Like some of you, I saw that report late last week over on Subject:Poker regarding the possibility of impending action by the U.S. Department of Justice “against the Merge Gaming Network or some part of it.”
The report doesn’t provide details regarding what exactly the action will be -- i.e., whether there will be some sort of indictment against site operators and/or payment processors as happened with Black Friday or domain seizures or what. S:P’s (unnamed) sources told them the action had been planned for “mid- to late-September,” although the report also says “such timelines are extremely fluid” and acknowledged that it could be possible that the very fact of S:P making the planned action public might affect the timing.
The Australian-based Merge network of sites -- which includes Carbon, Lock, Hero, RPM, FeltStars, and more than 60 others -- continued to allow U.S. players to deposit and play up through late May. At that point they stopped allowing new U.S. sign-ups, but still let existing U.S. players play. There was a lot of talk over recent weeks that at least some of the Merge sites were going to reopen its doors to U.S. players, but it doesn’t appear that has happened.
The S:P article appeared on September 8, and while it isn’t too specific it does kind of confirm some recent rumbling on the matter of Merge. About two weeks before (on August 27), there appeared a sorta provocative post over on Two Plus Two by someone claiming his brother-in-law who works in the Office of Enforcement Operations in the DOJ had indicated to him that “they were still very aggressively going after online gambling sites,” naming Sportsbook.com (of the Merge network) as one particular target.
The poster -- a longtime contributor at 2+2 who set up a new “lurker” account to make this anonymous post -- added that his brother-in-law advised him that if he “still had money on any online sites” to “either get it off asap, or only have [on the site(s)] what I wouldn’t mind losing.”
That was late August. Now we find ourselves already nearly upon mid-September. Meaning those with funds on any Merge network sites now face a tricky decision. Do they try to withdraw their balances -- which latest reports indicate has become at least a month-long process -- or do they leave money on the sites? Either choice poses a risk. Funds in transit could perhaps be seized by the DOJ from payment processors. Meanwhile, as the examples of Full Tilt and Absolute Poker/UB have demonstrated, funds left on sites might be in danger, too, should the sites find themselves subject to indictments or other action.
Regarding the latter, it seems at least some of the Merge sites are segregating players funds (as PokerStars did), meaning if they were subject to a “Black Friday”-like action they may be able to respond more like PokerStars did than FTP or AP/UB did (or, rather, did not). Representatives of some of the Merge sites have confirmed that they do, in fact, segregate players’ funds. Also see this article on Holdem Poker Chat that talks about Merge’s relationship with both the Kahnawake Gaming Commission (which does not require fund segregation) and the Lotteries and Gaming Authority in Malta (which does).
For what it’s worth, many (not all) of the sites on the Merge network have already moved their top-level domains, switching away from the U.S.-based .com addresses to .eu (European Union) or .ag (Antigua) ones. When it comes to the busiest U.S.-facing sites, Merge currently is in a virtual tie with Bodog on the latest PokerScout traffic report, with both just ahead of Cake Poker.
Of course, unlike with Black Friday, a shutdown of the Merge Network would only affect hundreds, not tens of thousands. The fact is, relatively few U.S. players who were shut out of the top sites by BF managed to get any funds over onto Merge prior to late May.
Hard to say, really, how to respond to these rumblings. It does seem that whatever the specific future of the sites on Merge might be -- or any of the other sites still allowing U.S. players to play, for that matter -- there’s little chance that any U.S.-facing site is going to be allowed to grow into anything substantial going forward. In other words, the most likely scenario will be for all either to be shut out (via some DOJ “action”) or pull out voluntarily. At which point we’ll then await -- or hope for -- some sort of legislation to license and regulate online poker in the U.S., whether via the “Super Committee” or other means.
How did I do in the freeroll? Bubbled the sucker, finishing about 45th out of 340 or so when only the top 40 got tourney entries. Made kind of a dumb, possibly avoidable move near the end to seal my fate, I’m afraid. Was one of those hands where it felt a little like a “set-up” -- I open-shoved my short stack with ace-rag from the button only to run into a monster in the blinds -- though looking back I probably could’ve found a way to stay out of trouble.
Which I guess is how most U.S. players are looking at online poker right now -- perhaps a set-up, but one we can (and probably should) avoid.