Online gamer "all in" after buying PokerStars

June 13, 2014 07:00 AM

Amaya Gaming Group Inc. rose to a record after agreeing to acquire PokerStars for $4.9 billion, in a deal the company said transforms it into the biggest publicly held online gambling company in the world.

Amaya advanced 42 percent to C$19.97 at 9:38 a.m. in Toronto trading, after gaining as much as 46 percent for the biggest jump since its market debut in 2010. The stock had added 77 percent through yesterday’s close.

Amaya, a little-known supplier of betting equipment and systems, in acquiring PokerStars could return the dominant poker website to the U.S. market it’s been absent from since run-ins with authorities. Amaya, based in suburban Montreal, lined up financing from lenders including Deutsche Bank AG, Barclays Plc, Macquarie Group Ltd. and Blackstone Group LP.

The change in ownership would remove an obstacle to PokerStars restarting business in the U.S., and potentially jumpstart an online gambling industry that is off to a wobbly beginning. PokerStars agreed in 2012 to pay $731 million to settle money-laundering charges with the Justice Department, a blot that has prevented the company from taking part in online gambling, now legal in three states.

“Having this brand and this company in the U.S. is going to be very significant for states,” Amaya Chairman and Chief Executive Officer David Baazov said in an interview.

A deal would also mark a significant leap for Amaya in the $4 billion global business of online poker. The company, based in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, generated C$155 million ($142.8 million) in revenue last year.

The combined company would have had $1.3 billion in 2013 sales and $474.8 million in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization for 2013, according to the statement.

85 million

PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker are operated by Isle of Man- based Rational Group Ltd. The company, with more than 1,700 employees, has 85 million registered players worldwide.

Isai Scheinberg, identified by prosecutors as PokerStars’ founder, remains under indictment in the U.S. His son Mark is founder and CEO of Rational parent Oldford Group Ltd., according to the statement. Under the agreement, Mark Scheinberg and other principals will sell their stock and resign from the company and all its subsidiaries.

The U.S. is crucial for future growth of online gambling, according to Simon Holliday, founder of the research firm H2 Gambling Capital. Betting volume is critical in poker because gamblers gravitate toward sites with more choices of games and wager amounts.

Slow start

“This could be massive as it should be the key for the PokerStars brand, technology, client lists and expertise all to gain access to the thus far slow-to-take-off U.S. onshore regulated market,” Holliday said in an e-mail.

So far, legal Web-based gambling has struggled to get its footing in the U.S. Revenue in New Jersey, the most populous state to allow it, fell sequentially for the second straight month, to $10.5 million in May, according to data released yesterday by the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement. The state began online betting in November.

Global online poker revenue dipped slightly last year as the business matured in markets such as Europe, players explored other games and PokerStars’ dominance squeezed competitors, according to Holliday.

The deal includes $2.9 billion of bank loans and about $1.6 billion of equity and convertible securities, according to the statement. An additional $400 million of the purchase price will be deferred.

Deutsche Bank, Barclays Bank, Macquarie Capital USA and Blackstone Group’s credit business, GSO Capital Partners LP, arranged the financing.

New laws

PokerStars has been stymied in its attempts to enter the new U.S. markets. The company tried and failed to buy a casino in Atlantic City. Last year New Jersey regulators suspended their review of the company’s gambling license for two years after a complaint by the American Gaming Association, which represents U.S. casino operators.

The company has recently lobbied to get language taken out of proposed online gambling legislation in California that would preclude operators that took bets in the U.S. after Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in 2006.

Isai Scheinberg and 10 other online gambling executives were accused in 2011 of conspiring to break that law, which prohibits banks and others from accepting payments for illegal online gambling.

Since then, Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey have legalized Internet betting. Although PokerStars settled two years ago, Isai Scheinberg remains under indictment and unarrested, according to Betsy Feuerstein, a spokeswoman for Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

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