Thanksgiving was special for me this year, and not just because it was the first time that Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukah were on the exact same day (and it won't happen again for another 70,000 years). What made it truly special is online gaming returned to New Jersey last week.
So I made my annual November trek to my parents' home in Haddonfield, N.J. in search of more than just turkey and stuffing; I wanted to test the Garden State's newly-established online casinos.
On Tuesday, Nov. 26, New Jersey became the third American state to offer licensed and regulated online casinos. The launch followed a five-day "soft play" period, sort of like a beta test, in which the casinos were able to offer their full suite of games to no more than 500 players at a time.
The "soft play" period was intended to ensure to both regulators and the online casinos themselves that Web gambling in New Jersey could operate smoothly and effectively. Unfortunately, the first week has seen a host of blunders that will need to be fixed if New Jersey’s online casinos ever wants to gain legitimacy and build a solid market.
My story begins Wednesday morning and is similar to many others' who had difficulties both signing up and gaining access to the state's online casinos. While I still hold high hopes that my home state can work out the kinks, my experiences were not encouraging on that front.
Wednesday, Nov. 27, 7:30 a.m.: Coming off a seven-hour drive through torrential rain that got us to my parents house at 1 a.m., I wasn't exactly enthused about taking my dog out into the freezing cold. But duty calls, I guess.
7:45 a.m.: I sit down at my mom's desktop computer and fire up Party Poker New Jersey, the first site on my list. I was a fan of Party Poker in its pre-UIGEA heyday because it was easy to deposit money as a 16-year-old and it always had pretty nice tournament guarantees. In New Jersey, Party Poker has both browser-based game play and downloadable software, and the site offers slots and table games in addition to poker.
I initially opted to download the software because that is what I was used to doing when I played online poker before Black Friday. The download was quick and painless, and so was the registration process. Within a few minutes my account was set up Party Poker even gave me $15 in free bonus money just for signing up ($10 to play with immediately, and $5 which I had to unlock by playing slots. (I’ll have more on the slots money later).
So I thought I was ready to gamble. A minute or so into browsing the game offerings, a message popped onto my screen that read: "Sorry, you can't play our games outside of New Jersey."
8 a.m.: There had been several reports of players near bordering states being unable to access online casinos in New Jersey, so this didn't surprise me. My parents' house is a mere nine miles from Philadelphia. At this point, I didn't know what to do, so I tried calling Party Poker's customer support line.
8:30 a.m.: I waited on hold for 30 minutes and nobody picked up. Perfect. I eventually hung up the phone because a representative sent me a message in the site's chat system, asking me if she could help me make a deposit.
Obviously, I wasn't about to put money on a site that incorrectly determined my location, but I used this opportunity to ask the rep if she could help with my geo-location issues. Apparently, and not surprisingly, I wasn't the only one having these problems.
The rep told me that I needed to be on a computer with WiFi enabled. This made no sense to me, but I wasn't about to argue. Unfortunately, my desktop was hooked up through Ethernet (and not WiFi enabled). She also said that having any open remote access programs, such as LogMeIn, could change the computer's IP (Editor’s note: More likely, they don’t want players being able remotely manage a computer in New Jersey from another state in order to play poker).
8:45 a.m.: Heeding the rep's advice, I switched from the desktop to my dad's laptop plugged in upstairs. I immediately removed LogMeIn from his computer and made sure the WiFi was connected. Still, I had no luck "beating" the geo-location. This was getting to be very frustrating.
9 a.m.: At this point, I decided I'd try my luck with some of the other online casinos. I visited Ultimate Casino and CaesarsCasino.com, which are both played through Web browsers. Unlike Party Poker, these sites asked me to download a geo-location plug-in that would help recognize my WiFi. They also asked for my phone number during registration and sent me text messages as an additional way to verify my location (Party asked for my phone number too, but did not send me a text). Still, after downloading the plug-ins and going through all the proper registration procedures, I was again denied access to both sites, which claimed I was outside the state of New Jersey.
10 a.m.: I took a break for an hour because: 1. I hadn't yet had my coffee, showered or changed out of my pajamas, and 2. I was so frustrated with these online casinos, my blood was boiling.
When I returned to the laptop, I returned to Party Poker, but this time to the browser-based client. This time, I was asked to install a geo-location plug-in, so I did.
