns blazing.
Still, Haas also sees a silver lining to PokerStars marketing blitz, as it will increase consumer awareness for all of the licensed sites.
Another aspect PokerStars will bring to the table is it’s U.S. database, which Haas called, “the most powerful asset in U.S. iGaming.”
PokerStars database may be three years old (a veritable lifetime in online poker), but the partypoker database was significantly older and practically worthless, “filled with aol and hotmail addresses,” according to Haas.
Haas also harbors suspicions that PokerStars may gain an advantage due to their year-long truancy, as it will allow them look like a well oiled machine due, while the first movers (party, 888, Ultimate) have drawn comparisons to the Keystone Cops: “We got these systems (KYC, geolocation, payment processing) up and running,” Haas said, “and now it’s a much smoother process.”
In Haas words, “PokerStars is going to get a free ride,” as they won’t have to deal with many of the early problems sites like partypoker faced in the early days of the market.
On PokerStars in California
Haas is also aware that PokerStars might be a competitor in another U.S. market, California.
PokerStars has already formed a powerful partnership with the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and three prominent California card rooms, the Bicycle Casino, Commerce Casino, and Hawaiian Gardens Casino.
bwin.party also has a California partner, the United Auburn Indian Community (UAIC).
The UAIC was one of 13 tribes who voiced their opposition to PokerStars in a letter to the state legislature in June, calling for the state to include a Bad Actor clause in any potential legislation that would bar the company from the California market for five years.
Thus far bwin.party has been silent on the Bad Actor issue.
Haas responded to my question of his company’s stance on Bad Actor clauses in the Golden State by saying, “this is a matter for the regulators to decide.”
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