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Thursday, October 27, 2005

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Online casino site

GoldenPalace.com, an online casino site, which brought you items such as the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich and Britney Spears' Pregnancy Test, is making headlines once again. The casino, known for its creative marketing campaigns, has now bought advertising space on the bellies of three pregnant sisters, and tattooed its logo on them.

The Florida sisters auctioned their bellies on eBay, and GoldenPalace.com was more than happy to win the race. The casino paid $5,000, and the sisters, Ann Zemen, Amy MacDonald and Kathleen Van Dyck, who live near Raymond James Stadium and the St. Pete Times Forum, will display their new ink at as many football games as possible.

"We want to corner the market on innovative advertising. As we have seen with our previous pregnant belly billboards Amber Rainey and Elise Harp, this kind of advertising gets a massive amount of attention. We are pleased with this opportunity to promote our brand as well as help out the mothers-to-be with their future baby expenses,” announced GoldenPalace.com CEO, Richard Rowe.

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In the meantime, offshore operators like the Gibraltar-based PartyGaming, and the Costa Rica-based Paradise Poker, a subsidiary of the London-based Sportingbet, continue to grow. Though some online casino businesses, like the Internet casino subsidiary of the British betting shop Ladbrokes, say they decline to do business with U.S. bettors, plenty of Web sites are happy to take Americans' money.
Though Washington made it more difficult for American online gamblers a few years ago, persuading many credit card issuers to block such transactions, Internet payment systems like Neteller, based on the Isle of Man, have stepped into the breach. But PayPal, a similar payment system owned by eBay, will not process these transactions.
While the United States is the biggest market for Internet gambling - Tottenham, the consultant, estimates that 70 percent of all online wagers originate there - the business is growing in Europe and Asia.

British and Irish gambling companies are lobbying the European Commission to include the industry in new rules aimed at creating a single market for services across the 25-member bloc.
The European Court of Justice, in a decision two years ago involving the British bookmaker Stanleybet that was similar to the WTO's recent ruling, said that EU countries could block foreign access to their gambling markets, but only to protect citizens, not to defend state-owned gambling monopolies.
In Britain, the betting shops that seem to have a presence on every "high street" have long been allowed to offer online wagers on sports, for instance. The new gambling act, along with legitimizing and regulating online casino gambling, will permit the building of at least one Las Vegas-style mega-casino, too. A number of online gambling companies are considering initial public stock offerings, alongside a handful that are already publicly traded.

Gambling casino

Gambling companies in Britain and elsewhere that are looking to step up their U.S. presence were hoping that a recent case before the World Trade Organization, pitting the tiny Caribbean country of Antigua and Barbuda against the United States, would provide some clarity. Instead, the final ruling this month appears to have created even more confusion, with both sides claiming victory.

Antigua, where dozens of online gambling companies are based, went to the WTO in 2003, contending that the United States had discriminated against foreign providers of so-called remote gambling, a term that includes Internet sites, and violated agreements on global trade in services by preventing them frommarketing themselves in America.

In a preliminary ruling last year, a WTO panel agreed with Antigua.

But Washington appealed the decision, and in a final ruling this month, the WTO said the United States was within its rights to restrict remote gambling on the grounds of protecting "public morals" and "public order."

"U.S. restrictions on Internet gambling can be maintained," the acting U.S. trade representative, Peter Allgeier, said in a statement after the ruling.

At the same time, however, the trade organization left a possible window open for Antiguan and other Internet gambling companies, saying Washington had applied restrictions inconsistently, penalizing "offshore" operators. In some U.S. states, for instance, online betting on horse racing is legal. In others, lotteries can be entered by mail or telephone.

"If you fail one part of the test, you can't win the case," said Mark Mendel, a lawyer for Antigua. If the United States wanted to continue to restrict foreign operators, he said, it would have to block all remote gambling, something that he maintains is unlikely given the popularity and political connections of horse racing and lotteries.

Allgeier, though, maintained in his statement, "This report essentially says that if we clarify U.S. Internet gambling restrictions in certain ways, we'll be fine."

Washington did not specify what actions it might take to comply with the ruling, though Allgeier noted pointedly that the U.S. trade representative "will not ask Congress to weaken U.S. restrictions on Internet gambling."

The Bush administration says the restrictions are aimed at curbing money-laundering and organized crime as well as at keeping betting out of people's homes, where children might become addicted to it. This month, prosecutors in New York charged 17 people with running an illegal gambling ring that used an Internet site based in Costa Rica.

