Oklahoma Tribe Launches Online Poker Room

The Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma launched PokerTribe.com, the first online poker room operated solely by a Native American government, on May 17.

In its current format PokerTribe.com offers only play money No-Limit Hold’em poker games, but through a partnership with software developer Universal Entertainment Group (UEG), the Iowa Tribe intends to roll out real money poker, along with real money bingo, casino games, and slots, and even a mobile application.

Online gambling operations such as PokerTribe.com are not legal under federal law – following the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006 – but exceptions exist for Class III tribal gaming compacts and state-authorized legislation.

Oklahoma has no state laws authorizing online gambling, but 33 tribes have signed compacts with the state allowing them to operate both Class II and Class III gambling enterprises within the jurisdictional boundaries of their reservation.

The Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma was not the first to attempt bringing online poker to the state, as UEG previously brokered a partnership between the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in 2013. The objective of that arrangement was to launch a platform known as PokerTribes.com, but a shift in tribal leadership eventually led to the deal being scuttled.

Janice Boswell, who previously served as a tribal governor for the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, reportedly invested $9.4 million into UEG’s previous efforts to launch PokerTribes.com. When the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) intervened, objecting to the terms of the compact between the tribes and Oklahoma state regulators, incoming tribal governor Eddie Hamilton decided to cease all pending appeals and walk away from the project at a severe loss.

UEG soon reached an agreement with the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma to revive the PokerTribe online platform, and in November of 2015 the groups obtained a decision from an arbitrator which ruled that the operation fell within the guidelines of the state’s tribal gaming compacts. The U.S. District Court confirmed that decision in January, paving the way for PokerTribe.com to finally go live.

The influence of UEG on the launch of the new PokerTribe.com has been significant, and the company, which bills itself as “a premier developer and publisher of entertainment, gaming, and online broadcasting that revolves around the music, movies, and sports industries,” recently issued a number of curious pronouncements regarding the project.

Co-founder Fred Khalilian told Casino City Times that the end goal for PokerTribe.com involved securing rights to serve airlines, and eventually hosting the world’s first $1 billion poker tournament:

“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. 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.”

“Our goal for PokerTribe.com and PokerTribe.gov, even with InSkyCasino.com, is to launch the first $1 billion poker tournament. 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 launch of PokerTribe.com, even in its rudimentary early state, signals a first for America’s patchwork of tribal governments. The site represents the first foray into the online gambling industry by a Native American tribe, a breakthrough which could signal a sea change in how tribal governments approach the issue of online casino gambling.

As of 2012 a total of 240 tribes operated 450 casinos, card rooms, and gambling operations across 28 states. Until now, attempts by tribal governments to launch online poker or gambling platforms similar to PokerTribe.com, which have occurred in states like California as recently as 2015, have been scuttled by state regulators who claimed that previous compacts pertained only to brick-and-mortar establishments.

Thanks to the precedent set by the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma, any number of the 240 tribes currently associated with gambling entities may now begin to explore expanding their operations to include online platforms.