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Ultimate Poker Cuts Back on Pros Following New Jersey Exit

Ongoing belt-tightening continues at Nevada-based Ultimate Poker following its withdrawal from the New Jersey online-gambling market in the wake of last month’s filing for bankruptcy protection by Ultimate’s Atlantic City casino partner, Trump Taj Mahal.  The continued move to save expenses wherever possible resulted in the latest cutback, the ending of a high-profile sponsorship deal with pro player Jason Somerville.

Ultimate PokerSomerville’s departure was done on amicable terms but stands as clear evidence that for the time being, Ultimate Poker is running as a bare-bones operation.  Somerville, a popular player both among his fellow players and with the poker-playing public at large, drew widespread media in early 2012 after coming out as poker’s first openly gay male pro (and the second overall, after Vanessa Selbst).

Somerville proved his value as a spokesplayer after being signed in May 2013 as part of Ultimate Poker’s original “Team U,” along with Antonio Esfandiari, Jonathan Little and William Reynolds, with his popular series of “Run it Up” videos just one of several examples of his value to the site.

Esfandiari — who has been rumored to have acquired a 1% ownership stake in Ultimate Poker as part of his sponsorship deal — is the only original member of that Team U still with the site, following the departures of Somerville and, a few weeks ago, Reynolds.  Reynolds’ departure was somewhat less amicable, with the outspoken pro even lobbing allegations of fake YouTube visitors being employed in connection with another Ultimate Poker-sponsored production, “Me vs. U,” featuring sponsored UP pros Dan O’Brien and Danielle Andersen.  (Ultimate Poker quickly and heatedly denied Reynolds’ allegations, made immediately after his release from the site.)  O’Brien and Andersen, besides Esfandiari himself, remain the only spokesplayers still under Ultimate Poker contract.

A check back at the rotating lineup of one-time “Team U” pros no longer with the site demonstrates the churn — and lately, the need to trim back the sponsorship budget.  Each of these players were once Team U members but are no longer affiliated with the site:

  • Jeff Gross
  • Tom Marchese
  • Jeremy Ausmus
  • William Reynolds
  • Lauren Kling
  • Phil Collins
  • Brent Hanks
  • Jason Somerville
  • Jonathan Little
  • Martin Kampmann
  • Matt Vengrin
  • Randy Dorfman
  • Gavin Griffin

Six of the pros — Reynolds, Somerville, Kling, Ausmus, Collins and Hanks — have been released in the past month or so.  Reynolds wasn’t the only ex-UP pro to leave with harsh words for his former sponsor; Randy Dorfman (along with Tom Marchese) parted ways with UP and took the opportunity of the latest round of pro-player terminations to fire his own volley at the company.

Wrote Dorfman on Twitter, “Ultimate Poker drops Pros Will Reynolds, Jeremy Ausmus, Phil Collins & Brent Hanks. Maybe time 4 Stations to drop people running UP?

Ultimate Poker itself offered a much more conciliatory tone in a statement provided directly to FlushDraw, while highlighting the amicable parting of ways with Somerville.  According to Ultimate Gaming Chief Executive Officer Tobin Prior, “Ultimate Gaming will continue to focus on improving its online poker product and overall customer experience in Nevada. We will also be enhancing our presence in Nevada with live events at Station Casinos in Las Vegas and the Peppermill in Reno. In addition, we will continue to evaluate all viable growth opportunities in new jurisdictions.”

Added Prior, “We are restructuring several of our pro contracts. We’re extremely grateful for their contributions to date and look forward to continuing to promote the game of poker and the Ultimate Poker product with them in the future. One of the exciting things we’ve been working on is live-events. Ultimate Poker is sponsoring several live events this fall – at the Peppermill in Reno (October 17-26), and at the Green Valley Ranch in Las Vegas (November 1) for the Ultimate Poker Live Series. Poker pro Jason Somerville is hosting a series of events at the Peppermill, all sponsored by Ultimate Poker. And at least one pro poker player will be at the Ultimate Poker Live Series at GVR on November 1. We also look forward to enhancing our customer experience in Nevada by adding Mac and mobile offerings by the end of the year.”

Despite the harsh words several of the pros have directed at UP management, an examination of the larger financial picture shows that a cutback in the Team U roster was virtually inevitable.  Ultimate Poker, was licensed in only two US states, Nevada and New Jersey, and the New Jersey deal with Trump Taj Mahal has bled UP parent Ferttita Interactive of millions of dollars in startup and investment cost.

The Taj’s bankruptcy filing and press statements by UP in connection with assert that Taj Mahal execs owe Ultimate Poker at least $1.5 million, and had stopped communicating with Ultimate Poker officials.  Given that the Taj’s online-poker traffic was minimal, the cutback of the sponsored pros amid the termination of the New Jersey investment effort seems a painful but financially logical step.

It remains to be seen how successful Ultimate Poker can be with only the small Nevada market as its current commercial offering.  The possibility that Ultimate Poker might cease operations entirely seems far-fetched but has to be in the back of some watchers’ minds.  Some fans of Ultimate Fighting Championship, the mixed-martial arts brand also owned by the Ferttita family and run as part of the Station Casinos empire, have noticed that Ultimate Poker advertising itself appears to have been trimmed in connection with various UFC events.

A closing of Ultimate Poker would also represent a serious blow to the fortunes of legalized online poker and gambling in the United States, where progress has been slow.


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