by Gary Kettle (Special to Doc's Sports)
In the last several years, Bodog.com has established itself as one of the top Internet sports books in the world. Due to overwhelming demand from its customers, the company decided to enter the thriving multi-player poker market. Bodog's new poker room opened for business on Sept. 1 and, according to company President Rob Gillespie, the initial results have been promising.
Screen cap of Bodog's poker interface.
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"We are way ahead of our expectations," commented Gillespie. "We were hoping to get about 200 concurrent players by the end of our first month and we have already seen as many as 700. We are well ahead of projections and the feedback from players has been outstanding."
Bodog entered the poker foray at the right time. The online and land-based markets are seeing an unprecedented spike in popularity due to increased visibility resulting from exposure in movies, television, books and magazines. Thousands of new players are picking up the game and many are going online to apply what they have learned in real-time games against other competitors from around the globe.
The timing could not have been better for Bodog to enter the market since popularity for the game is at an almost fever pitch. This is not a product, however, that was just thrown together on a whim to capitalize on the increased demand. The company actually put nearly two years into the planning and execution of the product.
Purchasing the right software was one of the main challenges in getting the poker product off the ground. Bodog wanted to make sure it had a user interface which was unique to the industry - software that would stand out from the competition. After searching long and hard, the company chose to acquire source code from a company called Micropower, and to "put the Bodog stamp" on the software with its in-house team of programmers.
In fact, Bodog hired a few of the software developers from Micropower to head its in-house team. Gillespie believes this move was one of the keys to the initial success of the new poker room.
"Building (the poker room) from scratch was probably going to take another 18 months," said Gillespie of Bodog's initial software options. "(As part of the deal with Micropower), we got to bring over some (members) of the staff that actually built the software. Some of these guys had been working on the software as long as two years. For them it was a relief. Instead of trying to work on changes for 14 different licensees, they can now focus all their efforts on making one super product."
Having a large group of programmers in house allows Bodog to make rapid improvements to its product. "The software is already vastly different than it was when we bought it," added Gillespie. Most of the changes have come as a result of customer feedback. Many players are surprised, according to the company president, when they send in a comment on a potential improvement for the poker site and the have their suggestion implemented into the software in the next day or two. "Having the team in-house is such a big advantage," he added.
Bodog executives realized the correlation between poker and sports betting when the project was started two years ago. Poker is a game where the house has a small built-in profit - called the rake - that is somewhat similar to the vigorish, or juice, in sports wagering. In addition, poker pits players against each other instead of the player-versus-house scenario of many traditional casino games. This is similar to sports betting, where players essentially bet against each other with the bookmaker moving the line in order to attract balanced action on both sides of a game.
"If you go to Las Vegas and look in some of the newer casinos, the sports book and the poker room are (located) fairly close together," added Gillespie. "That was our first clue that the crossover would be really good. There's that same sort of mentality that you can beat the system.
"When you are betting sports you are laying 11 to win 10. When you are betting poker the house is taking a small edge as well. In sports (betting), balanced action is the loose guideline and we just collect a percentage. It is the same thing in poker. If you can beat the bulk of the other players, you are going to come out ahead. When you are playing casino games it doesn't translate quite as well because it is really just you against the house."
One of the most important factors in getting a new poker room off the ground is making sure you have enough players so that there always a game available. Bodog did extensive surveys of its sports book clientele in order to make sure that there was demand for a poker site. Thus far, things have gone according to plan. The poker room is always busy, said Gillespie, and it sees big spikes in traffic after major sporting events (like Monday Night Football) have concluded.
Many of the top poker sites on the Internet are stand-alone rooms that specialize in multi-player poker only. BoDog must concentrate its efforts on providing the best in sports wagering, and now poker as well. In order to set itself apart from some of the larger sites that concentrate on poker exclusively, Gillespie said that Bodog will provide the best customer service in the industry.
"I think that our level of service is superior to most of our competitors," he said. "We have definitely put that stamp on it in the sports book and the casino space. We are answering (customer) e-mails in 15 minutes and we are answering phone calls on a couple of rings. (With some of the competition), you e-mail and you don't get an answer for a day, sometimes two days. If they think you are on your way out, they might not even give you a reply. That's probably our major advantage. It is great having a network of 25,000 people that help make your Web site better every day."
Although poker is hot right now, Gillespie sees the "buzz" wearing off in a couple of years.
"It does feel like a bit of a fad," he commented. "Just the hype over TV and the celebrities getting into it. I think at some point, after it picks up momentum, it sort of just burns itself out. What we will be left with is millions of people who just like to play poker online.
"It's one of the few experiences that's better online than in a land-based casino. You don't have to go wait for tables. You don't have to get in any lines. You don't have to find parking. Yet the experience is the same. You can jump up and down and do a 'happy dance' when you get a flush and you don't have to worry about your 'tells.' You don't have to be intimidated by looking at other players. I think for a lot of players that is exciting."
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