Playing it cool: Does Grey Snow Poker have a shot at success?

Can Grey Snow Poker, backed by the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma, make a dent in the tough-to-crack world of online poker or will its ambitions end up turning to slush? EGR North America’s Brad Allen goes heads-up with MD George McIntosh to hear more

The online gambling industry has never been particularly kind to start-ups – and poker start-ups in particular where liquidity is king and established giants like PokerStars and partypoker have the resources and marketing clout to offer the kind of prize-pools and game variants that new entrants can never hope to compete with.

However, there are growing signs that the poker industry is not necessarily the closed book it has been since the last embers of the poker boom were stamped out in the early part of the decade. A recent feature in sister magazine EGR Intel pointed out that poker was revitalizing itself, with operators taking a variety of different strategies to help grow the vertical.

Michael Josem, a communications consultant and former PokerStars PR man, noted: “The different strategies of the biggest operators are remarkable, with significant differentiation across the industry. PokerStars has strengthened its financial position by reducing spending on high-volume players and staff, Winamax is offering a poker-only experience, partypoker is allowing affiliates to offer bigger rakeback again, and Kindred is building a strong and responsible brand focused on their niche. In that sense, this is a wonderful time to be a poker player, with a whole variety of different options.”

The growing culture of innovation is, in turn, attracting new market entrants. High-stakes professional poker player Phil Galfond is currently hiring staff for his RunItOnce B2C poker site, which is approaching launch, while Grey Snow Poker, backed by the Iowa tribe of Oklahoma, also went live for the first time in early November.

The Grey Snow Poker offering, which was given this name because the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma is known as the Bah Koh-Je, meaning People of the Grey Snow, has turned heads thanks to the somewhat chequered past of the product, as well as the promise of “rake-free poker”. So can Grey Snow Poker break the stranglehold of the established brands, and what does the launch mean for its plans for US online poker down the road?

All the right faces

From the top, the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma has brought in the right people to run the brand, in the form of MD George McIntosh, an ex-Amaya exec who helped launch the PokerStars brand in the Portuguese market. McIntosh brought in a team of experienced poker execs from the likes of PokerStars, Full Tilt and RunItOnce. McIntosh has also been given a healthy budget and almost full creative control.

“It’s like a start-up here, but with very good backers,” McIntosh tells EGR NA from his office in Malta. “The Tribe have not restricted us; they’ve been good enough to let us go ahead and do what needs to be done. They give input but respect that this is our forte, and they’ve employed us to take this forward.”

The USP that McIntosh and his team decided on is the so-called FairPlay system, which sees users pay a flat fee equivalent to 3% of their stack when they leave a cash table. This means that if two players sit down with $100 each in a cash game, the total service-fee will be $6 regardless of how many hands or hours are played. In theory, it is possible for two players to play heads up indefinitely without rake eating up their stacks. The FairPay moniker also extends to seating, where, to prevent ‘bum hunting’, players are unable to choose where they sit or who they sit with, while HUDs and bots are also banned.

On the surface, the FairPlay system appears to favor grinders, who might play for hours at a time, but McIntosh says it favors recreational customers too, whose funds last longer than the traditional rake model and who can sit and learn without their money being drained away. “We’re trying to change the industry for the better and level the playing field for everyone,” says McIntosh. “The feedback has been tremendous. People in the industry love the idea, they love the approach. Everyone I spoke to in the industry says, ‘yeah something needs to change,’ why not this?

Lessons from the Far East

The concept of rake-free poker will seem novel to most Western poker players, but it is relatively commonplace in China, where the game is newer and arguably not restricted to old conventions. “I’d love to take the credit, but it’s not something we’ve invented here,” adds McIntosh. “It’s been tried in Asia, and generally speaking, it’s been successful over there. Maybe because poker is new and you don’t have that history of paying rake.”

It’s not the first time that the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma, which owns two casinos in the state, has tried to get into the online poker game. The tribe had previously partnered with Iowa’s Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes to invest close to $10m in the launch of that never really got off the ground.

