iGB Diary : The good, the bad, the ugly

4 October 2013

The good... 
888 can do no wrong (at the moment?, Ed). It’s as simple as that. Ever since Ladbrokes tried and failed to buy it two years ago, its share price has skyrocketed and its poker product has risen to third place in the Pokerscout cash games rankings, overtaking Full Tilt in the process (see more below). Beyond making you wonder what was going on at 888 prior to this transformation, the company has struck more US deals than any other established operator out there, including a B2B tie-up with Caesars, a licensing deal with casino Treasure Island allowing it to cleverly use its own brand and just last week an agreement with Vegas casino giant Wynn to join its All American Poker Network. If it doesn’t end up cleaning up in Vegas, Atlantic City and in Delaware, where, I almost forgot, it’s one of three primary vendors in the diamond state, then I’ll eat my iGB-branded bowler hat.

…The bad  
Meanwhile, there’s a permanent storm cloud hanging over Ladbrokes HQ in north-west London as CEO Richard Glynn hangs on to his job by the skin of his teeth, rallying call or not. One UK newspaper last week suggested he has until the summer of 2014 to turn Ladbrokes digital and group performance round, as well as keep his highly paid job. For a business that has seen online revenues plummet from around £85m four years ago to just £10m in 2013, some believe he’s already very lucky to still be in said job.

Although he inherited a complicated situation at Lads, he needs a plan B and fast. The supplier deal signed with Playtech to overhaul Lads’ online casino, poker and bingo fortunes and bring its online marketing under one roof in Tel Aviv in favour of sticking with current supplier Microgaming has been put on hold, and could ultimately cost the former Sporting Index CEO dearly. It was a sensible move, and a proven one at that following William Hill’s deal in 2008 (although whether that success can be replicated is yet to be proven), but as revealed in an analyst call last week – just hours after Glynn announced the company was issuing a profits warning on the back of horrendous digital revenues – Micro refused to give up its position early in favour of seeing its arch rival take over. If Lads were to switch early regardless, Micro’s management has told Glynn in no uncertain terms that the Oddsfather is going to have to pay, and dearly. The problem is, it simply can’t afford it. The share price maybe holding its own but everything else seems to be falling away. With 220 jobs on notice it could soon be 221.

And speaking of ugly ;)
Chiligaming founder Alex Dreyfus’s new venture, Global Poker Index, is attracting a lot of attention, mainly self-generated it has to be said (i.e. not because of any astounding business performance). Reading about his plans, the Diary is wondering: what exactly is the GPI’s business model? As Dreyfus says throughout various interviews, he’s invested $3m in redeveloping and rebranding it and buying up the Hendon Mob’s database, makes you wonder why he didn’t just buy that business in the first place... Anyway, the idea apparently is to make the GPI the equivalent of golf’s GPA or tennis’s ATP rankings and turn poker into a real sport, with people checking on poker results the same way they would do for football or tennis one assumes. But while poker can be fun to watch, there is nowhere near as much action as in football or tennis, nor does it have anywhere near the same reach as those sports. PokerStars has agreed to make the GPI its official rankings partner, ok, and then what? All the while poker continues to suffer in Europe and the US situation is far from clear. One to look out for.      

Tilting towards imminent casino launch
It’s not been a great few months for Full Tilt. Ever since re-emerging Phoenix-like from the ashes of its previous incarnation as an alleged “Ponzi” scheme, to a now fully legit PokerStars owned dot.com standalone site, poker fans appear to be gradually turning their backs on the brand. Stars may still, and arguably always will be, number 1, but Playtech’s iPoker network and 888 have crept ahead in the cash games player volume stakes. Operations boss Rafi Ashkenazi, former long-serving COO of Playtech, has been in post for close to a year, and is hoping to stop the rot with one bold move; introducing casino. In July Stars and Tilt’s parent company Rational Group announced it would rebrand FTP as Full Tilt Gaming and, largely as a US play, would “expand its product portfolio to include casino-style games”. With Betfair’s ex head of casino Sam Hobcraft taking the Hovercraft to the Isle of Man two months ago to head up casino for Full Tilt, the launch is approaching. Sources suggest that Stars has long considered offering casino variants such as blackjack but held back in order to maintain its pure poker approach. It has always feared losing loyal poker players to ruthless quick win, and, crucially, quick-lose casino games. Tilt was once a great brand (best not talk about the management), but let’s face it offering casino wouldn’t rank as the biggest gamble it’s ever taken.

Top dog
Finally, it’s well worth checking out @Toppingralph on Twitter if you haven’t already. Unlike many gaming CEOs, naming no names, he’s a master at communicating with his many audiences; customers, industry, rivals and the press. Not only does he tweet about the best roadside bacon sandwiches, he’s begun to preview and provide odds on crunch football matches, comment on his travels to Oz and the fact Hills hired someone called Tarquin last week. “When I started people had names like Shuggie and Wullie”. Great stuff.