But online providers say that is precisely why U.S. authorities should bring the industry onshore, where they can monitor it more closely, as is being done in Britain. It will be at least a year, analysts say, before the new British law is implemented, but it could put the country squarely at odds with Washington if Britain-based operators eventually use their newfound respectability to try to challenge the U.S. restrictions.

"The WTO case should serve as a solid precedent should another jurisdiction decide to take the U.S. to the WTO along similar lines," said Wes Himes, director of the Interactive Gaming, Gambling and Betting Association, a Britain-based trade group.


In the meantime, offshore operators like the Gibraltar-based PartyGaming, and the Costa Rica-based Paradise Poker, a subsidiary of the London-based Sportingbet, continue to grow. Though some online casino businesses, like the Internet casino subsidiary of the British betting shop Ladbrokes, say they decline to do business with U.S. bettors, plenty of Web sites are happy to take Americans' money.

Though Washington made it more difficult for American online gamblers a few years ago, persuading many credit card issuers to block such transactions, Internet payment systems like Neteller, based on the Isle of Man, have stepped into the breach. But PayPal, a similar payment system owned by eBay, will not process these transactions.

While the United States is the biggest market for Internet gambling - Tottenham, the consultant, estimates that 70 percent of all online wagers originate there - the business is growing in Europe and Asia.

Online gambling

The stakes are high, the ante is low, and a lot of bluffs may soon get called.
It's not Vegas, baby, but the freewheeling world of Internet gambling is a $7.5 billion business that is expected to more than double over the next five years.
Rapid growth and a low cost of entry are drawing in investors, but they also raise the prospect of trade battles among the United States, Britain and Continental countries that don't see eye to eye on gambling - or on regulation of the Internet.
British lawmakers this month took steps to lure online casino operators, which are often based in small locales like Antigua, Costa Rica and Gibraltar, to their shores by making it a legal, regulated business.
But in America, despite the presence of the world capital of gambling, Las Vegas, and the spread of casinos to Indian reservations and riverboats in many states, online gambling is technically illegal. Even though an estimated 20 million Americans - well over half of those betting globally - visit online gambling sites, the Bush administration wants to keep the ban in place, arguing that Internet gambling threatens public morals and contributes to the spread of crime.

Some continental European governments, too, are concerned about the spread of online gambling, but for a different reason - Internet betting threatens the entrenched casino and betting monopolies that are often run by or linked closely to national governments.
"Because of global trade agreements and the Internet, it's going to be harder and harder for governments to block this," said Andrew Tottenham, a London-based gambling consultant who is also the British representative for Caesar's Entertainment, the U.S. casino operator.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

American casinos

Here's an example. A little more than two years ago in March 2003, I did a write-up on Ameristar Casinos (Nasdaq: ASCA) -- a top-notch riverboat casino operator with rapidly growing market share and arguably the top property in every market in which it competes -- and recommended the stock at just under $11 per share.

At the time, the company carried an enterprise value at about 5 times to 5.2 times the company's estimate of $190 million to $200 million in 2003 EBITDA, a valuation that is on par with the weakest players in the industry. As a premium player, I felt the company was worth at least 6 times EBITDA, if not closer to what premium players such as rival Harrah's Entertainment (NYSE: HET) should have reasonably fetched at the time at 7 times or 8 times EBITDA. I felt particularly strong about this, as at the time Ameristar held its market position while competing against Harrah's in each of its four riverboat markets in Missouri, Mississippi, and Iowa.

So there was plenty of headroom here. At 6 times the low-end estimate at $190 million in 2003 EBITDA, the stock would be worth $16.50. At 7 times, the stock would be worth $23.75, and at 8 times EBITDA, the stock would be worth $31 per share.

By April 8, 2004, the stock had hit $37.75 for a clean triple-plus, yet the company was still trading at just more than 6 times 2004 EBITDA, a clear hold at the very low end of my estimate for fair value. But by July 27, the stock had fallen back to $30.45, before dropping 16% to $25.65 the next day following the company's second-quarter earnings report.

But here's the thing: The business was still strong, the prospects were bright, and now the company was trading at a measly 5.5 times to 5.8 times 2004 EBITDA. At this point, the stock was a clear buy.

Ameristar continued to perform as a business, and casino stocks in general had gained favor on Wall Street. And on Feb. 4, the stock closed at $49.55 following the company's fourth-quarter earnings report, almost a double from its panic price just six months earlier. The stock is now trading at around $55 as of today.

