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Small tribe, big plans: Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma launches online poker room
26 May 2016
By Clare Fitzgerald
On May 17, the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma launched its online gaming site, PokerTribe.com
, to little fanfare. At the moment, the site is only for social gaming, offering play-money no-limit Texas Hold'em
in an interface that vaguely resembles early Facebook. According to the site's About Us page
and the press release put out on the 17th
, it plans to also offer bingo, pull-tabs and other casino games; to launch a mobile application; and to launch a real-money site for international players. In addition, it promises the launch of a sister site, InSkyCasino.com, sometime in 2017.Online Indian gaming in Oklahoma: A brief history
PokerTribe.com is not the first attempt at online Indian gaming in Oklahoma. It is not even the first attempt at PokerTribe.com. In 2013, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma signed a compact with Oklahoma gaming officials
allowing Indian nations in Oklahoma to offer real-money online gaming to non-U.S. players. The Tribes then signed a deal with software developer Universal Entertainment Group (UEG) to develop PokerTribes.com, and former tribal governor Janice Boswell invested a reported $9.4 million with UEG
, apparently without the tribal members' knowledge. The real-money version of PokerTribes.com never launched: The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) rejected the compact between the Tribes and the Oklahoma officials. The Tribes initially challenged the ruling
, but in 2014, the new tribal governor, Eddie Hamilton, walked away from the case and from any plans for the tribe to pursue international online gaming. To the best of Casino City's knowledge, the Tribes have not recouped the money
invested with UEG.
UEG bills itself as "a premier developer and publisher of entertainment, gaming, and online broadcasting that revolves around the music, movies, and sports industries." The public face of the company is co-founder Fred Khalilian
, its international business and marketing consultant, a serial entrepreneur whose previous ventures include Club Paris, a short-lived Paris Hilton-themed nightclub in Orlando, and a telemarketing operation that the FTC shut down in 2011
. UEG also employs Christina Fallin, the daughter of Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, who signed the initial amendments with the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, as a spokeswoman. Earlier this month, World Poker Fund Holdings
purchased a 49% ownership stake in UEG.
UEG soon began looking for a new tribal partner. It found one in the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma, which picked up exactly where the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes left off, pursuing arbitration to resolve the DOI's objections to the gaming compact. In November 2015, the arbitrator decided in favor of the Iowa Tribe
. In January 2016, a federal District Court ruled to certify the arbitrator's award, and the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma announced its intention to begin offering free gaming in May and real-money gaming on August 1
on the domains PokerTribe.com and PokerTribe.gov.Judging by appearances
While there's nothing yet live at PokerTribe.gov, PokerTribe.com appears to be essentially the same site as both PokerTribes.com and UEG's own online poker site, UEGpoker.com
, which was launched with its current layout in 2013. PokerTribe.com's Web design has garnered some mocking comments from the poker community.
Fred Khalilian brushed off criticisms of the site's appearance.
"Everyone likes to find something wrong, of course, but they don't understand," he told Casino City. "This site's launched by a tribe. This is the Oklahoma tribe. This is the Iowa tribe. This is thousands of years of history. You can't just go out there and launch this 3-D, you know, crazy website. It's gotta fit with their characters, their color, their sign, their logo, and be respectful to the tribe and the tribal members. So, it all boils down to the game, not what color it is or what it looks like, but some people want it more modernized and the tribe is in the process of approving that, to take it to the next level and modernize it, and that's what's happening in the next couple weeks."
The Iowa Tribe could not be reached for comment.
"You know, the team that actually developed and runs the IT and all of that, Isaias Almira
, the actual managing director at Universal and his developers — it's like, anytime it comes to an online platform and a cyber-based business operation, no matter how ready you think you are, you're never ready at all," Khalilian said. "I spoke to the team (on May 20) and they were bringing me up to speed, that they're preparing to roll out the apps, and a new phase, which is a new complete interface of what the site's going to look like — much more modern."Government portals and regulatory restrictions
The .gov domain appears to be the key to most of the site's expansion plans. "Government to government, it's a whole different ball game," Khalilian said. "The Iowa Tribe is going to have a whole different relationship with these governments because they are a government . . . This is a government going in to get an application and approval process done through the gaming commission of another government. It's totally different than if you are PokerStars or Amaya Gaming or Full Tilt
or PartyPoker or a software company out of Panama or Costa Rica or wherever, you know?"
