Shortly after news broke in early December that the Michigan Legislature, on a rare bipartisan basis, overwhelmingly approved a package of bills to legalize sports and online gambling, a Michigan resident using the handle “#GoBlue” celebrated in the chat box of a poker table on BetOnline, a popular internet gaming site based in Panama. “Here in Michigan very, very soon, we won’t have to play on these scam sites anymore,” he crowed. “Can’t wait to stop putting money into sites that make it so hard to get it out.”
That all depends, though, on #GoBlue’s definition of “very, very soon.” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s signature on Dec. 20 was just the starting gun for a regulatory and bureaucratic process that in other states has moved quickly on sports betting but more cautiously with internet games such as poker and blackjack. Detroit’s three brick-and-mortar casinos, for example, may well be able to fulfill the oft-stated hopes of State Sen. Curtis Hertel, a Democrat from East Lansing, to be ready to take bets from live customers by the start of the NCAA’s March Madness men’s basketball tournament.
Michigan is only the sixth state to approve online poker and other casino games — along with Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia — so there’s not a ton of history to go on. Pennsylvania took 18 months to launch online gambling after the legislature approved of it in October 2017, and West Virginia, which legalized in March 2019, had yet to promulgate rules to allow for casinos to apply for licenses as of December.
“I don’t think anything happens in the short-term on poker,” says John Pappas, a casino-industry consultant and longtime online poker legalization advocate who has testified before the Michigan Legislature on the matter three times. “In Michigan, I think we’re going to probably see a rule-making process that will take anywhere between six and 12 months.”
Others are more optimistic — and eager. Rep. Brandt Iden, a 36-year-old Republican from Battle Creek who for four years has led the state’s effort to legalize online gambling, believes the Michigan Gaming Control Board could create rules for all of these gambling options within 60 to 90 days of the legislation taking effect. The state’s commercial and tribal casino operators have existing gaming licenses and, thus, have the ability to apply quickly for an online gaming license from the state under the new law. Additionally, the geolocation technology required to prevent gamblers not physically in Michigan from playing has already been perfected for the state’s online lottery, Iden says. “I do believe by spring, folks will be up and running,” he says. “Once those rules are promulgated, it should go very quickly.”
Perhaps, but with online poker in particular, the process won’t end when Michiganders can play amongst themselves. The real goal is to join the interstate compact that allows gamblers in Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware to play one another, thereby expanding the player population and potential winnings. “I can’t imagine that they will join immediately,” says Pappas, who doubts that would happen before the end of 2020. “They will need to get their operations up and running, see how they work first.”
Iden understands the impatience of poker players like #GoBlue. The representative is a devoted gambler himself, and he’s long been concerned about how risky it is for Americans to play on overseas poker sites. “Oftentimes people were being taken advantage of,” he says. “Their personal information was being compromised or people would win and they’d get a check from some Chinese bank and never be able to cash it. Protecting consumers was the impetus.”
“This is money for kids at the end of the day, and this is good for kids. But, also, it’s good for Michigan gamblers.”
—REP. BRANDT IDEN
World Series of Poker champion Joe Cada, a Shelby Township native whose poker career began online and who has won more than $14.2 million in live tournament action, also hails the move as a big step “toward more transparency for everyone involved.”
“It’s long overdue,” Cada says. “This allows Michigan to start benefiting more and allows bigger sites like [World Series of Poker] or PokerStars, or even the Detroit casinos, to enter the market. I also think it keeps the ball moving with the opportunity of other states following suit. No one likes being told what they can and cannot do as an adult when you’re not harming others.”
Michigan almost saw online gaming and sports betting start in 2019, but outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, vetoed similar legislation in December 2018. Snyder wrote in his veto message that he was concerned that the new gambling activity could harm lottery ticket sales and reduce the revenue the lottery provides to the education budget. The package signed by Whitmer responded to these concerns by ensuring new gaming tax revenue more than replaces any drop-off in the lottery — even though Iden and others doubt there will be any. Early projections suggest the education budget could see between $30 million and $50 million per year from taxes on sports wagering and as much as $150 million per year from other online games.
“This is money for kids at the end of the day, and this is good for kids,” Iden says. “But, also, it’s good for Michigan gamblers.”