LAS VEGAS - Poker devotees now can skip the casino and legally gamble their dollars away on the couch - at least in the state of Nevada.
A Las Vegas-based casino subsidiary launched the first fully legal poker website in the United States on Tuesday morning. The site, run by Ultimate Gaming, is only accepting wagers from players in Nevada for now, but likely represents the next chapter in gambling nationwide.
Internet poker, never fully legal, has been strictly outlawed since 2011, when the Department of Justice seized the domain names of the largest offshore sites catering to U.S. customers and blacked them out.
This crackdown, dubbed "black Friday," left poker fanatics with two options: They could either get dressed and visit a card room, or break the law and log on to an offshore site.
More recently, the federal government softened its stance on Internet betting. Three states - New Jersey, Delaware and Nevada - have legalized some form of online wagering within their borders. New Jersey's regulations allow Atlantic City casinos to begin Internet gambling on Nov. 26, although not all 12 properties are expected to be ready then.
With Tuesday's launch, Nevada wins the race to bring Texas Hold 'em back to the Internet. One New Jersey-based casino analyst said Nevada now holds bragging rights for being the first state to introduce Internet gambling, but it really doesn't matter much to the New Jersey market.
"From what I've seen - and I've spoken to a lot of online gaming providers of all stripes - they are very interested in what's going on in Nevada and New Jersey," said Michael Pollock, managing director of Spectrum Gaming Group, a casino consulting firm headquartered in Linwood.
Several cash-hungry states are weighing legislation that would allow them to tap into what is expected to be a multibillion-dollar market. Some bills would legalize only poker, as Nevada has, while others would throw open the gates to all casino games, including slots, as New Jersey and Delaware have done. Earlier this year, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval approved legislation that gives him the ability to sign interstate Internet gambling deals with other governors.
Pollock predicted that some states will form compacts with each other to extend their reach into the Internet gambling market. He believes the Internet alliances will mimic the multistate lotteries.
"The risk is that this could have the potential to trigger a federal backlash, because Congress still does govern interstate commerce," Pollock said.
Players around the world currently wager an estimated $35 billion online each year, according to the American Gaming Association. A fully realized U.S. online poker market could generate $4.3 billion in revenue its first year, and $9.6 billion by year five, according to London-based research firm H2 Gambling Capital.
In New Jersey, the estimates for Internet gambling revenue have ranged wildly, from about $200 million to $2 billion annually. Gene Johnson, senior vice president of market research and online studies for Spectrum Gaming Group, estimates New Jersey's figure will be about $250 million to $300 million annually.
Johnson believes Internet gambling will boost visitation to Atlantic City by allowing the casinos to bundle hotel rooms, dining and entertainment as rewards to gamblers who play online.
About 20 other companies- including Zynga, the creator of FarmVille- are preparing to open their virtual doors in Nevada.
UltimatePoker.com will look familiar to anyone who participated in the poker craze of the 2000s. Only the account setup and login process have changed. Instead of checking a box certifying they are older than 18, players will click through a lengthy setup process involving Social Security and cell phone numbers. Only those older than 21 will be allowed to play.
Press Staff Writer Donald Wittkowski contributed to this report.