With legal gambling in the United States now moving beyond the casinos and onto the Internet, the industry is bracing for the most far-reaching changes in its history.
A Las Vegas firm, Ultimate Gaming, on Tuesday became the first in the U.S. to offer online poker, restricting it, for now, to players in the state of Nevada. New Jersey and Delaware also have legalized gambling over the Internet and expect to begin offering such bets by the end of this year.
And many inside and outside the industry say the recent position taken by the federal government that states are free to offer Internet gambling — as long as it doesn't involve sports betting — will lead many cash-hungry state governments to turn to the Web as a new source of tax revenue.
Ten other states have considered some form of Internet gambling so far this year, but none has legalized it yet. Efforts to pass a national law legalizing online poker have sputtered, leaving states free to pass laws as they see fit.
"It's no longer a question of if Internet gaming is coming; it's a question of when," said Frank Fahrenkopf, president of the American Gaming Association, the trade organization for the nation's commercial brick-and -mortar casinos.
The brave new world for gambling brings with it a host of questions and concerns. Will letting people bet online result in fewer visits to casinos, and therefore fewer workers? Will Internet bets create a new revenue stream, or will it simply redirect money from gamblers who otherwise would have visited a casino? And will it create even more problem gamblers?
Michael Frawley is chief operating officer of The Atlantic Club Casino Hotel in New Jersey, perhaps the most endangered of Atlantic City's 12 casinos. A deal for it to be sold to the parent company of PokerStars, the world's largest online poker website, is up in the air. The Atlantic Club's owners said Wednesday the deal was dead, but PokerStars said the next day it still wants to salvage the purchase. It was not immediately clear whether the deal will ultimately get done.
Frawley said the Internet's vast reach could help double business at his casino, provided the right balance is struck between the online and physical gambling experiences for customers.
"If you go to the movies, you can watch one at home, or you can watch one in the theater," he said. "Both of them can be a great experience."
The Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa has said it is preparing to offer online gambling later this year, and Gary Loveman, CEO of Caesars Entertainment, has also said he expects his company's four Atlantic City casinos to grab a large share of New Jersey's online market.
Geoffrey Stewart, general manager of Caesars Online Poker, said brick-and-mortar casinos such as Caesars Palace can use Internet play to complement their physical casinos.
"Someone comes to play with us online, we will be able to offer them seats to the real World Series of Poker, or offer them hotel rooms at Caesars Palace," he said.
Not everyone in the industry is all-in, however.
The American Gaming Association conducted a study a few years ago on whether poker-only Internet gambling — which it supports — would cannibalize the existing brick-and-mortar casinos. The study determined that it would not. But when Internet gambling allows for casino games, such as in the bill recently adopted by New Jersey, the traditional casinos could suffer, Fahrenkopf said.
The most popular form of Internet gambling is online poker.
When the Justice Department charged executives of three online poker sites in April 2011 with conducting illegal transactions, it was a $6 billion a year industry. After the crackdown, it was largely on hiatus, because at the time, taking online bets from U.S. customers was illegal. But not long afterward, the U.S. Justice Department revised its stance, allowing states to take online bets so long as they didn't involve sporting events.
Eric Baldwin is a professional poker player who's eager to get back online again now that poker is once again available over the Net.
"The money's good when things are good," he said. On the other hand, he acknowledges, "Most people don't go to work for 12 hours, do their best and come home down a couple thousand dollars."
He plans to at least try out legalized Internet poker to see if the player pools are big enough to make it worthwhile.
Introducing new players to poker over the Internet makes it less scary and potentially more popular, said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
"It was mostly old guys with cigars," he said. "It was very intimidating to walk into a poker room and see a guy who's a thousand years old, smoking 10 packs of cigarettes a day, giving you dirty looks because you're taking the wrong card," he said. "What online poker did was let people get familiar with the game, feel a little bit of confidence and then they said, 'I want to go to Vegas and do the real thing.'"
Gambling Compliance, which tracks the online gambling industry, predicts Internet gambling in New Jersey will bring in nearly $262 million in its first year and nearly $463 million after four years. The group said that figure could go as high as $575 million after four years if online gambling takes off in New Jersey.
H2 Gambling Capital, a U.K. consultancy for the Internet gambling industry, predicts 17 states will have approved Internet gambling by 2017, led by New York, California, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey.
And Morgan Stanley predicts that by 2020, online gambling in the U.S. will produce the same amount of revenue as Las Vegas and Atlantic City markets combined bring in today: $9.3 billion.
Associated Press writer Haven Daley in Las Vegas contributed to this report. Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC.