Once in a while a well-meaning experiment just doesn’t work out. That’s the case with the Run It Once Poker online-poker site that RIO founder Phil Galfond launched in 2019, after a couple of years of plodding development. Galfond announced in recent days that the non-US site would be closing its doors to its small international player base effective immediately — meaning today, January 3, 2022.

While live play on Run It Once Poker ends, players will still have three months more, until April 3, 2022, to log in an withdraw their remaining balances. And after that, it’s off to the dustbin of online-poker history… except not quite.

According to a long missive Galfond published about Run It Once Poker’s international closure, his expressed plans are to seek a U.S. license for his software platform, if licensing can somehow be obtained. How that might or might not work we’ll visit in a bit. And the Run It Once brand name will live on, regardless: RIO was founded by Galfond as a training site back in 2012, and it’s still running strong.

A liturgy of small development failures

A lot of things went wrong in Galfond’s determined effort to turn his Run It Once brand into a functioning real-money site. In some ways it was the right idea at the wrong time. Galfond, a famed American online and live pro, clearly eyed the U.S. market as his plans for a live-poker site began to take shape in the mid-2010’s. Yet Galfond’s no fool, and he could see that the regulated U.S. market wasn’t growing fast at all, due to all the state- and federal-level legislative hurdles.

That reality led Galfond to take his concept to the international scene, and that was just in time, as development began, to run into some of the same nation-by-nation firewalling and licensing issues that plagued larger, existing sites as well. It was difficult enough for larger sites to stay viable and maintain market share. For a startup — with one notable international exception — it was almost impossible.

Cash-game-only approach simplified development, but limited outreach

Whether or not it was Galfond’s original plan or whether it was forced upon him by ongoing programming and development issues, Run It Once Poker eventually took shape as a site offering only cash games, without tournaments being offered. Galfond wrote about those being in the long-term plans, but that day never came.

The site’s existence as a cash-game-only site, as viewed from afar, had to further cripple the site’s potential traffic. Poker is a strange beast, and it appeals to different players in different ways. Without even getting into the wide number of variants and formats players can enjoy, the cash-games-only approach was severely limiting.

Galfond and Run It Once Poker rolled the dice on the cash-games-only approach in part because it was the simplest thing to develop. Yet few players, as a percentage of the whole, want to play only cash games. The same is true on the tournament side; few players want to take part in those solely, either, to the total exclusion of playing cash. (Case in point: this writer. I usually play tournaments, yet there are times I will fire up a few cash-game tables instead.) It all spoke to variety. Despite Galfond’s sincerity and personal appeal, offering only cash tables put his site at a huge disadvantage to his competitors. What would the typical poker player want, a site where he could jump between cash games and tourneys at will or one where he was stuck playing only cash?

Galfond ultimately settled for the wrong answer.

Ongoing programming and development issues

Another one of those open secrets regarding Run It Once Poker is that the site’s programming and development moved forward at a snail’s pace. Galfond was always having something reworked because the original vision hadn’t been met in a satisfactory way. The extent to which programming failures contributed to the failure may never be known; it’s hard sometimes to determine whether it’s bad workers or bad leadership that’s the root cause.

Galfond wrote this about the ongoing troubles, deep into his announcement about the shutdown:

“Looking back on the past several years, I feel a mix of disappointment and pride. I’m impressed with what we’ve been able to accomplish, but at the same time, I made a lot of mistakes.

“Our initial tech leadership, which I put into place, came nowhere remotely close to their targets. Part of that was on them, but part was on us, too – not communicating early and clearly enough that we weren’t looking to launch a cookie-cutter poker site. We wanted to innovate at every turn. We planned around their estimates, including hiring operational staff long before we were able to launch, costing us money that we could’ve used to increase our marketing efforts post-launch.

“Even when we put the right tech team into place, later on, we’d been set back so far that completing our platform was no easy task. …”

Despite Galfond professing that he “wanted to be innovative at every turn,” it’s not clear he and his backers even had the financing to pull that off. Given that the actual product fell so far short of the original vision, there just has to be a lot of blame to be spread among all levels.

It all stands in sad comparison to the one recent big success in online poker, that being GGPoker. Like Galfond’s Run It Once Poker, GGPoker sought to be innovative and tech-oriented, and they largely pulled it off. GGPoker launched in 2017, not that much earlier than Galfond’s site in the grand history of online poker, and by 2021 GGPoker had pulled into a virtual tie with long-time global leader PokerStars for cash-game traffic.

The lesson there is that it can be done. The darker truth is that despite most people hoping Galfond would succeed, he never really came close to doing so.

Hoping for a U.S. license?

In shutting down the international operation, Galfond professed that the reason he’s shutting down the international site is to make it easier to focus on obtaining U.S. licensing. “Run It Once Poker is now headed down a path to enter the legal & regulated US market,” he wrote.

“This has been a dream of mine since well before we first launched. I didn’t initially think it would be an option for us for another half-decade, so I’m very excited to be on our way to achieving it!”

That’s likely all true, though the simpler take may be that the international site continues to lose money, so shutting it down and focusing all remaining resources on somehow obtaining U.S. licensing.

The question is not only how, however, but where. Galfond’s tone indicates his beliefs or hopes that Run It Once Poker can be a U.S.-facing site sooner rather than later. Yet for that to be a reality, it would almost have to be done in a partnership with an existing casino in an alread-regulated U.S. state.

Limited markets add to the problem

There are only seven U.S. states that have legalized online poker to date, and one of those, West Virginia, doesn’t even have any sites or is prepared for their launch. Connecticut’s planned sites also have yet to launch. That leaves just five regulated U.S. states where online poker is taking place — Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Three of the states — Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware — have a player-pooling compact, but that also requires casino and software licensing in all three states as well. To date, only WSOP/888 is available across more than one state in a pooling arrangement. That has led to some bizarre circumstances. BetMGM and the Partypoker US Network just ran a brief New Years-themed series in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, but because those states have no pooling agreement with each other, it meant that BetMGM had to run three smaller series simultaneously, one in each state, and each with the same exact schedule.

Back to Galfond and his Run It Once software platform needing a home. While the software might not even be good enough to compete, there seems to be only one state where there’s a lack of variety in available sites, plus enough of a cash-game player base to make a Run It Once Poker site worth considering.

That state is Nevada, where WSOP.com is the only option at present. Nevada has a small population, at three million and change, but it has the highest concentration of poker players of any state. And while the WSOP is poker’s premier brand name, the WSOP.com site is decidedly mediocre. It’s been so bad for so long that perhaps another Nevada casino entity is considering taking a shot at that market.

It would have to be a different ownership group, however. BetMGM is already in partnership with partypoker elsewhere, so the MGM casinos are out as a possible Run It Once partner. The Fertitta group (the Station casinos) already flopped once with the original Ultimate Poker, so it’s likely not them, either. South Point tried and failed, too. Golden Nugget has never shown much interest in online poker. And Las Vegas Sands, even after Sheldon Adelson’s passing? Way too soon there. Take it all together, and it’s hard to see who it might be, if this is indeed a for-real happening and just not a case of Galfond doing some flag-waving marketing.

In any event, though, it was a brief run for Run It Once Poker on the international scene. Perhaps it’ll re-emerge in the States at a later date. For now, though, it’s back on the shelf.

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