OP-ED: ZyngaPoker Pro or Con

Assessing the impact of a Facebook game’s arrival in Las Vegas

by , Mar 27, 2011 | 5:19 pm

Jon Katkin

The Poker Economy

A lot of things have changed in the poker world since the Zynga PokerCon ended here in Las Vegas last Saturday. Partnerships have been approved (Caesars/888), announced (PokerStars/Wynn) and speculated upon (Full Tilt/Station Casinos). Legislation surrounding the legalization of online poker has been introduced and debated in various jurisdictions around the country and, I’m pretty sure that Erik Seidel won another high-stakes tournament somewhere in the world.

In short, it’s been a pretty busy week. And yet, with everything going on – or perhaps, because of it – I still find myself puzzling over Zynga’s potential role as a player in the post-regulation poker economy.

For those of you still unfamiliar with Zynga, they bill themselves as the largest online poker room in the world with a database of approximately 38 million players who compete for chips and tokens that have value only within the confines of Zynga’s proprietary system. In other words, Zynga is a play money site in the truest definition of the word. And yet, they came to Las Vegas last weekend to hold a live event for their fans and players.

Zynga has something every major real money site is looking for: players who have yet to make an initial deposit online. Would Zynga really stay out of real money gaming if someone came along with a partnership offer they couldn’t refuse? I don’t think so.

Populated by attendees who either won or bought their way into the event through Zynga’s site, the two-day conference was an interesting mix of Zynga players and industry insiders who were looking for information on this most mysterious of potential competitors or, perhaps, partners. I can’t speak for anyone else at the conference, but I have to admit that I walked away from the event with no clear answers.

As a fan event, I have to say the PokerCon was a success. For the cost of a $125 entry, Zynga’s players received professional instruction from Annie Duke and a plethora of other name pros, the chance to meet legends like Doyle Brunson and Mike Sexton, free food and drink at a Zynga-sponsored party, and a seat in a $100K tournament with a guaranteed payout of $26,000 to the winner. Not a bad deal, if you ask me.

As a “coming out party” for Zynga Poker, however, I can’t say I was as impressed.

In all honesty, Day 1 felt more like an Annie Duke poker school sponsored by Zynga Poker, rather than a Zynga event. Sure, they had branding scattered around the room and some very attractive women walking around in branded T-shirts, but other than that, there was no real sense that Zynga was announcing itself as any kind of player in the online poker game. That lack of conviction was compounded by the poker room’s General Manager, Lo Toney, who gave two very brief speeches (2-3 minutes each) thanking everyone for turning out, but lacking in any kind of detail about what the future might hold for his brand.

When asked directly about plans to enter the real-money market, Toney made it clear that Zynga is a social gaming company that is very happy with its current business plan of selling virtual goods to its millions of players. And, on the surface, that’s not a surprising answer, considering that game plan has earned them billions in revenue in just a few short years. Still, companies exist to make money and everybody in the poker world knows there can be huge value in pulling off a well-timed bluff.

Does that mean I think Toney is lying about the company’s intentions? Not necessarily. Do I think he’s playing his cards close to the vest? Without a doubt.

The fact is, Zynga Poker has something that every major real money site is looking for – tons of players who have yet to make an initial deposit online. That’s a whole lot of new fish for more established players to feast on and hundreds of millions in extra rake for the sites to add to their bottom lines. So, would Zynga really stay out of real money gaming if someone came along with a partnership offer they couldn’t refuse? I don’t think so.

With the increasing amount of legal and strategic maneuvering going on in the poker world these days, it seems unlikely to me that Zynga will remain happy to sit on the sidelines while all of the other players pick teammates for the big games that are yet to come. I guess only time will tell. Until then, can someone please send me a virtual drink on FaceBook?

Views expressed by Pokerati contributing editor and industry vet Jon Katkin are his and may or may not be his alone. Feel free to flame him on Twitter @JaKatkin.

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