Starting in the second half of March, online poker play in America spiked to degrees not seen since the early days of the Moneymaker-era poker boom. From the legal sites in the four states that currently permit them, to the offshore sites on which Americans can’t legally play, to the play–money apps that make Zoom home games possible, the COVID-19 shutdowns drove isolated and bored poker players of all skill levels to the online games.
In Pennsylvania, there’s only one active regulated site, PokerStars, and the impact of coronavirus is plain to see in the operator’s revenue numbers.
In February, ’Stars, which is partnered in PA with Mount Airy Casino Resort, posted $1.8 million in revenue. In March, that number jumped 71.2% to $3.1 million. In April, the first full month of stay-at-home directives, PokerStars PA earned $5.3 million, more than all three poker sites in New Jersey combined. In May, the number started to come down, landing at $4.6 million.
And a close look at the cash-table traffic this week suggests it’s not going to rebound in June.
What a difference three months makes
Back on Monday, March 23, and Tuesday, March 24, Penn Bets tracked the number of players seated in cash games (conveniently tabulated in the upper right corner of the desktop PokerStars app) at regular intervals (spaced out 60, 90, or 120 minutes).
The daytime numbers, in particular, were staggering. It turns out that record numbers of citizens working from home, or being stuck indoors without work to keep them occupied, translates to a massive increase in online poker.
But daily life in PA has changed a bit since March. The state has begun opening back up, with COVID cases dropping enough that most counties are back in the “green” zone (or will be this Friday) and most businesses have reopened (albeit under certain restrictions). Also, the weather in June has generally been more conducive to luring people outdoors than it was in March. (Though you can, of course, play poker outdoors on mobile devices, an option that didn’t exist in the early 2000s.)
So we decided the time was right to compare PokerStars traffic against what we saw in March.
For the most part, it’s a controlled experiment:
- We again observed numbers on a Monday and Tuesday, June 22 and 23, at the same time intervals.
- There is still only one legal poker site in Pennsylvania.
- There has not been a significant change in sports betting availability or online casino availability as gambling alternatives.
- There has been a slight change as it pertains to the land-based casino option (half the properties in the state have reopened), but casinos in PA have not been permitted to reopen their poker rooms.
Here’s how the numbers shook out on the two March dates and the two June dates:
Inside the numbers
Certain trends jump out: The numbers are lower across the board, they dip more dramatically during the workday than in the early morning and the evening, and Tuesday’s play is generally a bit busier than Monday’s.
To spell the trends out more clearly, we averaged the March numbers and averaged the June numbers and calculated the percentage drop at each time of day:
At peak weekday poker hours — typically in the 9-10 p.m. range — we observe the smallest dip of the day, just 5.6%.
But from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the decrease in poker traffic is extreme, hovering between 38-44%. The tendency toward playing during the workday has declined substantially as some businesses and offices have reopened.
Across the entire day, the number of people playing on PokerStars in Pennsylvania is down 30.8%, on average, compared to three months ago.
Some of this is due to attrition. In March, new online poker players and dormant former online players were crawling out of the proverbial woodwork, looking to fill their newfound free time. Some of those players had poor results, lost money, and lost interest. And three months into the pandemic, they’re not being replaced by as many new players who are suddenly deciding now is the time to open a PokerStars account.
But the fact that the numbers in the evening aren’t so far off where they were in March indicates a shrinking player pool isn’t the biggest issue. Rather, it’s that during the middle of their day, many March shut-ins are finding things to do outside their homes in June.