LAS VEGAS >> A Las Vegas casino is launching a free online poker website tied to the program it uses to determine perks for frequent gamblers, with an eye toward opening a site to play for real money if it becomes explicitly legal in the United States.
South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa owner Michael Gaughan planned to announce Wednesday that the site will launch Thursday for members of its casino loyalty program and Oct. 17 for the public.
Gaughan told The Associated Press the site is a first step in being ahead of the pack if federal or state lawmakers decide to explicitly allow casinos to operate Internet poker. Current laws are murky but effectively prohibit sites from operating by preventing banks from processing payments for illegal gambling.
“It’s kind of a gamble,” said Gaughan, who said he plans to promote the casino by giving away cash and prizes, including funds for one player to take a seat at next year’s $10,000 buy-in World Series of Poker main event.
“I don’t know that much about online poker and I’m trying to learn about it with a free site,” he said.
Gaughan said he has been working with Nevada gambling regulators with the stated intention that should online gambling be given a green light in Nevada or nationwide, he’ll be ready.
Casinos have pursued Internet poker more eagerly since federal indictments brought down the three largest sites that offered poker gambling to Americans. The indictments accused executives and other associates of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker of fraud and money laundering for tricking banks into processing payments by disguising them as purchases of flowers, golf balls and other items.
Teresa Zellhoefer, deputy enforcement chief for the Nevada Gaming Control Board, said regulators looked at the South Point site — the first free one directly branded under a Sin City casino’s name and linked to its gambling rewards program — as primarily a promotional tool.
Regulators asked how the site would arbitrate disputes in games and keep information about hands played, and they took into considerations new state rules the control board has been drafting since state lawmakers asked for new regulations earlier this year.
“It was kind of a precursor to getting the big ball rolling,” said Zellhoefer, noting that the board didn’t have to formally approve the site because it doesn’t involve real-money gambling.
The site isn’t the first for a casino company but appeared to set new bars with its branding and direct tie to its loyalty program.
Caesars Entertainment Corp. has been running a free poker site for two years branded through the World Series of Poker, which it owns, with games also available on Facebook and mobile platforms. The site signs up thousands of players weekly and is approaching 1 million total user accounts, World Series of Poker spokesman Seth Palansky said.
The sites are not tied to Total Rewards, the gambling perks program that Caesars has become famous for within the industry.
Caesars has made no secret of its intentions to eventually be a player in online gambling, and Nevada regulators have cleared its business tie with 888 Holdings PLC to create Caesars online poker for real money in the United Kingdom.
Gaughan said he thinks things will move quickly toward legalization, and he wants to be ready.
“I think it would help business at the South Point and I think I could make money with it as a (stand-alone) poker site,” Gaughan said.