The news many have anticipated finally hit the virtual newsstands: Full Tilt and PokerStars will be merged into one liquidity pool, with each site still retaining its own appearance and a few brand-specific promotions.
The merger, first reported by Stewart Dunlop of PokerTube and confirmed by Chris Grove of OnlinePokerReport, will take place sometime this spring.
PokerStars, the leading online poker brand in the world, acquired Full Tilt's assets in 2012 but continued to operate its former chief rival as an independent room. The result was less than successful — Full Tilt, once the clear-cut No. 2 brand — experienced a precipitous fall, as outlined by Robert DellaFave earlier this month. The site steadily slid in traffic rankings on PokerScout, plummeting outside the top 10 and hitting rock bottom after a major overhaul to the cash-game tables in an attempt to fix what officials called "a broken poker economy." But was the merger inevitable?
Although some had anticipated this was the play from the moment the acquisition was made, it wasn't an inevitable one, according to Grove, although he did say that the merger was certainly an option.
"I don't know if I'd say inevitable, but it was always on the table," Grove told PokerNews. "In a world where Full Tilt found a unique niche or footing, or in a world where online poker continued to expand, I think we certainly could have seen the two sites continue on separately. Only when it became clear that Full Tilt wasn't finding that footing did a merger start to seem like a matter of 'when' more than 'if.'"
In his article, DellaFave noted that it was too early to call the overhaul a failure, but it was hard to see it any other way given the subsequent fallout. Decision-makers at Amaya, PokerStars' parent company, apparently agreed, opting to pull the plug now and simply merge liquidity between the two sites, noting the decline of Full Tilt's market share in a press release announcing the major move.
PokerNews spoke to Grove about this as well.
"It's really hard to draw generalizable lessons from Full Tilt," Grove said. "It's obviously a unique brand that existed in a unique context, so what did work — or didn't work — for Tilt might not necessarily be applicable to other rooms or networks.
"With that said, it obviously would have been preferable from Amaya's point of view if using Full Tilt as a sandbox for online poker innovation produced meaningful insights or variants that could have been used to strengthen both Tilt and Stars, or to grow interest in online poker generally. That may have happened in small ways, but apparently not to a degree that justified the dual operations."
The press release did highlight a few projected benefits for players.
"Full Tilt players will continue to enjoy the brand experience they love, with the continuation of Full Tilt avatars and innovative rewards, such as The Deal," the press release said. "Players will also enjoy access to a larger variety of games, buy-in levels and tournaments, as well as access to larger prize pools and faster service of games. PokerStars players will also enjoy a boost in liquidity, as well as improved software from a larger and more focused development team."
Essentially, it seems players will still be able to log in via Full Tilt software, but they'll be using their PokerStars names as part of the consolidation process; players with accounts on both sites will have their PokerStars handles take precedence. Players without PokerStars accounts will be prompted to create one. The release assured players that the company is "committed to a dual-brand strategy."
However, whether that will be the case long-term is an open question, as Dunlop's sources indicated the possibility that Full Tilt will be scrapped entirely. Grove, however, noted that Amaya could look to sell off Full Tilt's popular software if online poker legislation makes meaningful headway in the US.
"Selling Full Tilt (although it's not immediately obvious who the buyer would be) could generate a small windfall for Amaya — probably north of $10mm but south of $50mm depending on how a deal was structured," Grove told PokerNews. "The platform could also be an interesting bargaining chip when dealing with potential partners."