Station Casinos says it knows Ultimate Poker has shortcomings, but being first was more important

Ron Sylvester

A screen shot of the new Ultimate Poker game being launched on Facebook Friday, June 22, 2012, by Las Vegas company Fertitta Interactive as seen demonstrated on Tuesday, June 19, 2012.

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To the experienced online poker player, Station Casinos' Ultimate Poker website can feel like a trip back to the Stone Age.

Players have complained about the software, interface and speed.

Station officials say they are aware of the criticism and are working to improve the site. But despite the glitches, they met their goal: being the first legal, real-money poker site in the country.

In fact, Station executives say some of the shortcomings may help them grow their audience.

It has been a little more than a week since Ultimate Poker launched in Nevada. Within three days, 100,000 hands had been played. The site is growing rapidly, with anywhere from 20 to 80 tables running at once. The average Las Vegas brick-and-mortar poker room has about 20 tables.

But for seasoned players accustomed to more sophisticated offshore poker websites, key features are missing.

Hand histories (a record of how hands were played), for example, are available but are hard to find, a big change from the easy-to-open text files that are standard on many offshore sites. Ultimate Poker offers no Omaha or 7-card stud games, and the site doesn’t allow players to shrink tables to efficiently play more than one game at a time. Players also can’t disable card animations.

Station Casinos said the features are missing by design.

Ultimate Gaming wanted to be first in the market, so executives decided to release a stripped-down version of the website with only the most popular poker variant.

“What was really important to us was getting the early-mover advantage,” Ultimate Gaming Chief Marketing Officer Joe Versaci said. “We figured what we should do is prioritize the most popular game with the skinniest offering. That allows us to get through the field trial with few things that could hold us up in terms of hurdles.”

The Gaming Control Board will review its findings at a public hearing after a 30-day trial.

Before the federal government’s crackdown on online poker, most online gamblers played using software that had been in development for 10 years. The offshore sites offered a polished product many players remember fondly.

Versaci doesn’t expect Ultimate Poker to take a decade to get polished. He said players can expect additional features to be rolled out in the coming months.

He said the development team has roughly 400 items it is working on — “things like new tournament features, a new user interface and some really great and unique hand-drawn avatars, all are in the pipeline."

Versaci labeled the launch a success because of the volume of players the website has received and the number of active tables.

Still, players have encountered hiccups.

As of Wednesday, gamblers with Verizon service remained locked out of the site because Verizon still hadn’t given Ultimate Poker clearance to locate the cellphones. Online players must be in Nevada to gamble online.

Terrance Chan, a professional poker player who works for Ultimate Poker, said he is working closely with Verizon and expects a resolution soon.

“Once we have that, we’ll have 99 percent of all the cellphone users in Nevada and the Las Vegas market,” Chan said.

Players with Apple computers also are unable to play for now. Ultimate Poker runs on Windows, which isn’t typically installed on Apple computers.

Players who own Macs must buy workaround software that allows them to run Windows on their machines.

Ultimate Poker offered to reimburse gamblers $200 for the purchase, but only if the player accumulates that much in rake, which is the cut the casino takes from each pot.

“If you really want to play Ultimate Poker, we want you to play,” Chan said. “We don’t want you paying out of pocket to play our product.”

Station officials said upgraded basic features will be the first to debut.

Versaci warned that more advanced features — those that benefit the savviest online players — will likely take more time. That’s also by design.

Versaci said Station wants to build a diverse customer base that won’t be discouraged by better players consistently beating them.

“It’s a delicate economy,” he said. “We feel prudent and like we have a responsibility on how we roll out limits and multi-tabling (playing multiple hands at once). We want to make sure our poker economy is healthy and active before we open the reins and allow huge multi-tabling and HUDs (heads-up displays). We want it to be fun.”

Tags: Business