The point here is that it would have been way too easy for an investor to panic sell once the stock fell from $37.75 to $25.65 in a span of less than four months. It also would have been way too easy to curse yourself for not selling at $37.75 while you were 250% ahead. But the enterprising investor armed with MCU Tip No. 1 -- valuation gauges -- can see the value in holding at $37.75 when the stock is reasonably valued or better, and can get greedy and push his chips in when the company is dirt cheap at $25.65 and 5.5 times to 5.8 times EBITDA.

The ability to do so will reward an investor handsomely over the long run.

MCU Tip No. 14: Beating strong foes wins much respect and little money; beating weak foes wins little respect and much money.
The lesson: Investing is about what makes the money in the long run.

Remember: Investors get paid for making correct decisions. There is no bonus for attacking complex companies, or making tough choices. Often times, you'll find that the best investment decisions you make will be both simple and obvious.

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That said, it is not enough to go out and buy Home Depot (NYSE: HD) or Best Buy (NYSE: BBY) simply because you like the stores and both companies are top players. Get an idea of what the stocks are worth -- compare P/E ratios, cash flows, dividend payouts, or whatever else you think is relevant.

Or if you're interested in a growth business that is difficult to value -- such as satellite radio plays XM Satellite Radio (Nasdaq: XMSR) and Sirius Satellite Radio (Nasdaq: SIRI), or Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection Overstock.com (Nasdaq: OSTK) -- at least have a gauge on where you expect the company to be four or five years down the line. If your expected return from the current stock price doesn't justify the risk, then at least you know not to buy.

MCU Tip No. 11: Poker's stupidest question: "Why didn't you quit when you were $17,000 ahead?"
The lesson: Always look ahead. If the business quality and valuation favor a hold, then the correct decision is to hold on to the stock.

Top poker pro Phil Ivey -- often referred to as the "Tiger Woods of Poker" -- once said in a TV interview that so long as you're playing well and the game is good, it is to your advantage to keep playing until the game breaks up or you get tired.

This makes perfect sense. If a stock you buy doubles or triples but the long-term prospects for the business and the stock's valuation are still favorable, then why sell? And when the stock falls 20% in the short term for no good reason, don't panic and kick yourself for not selling -- this is the time when long-term investors salivate and get greedy.

Online investments

In Part 1, we took three of poker theoretician Mike Caro's tips from Doyle Brunson's Super/System 2 and applied them to investing. In Part 2, we will take a look at three more tips from the Mike Caro University (MCU) and discuss the importance of valuation, being a forward-looking investor, and the idea that investors do not get bonuses for making tough choices.

MCU Tip No. 1: In the beginning, everything was even money.
The lesson: An investor's advantage comes from the ability to gauge valuation and expectations.

As Matt Damon said in the movie Rounders, "Get your chips in when you have the best of it; protect them when you don't." That's the key. The question: How do you know when you have the best of it?

The answer: By understanding valuation.

In poker, every player gets dealt the same cards over the long run. The fundamental difference between long-run winners and losers is an understanding of value -- the value of the cards you're dealt, the value of your position relative to the other players at the table, and how the value of your cards changes given the actions of the other players at the table.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Guess the casino

In the last couple of years poker professionals -- many of them Las Vegas residents -- have struck endorsement deals with Internet poker sites and regularly tout them during casino appearances.

In a bar near the lobby of the Rio resort, poker legend Doyle Brunson recently held court with fans under the glare of camera lights to promote his latest poker book, SuperSystem 2.

Amid jokes and colorful stories, the so-called "Babe Ruth of poker" mentions Doyle's Room, a recently launched Internet poker site for which the Las Vegas resident is a paid spokesman. He also wears a cowboy hat with the site's logo.

Before the news conference, Brunson said he plays online poker on occasion and is working on a book about Internet poker strategy.

"It's so convenient you can play at home in your bathrobe," he said.

Most poker pros now gamble online, lured by multi-million-dollar jackpots that rival those of the biggest land-based casinos as well as nonstop games and rapid play, poker experts say.

Many of the world's best poker players live in Las Vegas or live between Las Vegas and Southern California, both home to some of the industry's most lucrative poker tournaments and richest live casino games.

"In Nevada you have a higher percentage than normal playing online than the rest of the country," said Card Player magazine co-publisher Barry Shulman, also a top pro. "The people who go into the casinos play online. It took the casinos about five minutes to figure that out and at first they were concerned that Internet poker would kill their business. Look around town. Poker rooms are packed."

Local pros also are well-represented online, Shulman said.

Show me the money

"It's easier for them to win online than to drive to Bellagio and play for eight hours straight," he said. "The Internet is bringing so many new people into poker. The quality of (online) poker on average is going up but for the pros there's more money in it."