In addition to an international audience, PokerTribes.com plans to offer online gaming to U.S. players in jurisdictions where online poker is legal. This requires a separate set of licenses, as well as the ability to ring-fence players within their jurisdiction's player pool.
"We are in process of negotiation with the regulators and their requirements they have, for example, in New Jersey, in order for the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma to launch in New Jersey, they have to be partners with one of the New Jersey existing casino operators," Khalilian said. "We're in the process of finalizing those deals in Nevada, in Delaware and in New Jersey."
The design of PokerTribe.com has garnered some mocking comments from the poker community.
Whether these deals will be finalized before the real-money site is launched remains to be seen. While the competition in these states would be less than in the international market — New Jersey has three online poker providers; Delaware and Nevada both work exclusively with 888 — PokerTribe.com is not making them a priority. "We'd be following the same guidelines and regulations (as the current providers), and that's why we're mainly working on our international market and our land and sea concept and content," Khalilian said.
In-flight entertainment seems to be where UEG, the Iowa Tribe and World Poker Fund Holdings expect to make their money. A World Poker Fund spokesman told The Oklahoman last week
that the .gov domain will help the Iowa Tribe access the in-flight market.
"We've been working on this for 10 years, and no one really understands that this is not just about launching another site and competing with PokerStars and the world and et cetera et cetera. We're trying to get in the airlines," Khalilian said. "We have studied the laws. There's a reason we got the tribe. There's a reason we got the governor of the state to sign it. There's a reason we got the state arbitrator to approve it, there's a reason we went after a federal judge to certify it. These all have to do with the airlines. And you'll see that shortly. And once you make it into those airlines, the sky's the limit
, from a marketing point of view. Those passengers sitting on those chairs, from two to three-hour plus flights internationally, three billion passengers a year, you do the math. Somebody's going to play."Sky-high ambition
In addition to the use of a .gov domain name, the main marketing tactic the UEG/WPFH/Iowa Tribe partnership is planning on using is celebrity endorsements. Last week, a press release from WPFH announced a $400 million endorsement deal with rapper Soulja Boy
. The number drew a good deal of skepticism, and a WPFH spokesman later explained to Forbes that the deal, which includes stock and revenue-sharing rather than just cash, is actually capped at $400 million
"We have a method, we have a technique," Khalilian explained. "That's why we welcome World Poker Funds. You know, Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber, Floyd Mayweather, Soulja Boy — all these guys, they're going after someone to have a deal with. (World) Poker Fund is backed by some very powerful people in the world — some duke, some family from Spain, to different princes from around the world. They know what they're doing, and that's where the marketing comes. We created a concept idea, the IT and the planning; the tribe is delivering the government functionality and operation; World Poker Fund is delivering a whole different aspect of this, from a marketing point of view, and the rest of it goes into the player's experience."
"Our goal for PokerTribe.com and PokerTribe.gov, even with InSkyCasino.com, is to launch the first $1 billion poker tournament," he said. "And in order to do that, you've got to have a lot of different gateways, a lot of different markets, a lot of different people, and it has to be affordable, so you can run a $1 billion poker tournament, you know, for a $250 buy-in
The road from the current play-money site to a billion-dollar poker tournament seems long. At the moment, the playlist widget in the upper right-hand corner of the screen neither plays music nor offers any ability to upload it; signing up as a female player — required in order to get the "correct" experience — doesn't, for example, swap out the sexualized female dealer image
with a male one; both PokerTribe.com and UEG's websites contain numerous copy errors. I admit I haven't tried to play more than a few hands on the site, since there are so few people at the tables.
"Bugsy didn't make Vegas overnight; he failed a couple times, right?" said Khalilian. "And then he died."
Casino City looks forward to providing our readers with an update in August.