Online poker seems so … unearthly. Hands are dealt on a glowing screen. Cards are made out of pixels, not pasteboard. And yet it’s here, and it’s very real.
For now, there’s one company that offers online poker in Nevada: Ultimate Gaming. It’s headquartered in an industrial strip mall on Harmon Avenue, a few blocks west of the Strip. And it’s filled with an interesting mix of about 60 administrators, techies, creative types, marketers and casino veterans.
Some of the people who work on UG’s flagship product, Ultimate Poker, have been around the game for a long time. Terrence Chan, a former 10-year professional poker player (and a self-confessed “mixed martial arts nerd”), is the company’s director of player operations—the public face of the company’s 18-person, 24-hour player care division. There’s no typical day for Chan—he goes unselfconsciously from a budget meeting to recording a video blog in which he talks about his performance at the Grapplers Quest submission wrestling tournament and his brief run in the World Series of Poker Main Event (like many others, he busted out on Day 2).
That gives a sense of the tone around Ultimate Gaming HQ, where Razor scooters make getting around the former warehouse a bit quicker, and the adjoining garage houses a thrown-together gym. Like Zappos, it’s not a traditional Las Vegas workplace. But unlike Zappos, it’s not selling shoes or delivering happiness—it’s helping people gamble. So Ultimate Gaming is a hybrid between traditional Vegas and the future, between old school and online.
At the heart of it all, though, Ultimate Gaming, like a traditional casino, is mostly about two things: keeping players happy and complying with regulators. The latter isn’t a trivial matter. Ultimate Gaming Chairman Tom Breitling estimates that about 50 percent of the site’s engineering is on compliance issues, and the company made a gamble in focusing on creating a stripped-down site that passed regulatory muster quickly rather than a feature-heavy system that couldn’t make it out of the testing labs. For now, Ultimate’s gamble has paid off: The site completed a field trial earlier this month, before any would-be competitors have even gone live. And Breitling promises a “continuous improvement,” with more features added as the site evolves.
With more than 70 written policies and procedures, a staff of 20 dedicated compliance professionals (split between Ultimate Gaming and sister company Station Casinos) and compliance responsibilities woven into many other job descriptions, it’s clear that Ultimate Gaming takes regulation very seriously.
But without keeping players happy, it won’t matter much that a site has the approval of gaming regulators, which is why senior marketing manager Andre Ledoux places a premium on player retention. To do this, he manages several channels of content, including Ultimate’s “The Rail” blog and its Twitter feed, and frequently messages players—individually or en masse playing games. A tournament that’s due to start in 15 minutes has only one player registered; Ledoux sends out an announcement, and the sign-ups increase. He wants the players to feel that they’re welcome.
In that, Ledoux fits right in with a traditional casino host. He’s making sure the cocktail server brings your favorite drink before your glass is empty; he’s talking to players in real time, congratulating winners and making conversation.
One of the only downsides of the job for Ledoux, a longtime fan of the game, is that he’s not allowed to bet with Ultimate. After all, the online poker world has had its share of scandals, so to remove any chance of players suspecting that employees might have an undue advantage, Ultimate Gaming employees (with the exception of celebrity spokespeople) are forbidden from registering.
Not that there’s no way for the employees to get the rush of competition: They can play in employee-only tournaments. And within the next few months, rival online sites will be up and running and offering competition of the business sort. That’s when Ultimate will have to prove that it has staying power. It’s a challenge the pioneers seem to be relishing.