Online poker helps supplement income for poker pros who don't have to travel around as much to play in big money games, said Russ Hamilton, the 1995 World Series of Poker champion.

Hamilton is a spokesman for UltimateBet.com, a site based in the Caribbean island of Aruba.

"The big pros play online," Hamilton said. "There's a lot of people making a living online."

Poker pros say the law surrounding online poker is unclear but are careful not to go too far in their relationships with Internet poker sites.

Brunson, said he is a consultant for DoylesRoom.com and does not have an ownership stake in the site.

"It's a gray area," Brunson said of Internet gambling. "That's why we can only be consultants, not owners. It's a touchy situation."

Las Vegan and poker pro Howard Lederer is paid to promote FullTiltPoker.com, an Internet poker site that opened in July. Lederer is part owner of the company that developed the gambling software for the site but said he doesn't have a stake in the gambling operation.

"The software is a constant project," said Lederer, a two-time World Series of Poker champion.

About two years ago, Lederer and other top players were approached by a group of players with the idea of creating a poker site with star power and input from professional players.

"The site was designed with well over 100 years of poker experience behind it," he said. "These are poker people, people who understand online poker. We play in small stakes games (with customers) and answer questions. It's a true endorsement of the site."

Lederer admits his poker game has suffered somewhat because he is now involved in so many related business opportunities.

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"I'm so involved in the business side I really don't play side games," Lederer said. "It's very stiff competition. I have too much respect for (players) to put in 10 hours on the phone and then go down to the Bellagio and have enough focus for the game."

Mike Sexton, who also lives in Las Vegas, is a longtime pro who has nearly given up regular poker games for endorsements, book deals and other promotions.

Sexton is a commentator for the World Poker Tour, a traveling poker tournament with 16 events worldwide that is broadcast on the Travel Channel and across 56 countries. Tournament hosts range from Internet poker sites to the Bellagio and Mirage.

The owner of the tournament is West Hollywood-based WPT Enterprises Inc., the only publicly traded poker entertainment company in the United States.

Besides receiving a salary from the World Poker Tour, Sexton also paid to promote PartyPoker.com -- the largest online poker room with an estimated 50 percent of the worldwide market.

"They were looking for someone who knew about poker," Sexton said.

Sexton helped develop the poker software, trained the site's customer service staff and created the PartyPoker Million, an annual tournament held on a cruise ship that has become the largest event in the World Poker Tour.

"Television is the No. 1 reason poker is so popular and none of these other shows would be around if not for the World Poker Tour," Sexton said. "We're the PGA Tour of poker and the money is bigger."

The tour is creating a "millionaire a week" and last week crossed the threshhold of $100 million in total prize money, he said.

Internet poker is the "No. 2 reason" for poker's rising popularity, he said.

Another local pro paid to promote PartyPoker.com is Kathy Liebert, a former Wall Street analyst who is known as one of the best female tournament players in the world.

Women in casinos

In 2002, Liebert made history as the first woman to win a poker tournament offering a million-dollar top prize at the first PartyPoker Million, a tournament held on a ship that cruised the Mexican Riviera.

"People are playing online everywhere and I'm not aware of the government going after people," she said. Everyone's doing it and it seems like it's pretty well accepted at this point."

Online means more competition at casino tournaments but also means bigger prize pools, Liebert said.

"You still have to beat the people at your table but it's better because there's more money in the pot," she said. "It means you don't have to play tournaments as often to make money."

Liebert, who has residences in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, said she anticipates a day when poker pros are invited to sponsor other products besides poker sites.

"It's very popular on TV and people are treating poker players like celebrities," said Liebert, whose likeness will soon appear alongside other pros on a set of trading cards. "People are starting to come up to me asking for my autograph. Even at the airport."

Another local who has capitalized on the poker craze is Brad Daugherty, a host for EmpirePoker.com. Daugherty, the 1991 World Series of Poker champ, was that tournament's first million-dollar winner. He now travels the country playing major tournaments.

As part of his duties for the site, Daugherty coaches players during online sessions and answers questions.

"People learn to play so well and so quickly online," he said. "In one year you can learn what it took me 10 years to learn. You can play three games at the same time and play a lot more hands per hour. The learning curve has been cut way down."

Learn to play online

Many players start out playing free games online to learn the ropes, Daugherty said.

"Everyone has an alias so there's no intimidation factor," he said. "At a tournament in San Diego a couple of months ago, I was playing a $10,000 buy-in and there were three women at the table. I'd never seen that before and it's because of the Internet."