10:05 a.m.: Out of nowhere, I received a pop-up message from Party Poker saying my location was verified to be in New Jersey and I could now play. Huh? Did the plug-in work? I wasn't about to ask too many questions -- it had been nearly 30 months since the last time I played online poker and I wasn't going to waste time figuring out how or why I was finally able to do it. I just wanted to play.
Using the $10 in bonus money I had in my account, I registered for a $1 multi-table tournament and a $5 one-table Sit-and-Go, both of which started at roughly 10:30.
10:30 a.m.: The tournaments started -- this was really happening! And it was just like I remembered it!
10:35 a.m.: Out of nowhere, I got the "message of doom" again. Party Poker could not verify my location and I was no longer allowed to play real-money games on the site. I watched as my hands were automatically folded in both tournaments. I feverishly tried everything to get my verification back, from closing the software to disconnecting from my WiFi and even re-downloading the geo-location plug-in. But it was no use.
11:30 a.m. After taking another break, I returned to the computer to see if anything had changed. I opened Party Poker and, for some reason, I was again verified as being in New Jersey. To my astonishment, I was still alive in the $1 tournament, albeit with an incredibly short stack. But I was playing again.
12 p.m.: I ended up doubling and tripling up a few times and came in fifth place in the tournament for a solid $2 and change. While I was at the final table, I popped open a $0.02/$0.04 no-limit Hold'em table with my remaining $4 and made about another $1 in profit. By the time the tournament was over, I had a little less than $8 in my account.
With my location verification firmly in tact (it seemed), I figured I'd take my shot at unlocking the $5 bonus waiting for me in my account. The way I initially read the terms of the bonus, all I had to do was wager $5 in Party Poker's casino, and the bonus would be unlocked. So I went to the blackjack table and bet $1 five times in a row. I even managed to make a 50-cent profit thanks to a blackjack on the third hand.
But when I returned to the lobby, my bonus had not been unlocked. After digging through the terms again, I realized that I couldn't just wager $5 in any old casino game -- it had to be through one of the site's nine-payline, progressive jackpot slots. I opened one of the games and was set to wager $1 at a time, but for some reason it would only allow me to bet in $1.35 increments. Again, this made no sense to me, but on the first spin I won $27.
12:30 p.m.: I finished up with the slots, unlocked my bonus, and now had about $40 in my account, all profit. There were no signs of any geo-location issues; I was finally playing online poker again, for real.
I fired up a $10 heads-up Sit-and-Go and began playing.
12:35 p.m.: You guessed it -- I received the kiss of death. Again, I watched as my blinds went to my opponent, who seemed to catch on to the fact that I was disconnected from the site.
I couldn't get back on the site for an hour.
1:45 p.m.: It was about 15 minutes until the start of our Casino City Gang podcast and I was set to give my review on my day's findings. To this point, I didn't have too many glowing things to say about the whole ordeal.
I opened up Party Poker again, and sure enough, my location was verified. Ho-hum, been there done that. Then I gave Ultimate Casino another shot. Somehow, I was able to get on and play for the first time all day. I tried Caesars again -- I was in. I don't know what was going on with the geo-locators, but at 1:45 p.m., I was officially recognized as being in New Jersey.
3:45 p.m.: The podcast ended and I went back to the laptop. This time, I was unable to get verified for any of the sites. I wasn't even able to access Ultimate Casino's server, much less enter the playing lobby. In fact, I couldn't even get back into Ultimate Casino for the rest of the weekend.
4 p.m.: I called it a day. At this point, I don't even know what to make of New Jersey's online casinos. I had about $30 in profit but had been kicked out of three tournaments. I beat the geo-locators and then couldn't beat them. It was as if my IP was changing periodically throughout the day, which makes zero sense to me.
It all would have made more sense had I never been allowed access. But this was just troubling.
Thursday, Nov. 28, 11:30 a.m.: I woke up and spent Thanksgiving with my family like a normal person. I didn't even bother to check how the sites were doing.
Friday, Nov. 29, 8 a.m.: I came out of my food coma and gave it another shot. I decided to try Party, Ultimate and Caesars again to see if their issues had been fixed. Party, like clockwork, verified and unverified me all day long. Caesars was unable to verify my location and Ultimate's servers, as I said, were down.
I then made accounts at 888 Casino New Jersey and TropicanaCasino.com, but the geo-location also did not work.
11 a.m.: The only site that let me play all morning was Party Poker, and even they were sporadic. I busted my $30 roll by messing around in $0.25/$0.50 pot-limit Omaha and decided enough was enough.