Merge Network Puts Hold on New US Player Deposits
In a move that’s likely not as alarming as the headline suggests, the Australia-based Merge Gaming Network has placed an indeterminate block on new-player signups from United States-based players. The decision was made at some point in May, but was only quietly acknowledged by Merge after the fact, as several new players reported not being able to successfully deposit.
John Mehaffey, over at PartTimePoker, was the first media source to confirm what in all likelihood is a temporary shutdown. The move also has no impact on already-registered US players who play on Merge via one of its many house-owned skins, which include Carbon Poker (Merge’s flagship site), PlayersOnly, Sportsbook.ag and SuperBook.
It’s worth noting that Merge has done the same thing in the past on more than one occasion, most notably in middle and late 2011 amid the market shakeup following that year’s “Black Friday” crackdown against the three largest US-facing offshore companies. All three of those companies were later found to have employed illicit banking connections within the US, the specific acts which brought them under the heavy hand of US authorities. However, the ripples from that crackdown were felt across the entire online-poker world. In Merge’s case, for example, the network was hit a flood of new-registration and deposit requests which the network was simply too small to handle, hence the temporary curtailing.
This time around is probably the same… but different.
One of the likeliest explanations for the temporary hold on new registrations is the shallow payment-processing pipeline currently and seemingly used by Merge. Last year, Merge hit the bottom of the curve amid length delays in processing cashout requests, falling behind by months in some reported instances and likely due to the loss of a key processor. Merge has since made a noticeable recovery in that regard, though the small network likely still faces some hurdles that continue to hamper processing speeds. The network’s customers still report not-speedy withdrawals, but they’re being measured in weeks rather than months, as was the unfortunate case last year.
Merge is also hampered by the fact that it’s chosen to “go it alone” in business language, abandoning most of its affiliate-network infrastructure in the aim of being a more self-contained operation. The tradeoffs with that are a reduction in visibility and market presence, as well as (arguably) less interaction with other elements of the online-poker business world. Whether that results in a commensurate loss in access to additional payment processors is open to conjecture.
Merge is also one of several online networks undergoing a slow, continuous incorporation of Bitcoin-based processing into its business models. (Bovada, which is the largest offshore, US-facing online site, is another offering which has recently expanded to include BTC options.) Merge has added BTC options for its existing customers, and appears o be directing much of its customer base to use Bitcoin for certain transactions.
However, Bitcoin itself has undergone some unusual volatility in recent weeks, jumping well over $500 per BTC after many months in the $400/BTC range. Again, such volatility may have factored into Merge’s maybe-temporary pullback, as all networks willing to employ Bitcoin use need to protect themselves from being victimized in arbitrage schemes using the unregulated payment medium.
Merge’s quiet shift isn’t limited solely to payment mechanisms or the US market, even though Americans have always made up a goodly share of the network’s player base, dating all the way back to the network’s Poker.com origins a decade ago. As with many other sites and networks, Merge has taken steps to discourage some of its most profitable players, who in corporate terms have been deemed too skillful, too damaging for the network’s overall ecosystem. Several players have reported being quietly banned from Merge in recent months, just as has occurred on a handful of larger international sites.