Online poker strategies also are part of books on tournament poker Daugherty has written in recent years with local Tom McEvoy.

"Every player that I know loves to play on the Internet," he said.

Canadian poker pro Daniel Negreanu will be bridging the gap between online and land-based casinos when he assumes a position as "ambassador" of the poker room at the soon-to-open Wynn Las Vegas megaresort. Negreanu, a tournament regular and Las Vegas resident, also promotes a new Internet poker room called Poker Mountain.

Shulman said Las Vegas casinos have become schizophrenic because they welcome online poker players with open arms yet aren't doing basic things to promote the sites where many players learn the game.

"I don't think they're coming close to exploring how to work with Internet poker sites," Shulman said of the casinos. "Instead of pretending they're not getting business at the online casinos, they could do things to welcome players better."

"If it's not OK then don't let them in," he said of online players. "If it's OK then promote it."

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Hold 'em online

It's just another weekday afternoon at Foxwoods Resort Casino and the wait for a seat at a poker table is well over an hour. All 81 tables, all 810 seats at New England's only poker room, are filled.

"Look around. This place is packed," says Mark Whittaker, a home theater installer from Ashland, Mass., who drove an hour and a half to play Texas Hold 'Em but is playing Omaha instead because of the wait. "And it's what, noon on a Wednesday?"

Not too long ago, many gaming executives considered rooms like this to be wasted space. The games are too long and the casino's cut too small to make poker anything but a dud for the bottom line.

But poker's resurgence, driven by televised championships, celebrity tournaments and online games, has changed the equation. While it remains a game of incredibly small profits, destination hotels have stopped comparing poker to slot machines and are seeing it as a must-have amenity such as boxing, concerts and shows.

At Foxwoods, executives plan to add more tables and have made poker part of a marketing strategy to quintuple convention and group sales in the coming years. Last month, executives added a poker brochure to their convention packets.

"It's the hot thing right now, and they'll ask for it: 'Can we set up a poker tournament?"' said Joan Esneault, executive director of resort sales. "Maybe they have a reception on one side of the room and a gaming lesson or an actual tournament on the other side."

Poker and casino

Even casinos that folded their poker operations are getting back into the game. In Las Vegas, the Golden Nugget, Harrah's and the Imperial Palace have reopened poker rooms and the MGM Grand has plans to do so this spring.

With cable stations seemingly running games around the clock and poker stars becoming sports celebrities, jumping into the game might seem an easy business decision. After all, Nevada poker revenue is up 38 percent and the average table earns 67 percent more than a decade ago.

But, despite its popularity, the balance sheets show that poker remains a gamble. It steadily accounts for less than 1 percent of Nevada gaming revenue. With just five slot machines, a casino can match a poker table's earnings without paying a dealer or a support staff.

Indian casinos typically are not required to report table game revenues, but experts say the numbers are comparable.

Casinos are again offering poker for the same reason they build giant pyramids and exploding volcanos, hire go-go dancers and hand out complimentary meal tickets.

"It's not a profitable game," said Sylke Finnegan, spokeswoman for the Golden Nugget, which last year dealt its first poker hands in nearly two decades. "But they want the whole Las Vegas experience. They want to see a show and eat at some of the best restaurants in the world. Why not go to Las Vegas and play poker?"

Casino consultants have noticed the philosophical shift.

Pokerdraw on act

"It just never paid to invest in poker because the return was limited," said Paul Girvan, director of the Innovation Group, a Louisiana consulting firm. "Now what's been discovered is, with its popularity, poker has the ability to draw people into the casino that might not otherwise be there."

If a basement poker player visits a casino, spends three hours at a table while his wife plays the slots, has dinner and leaves, poker has done its job. If he tries other games or gets a hotel room, even better.

Not everyone buys into that strategy.

Mohegan Sun, just a few miles from Foxwoods, closed its poker room 18 months ago and filled it with slots. Today, with fewer machines, its slot revenue regularly exceeds Foxwoods and its chief executive says he has no regrets.

But poker rooms are opening faster than they're closing. Twenty-five Nevada casinos have joined the game in just over two years.

At the Imperial Palace, executives aren't even pitching their new poker room to the people who play big pots and make more money for the house. Their low-stakes games attract tourists and beginners and create brand loyalty.

"If you offer that amenity, you will increase your appeal to a broader customer base," said David Strow, spokesman for Harrah's Entertainment, which recently purchased the rights to the World Series of Poker. "Many of them are not going to stop just at poker. You'll see an indirect increase in casino revenues overall."