Despite the setback, the tribe remained committed to the idea of an international online poker site and has not been gun shy, investing a significant amount of money in Grey Snow Poker, including developing the technology from scratch in partnership with Redlark Software, who, according to McIntosh, “see the poker world and its problems in the exact same way as us.”

The liquidity question 

The other bold step was to eschew any sort of existing poker network and try and build liquidity from scratch. “We decided from the word go we didn’t want to be part of a network,” says McIntosh. “We wanted to do this on our own. That’s a big step and something we ran by the tribe, but we felt we had to do something different.

We’ve got 30 years of poker experience between me and the five guys on the poker room management team and it seemed we would dilute what we were doing if we joined a network and weren’t able to get out identity across.” McIntosh admits liquidity is going to be possibly the defining factor in Grey Snow Poker’s success, but says he believes enough in the differentiated product to take the gamble.

An obvious question, of course, is why the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma is so keen to get into the international online poker sector when so many US tribes have shown a reluctance to take their gambling business online. Partly, it’s because the tribe secured a prized Isle of Man license to operate online gambling back in 2017, but the tribe also sees opportunity internationally and domestically both for poker, and even for sportsbook and casino down the road. The initial launches for Grey Snow Poker will be in ‘grey’ markets like Germany, Canada and Latin America, where the market is not yet mature and growth rates can still be measured in double digits.

So does McIntosh think his fledgling company can compete with the giants of international poker? “We’re not necessarily competing with one another,” he says. “PokerStars is competing with Netflix, Fortnite and FIFA. Basically, it’s competing with any form of entertainment on a phone. At the moment I don’t think we go down that more recreational, fast-paced route.

“We’re a bit old-school I think,” McIntosh adds. “We want to recreate why we all fell in love with it in the first place. I completely appreciate what the other guys have done for the industry in the last five to 10 years with [fast-paced variants] Spin & Go, Blast Poker and Zoom Poker.”

Destination USA

Three are plenty of players who yearn for those pre-UIGEA halcyon days to return, and plenty of those players are live the US. So is the American market the real goal for Grey Snow Poker, with the international markets just a testing ground? Not necessarily, says McIntosh, who points out that anyone waiting for the patchwork of regulation to unfold might be in for a lengthy wait.

“The US opportunity is something we’ve obviously considered, but we’re not going to dwell on it too long,” he affirms. “But were in a great position if things change, either federally or on a state level.

“We have the history of getting licensed with the land-based casinos, and it’s certainly something we’d love to embrace – the glory days when the US was involved. That was the heyday before Black Friday, before UIGEA. It was 90% US players. It wouldn’t be like that now; it would be a melting pot and would be a great experience I think. It’s a case of when rather than if, I’d like to think.”

However, it’s fair to say that Grey Snow Poker faces an uphill battle. “Can they make money? I doubt it,” says one poker executive from a European firm. “It depends on a whole lot more than just their pricing structure, obviously. It’ll depend on their expenses, on their volume, and so on.”

Another exec at a major poker firm is less pessimistic, lauding the innovative approach, whilst adding: “The business model seems interesting. I can’t really comment except to say that I think it’s good to see people experimenting with the business model, as that has long been a stagnant area as far as innovation is concerned. Good luck to them.”

When weighing up Grey Snow Poker’s future then, the product is not without a chance at success. It has an experienced team of execs on board, who appear to have delivered a genuinely differentiated product, and are backed by supportive Tribal members who have demonstrated a commitment to the concept and a belief in their team.

There are also some real blue-sky opportunities should the US online poker market start to open up. Of course, the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma and the Grey Snow Poker team have to be considered underdogs, if only because of the sheer importance of liquidity in poker. First-mover advantage is a real thing in peer-to-peer products and Grey Snow Poker is far from the first mover. But with a bit of luck and a touch of innovation, maybe the self-described start-up can overcome the odds.