Mark Robson, co-founder of Champions Sports, says operators need to be smart if the current online poker boom is to continue once sport returns.

Online poker has enjoyed something of a resurgence following the global sports blackout resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic with some operators reporting a 60 per cent boom in play.

There are several reasons why players are returning to the game, but the big question operators are asking themselves is whether the higher levels of engagement can be maintained.

That will ultimately depend on the operator and its strategy for acquiring and retaining players, as well as the preferences of the players themselves.

Before discussing how operators may be able to prolong this unexpected rise in interest, let’s first look at why a lack of sports and sports betting has led to a spike in poker play.

Sports and poker are different but the same

There are many similarities between sports betting and poker, especially the way it appeals to two different types of gambler – the emotional player and the intellectual player.

Emotional sports bettors bet on a team or a player because they are fans and it adds even more excitement to watching the game.

Emotional bettors can enjoy the same feeling when playing online poker – playing based on gut feeling or because they are holding their lucky hand.

Intellectual bettors, on the other hand, use their skill and knowledge to study form and bet based on the information available to them even if that means going against their favourite team.

Intellectual bettors are drawn to poker because it also requires skill and knowledge to master not only the game, but also their opponents. Instead of beating the odds, they are beating their rivals.

In addition to this, poker is an inherently social game and allows players to chat. At a time when people are craving interaction, poker stands out from other gambling products.

Returning to the game they love

Another reason for the current poker boom is the lack of sports has pushed bettors back to a game they already know and love – for some, poker will be the first game they played online.

This is certainly true of those that were introduced to online gambling during the poker boom of the early noughties. Of course, the passing of UIGEA dramatically changed the landscape (and not necessarily in a good way).

With diminishing player pools, many migrated away from online poker to other products such as sports betting and even casino and live dealer.

But with sports off the agenda due to the pandemic, many have gone back to poker and seem – for the time being at least – to have rekindled their passion for the game.

New players have the time to learn the game

As well as attracting existing players, the current situation is driving new players to the game as well. This is partly because they have the time to understand and learn how to play.

Some will have been curious about poker for some time, but with other entertainment and betting options available they simply won’t have got around to giving it a go.

But with no sport to bet on – and with fewer entertainment options on which to spend their budget – many are turning to online poker for the very first time.

Boom or bust

The big question of course is whether operators will be able to maintain the high levels of interest they are currently enjoying once sports events and betting return.

Undoubtedly some players will stop playing poker and return to their preferred sports betting activity, but savvy operators can keep some of the players engaged in the long term.

This will require a smart approach to marketing and in particular the structure of the tournaments and satellites they are running now and throughout the year.

Operators should look to run satellites into bigger tournaments with decent prizes up for grabs. It doesn’t have to be large cash prizes, either.

It could be a car, a home entertainment system – anything that is going to excite players and encourage them to enter the satellites and earn their seat at the final.

By hosting the final at the back end of the year, and by running weekly satellites between now and then, there is a huge chance for operators to continue to engage players and drive retention.

Will the online poker boom last? Possibly not, but the current situation will undoubtedly drive growth in online poker and operators just need to figure out how best to take advantage of it.