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    Showdown in Atlantic City: PokerStars vs Atlantic Club Casino

    Posted by Brad Polizzano May 17, 2013

    While there may technically be just a couple of million dollars at play, PokerStars’ future in U.S. iGaming hangs in the balance.

    As reported last week, the Rational Group, parent company of PokerStars, filed a complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey against the owners of the Atlantic Club Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Since then, both parties have filed additional legal documents in support of their positions, setting up for today’s court hearing.

    The purpose of the hearing is to decide whether PokerStars may prevent the Atlantic Club from pursuing possible deals for the sale of its casino to anyone other than PokerStars until the court ultimately decides on the dispute between the parties. PokerStars claims that the Atlantic Club’s termination of the purchase agreement between the parties was illegitimate, a claim the Atlantic Club refuses. The outcome of this dispute is very likely to determine the extent, at least in the short term, of PokerStars’ involvement in the internet gambling market, in New Jersey and presumably in the rest of the nation.

    For further background, I suggest you refer to Chris Grove’s excellent summary of PokerStars’ allegations. In this article, I will focus on this week’s filings from the parties, what each is claiming, and what some possible implications going forward may be.

    Atlantic Club to PokerStars: You missed the deadline, so pony up $4 million.

    The Atlantic Club believes it acted properly when it demanded a $4 million termination fee from PokerStars, as the Atlantic Club supposedly had to terminate the agreement after PokerStars failed to meet a deadline. It should be noted that, since negotiations began, PokerStars has already paid the Atlantic Club $11 million, which was used to cover the casino’s operating losses so it could remain open while the deal was being fleshed out (and, also, while the industry waited on Governor Chris Christie to sign the iGaming bill).

    Dispute Over When the Deadline Actually Was

    In response to PokerStars’ claim that the Atlantic Club ended negotiations prematurely, the Atlantic Club asserts that the deadline PokerStars failed to meet, called an “outside date” in the agreement, was not invalid. PokerStars claims the opposite by pointing to a provision in the New Jersey Casino Control Act.

    What happens if PokerStars is right about the deadline?

    It would mean that the Atlantic Club did improperly terminate the purchase agreement. PokerStars would seek to recover the $11 million paid to Atlantic Club, or perhaps credit it toward a possible subsequent deal between the parties.

    What happens if the Atlantic Club is right about the deadline?

    Then PokerStars is likely out of the $11 million and it could have to pay Atlantic Club the additional $4 million termination fee on top of it.

    Why did the Atlantic Club terminate the agreement and not give PokerStars a deadline extension?

    The answer that seems most obvious is that the Atlantic Club felt it could get a much better deal than the one in place. Remember that the parties executed the purchase agreement on December 21, 2012, just one day after the New Jersey State Senate passed the iGaming bill. Nevertheless, it was still unclear at the time whether Governor Christie would sign the bill into law. Under New Jersey’s enacted internet gambling legislation, only Atlantic City casinos are permitted to seek an internet gambling license in the Garden State.

    What happens if the judge today finds in favor of PokerStars?

    Then the Atlantic Club could not pursue other buyers of the casino until the court decides on the deadline issue, which could take months. During that time, PokerStars would remain the only party that the Atlantic Club could negotiate with. Given the strong incentive PokerStars has to strike a deal now, I expect that PokerStars would seek to settle the lawsuit and negotiate a new purchase agreement with the casino.

    What happens if the judge today finds in favor of the Atlantic Club?

    It would be a potentially fatal blow to PokerStars’ chances of being an initial player in the New Jersey iGaming market. The Atlantic Club is almost certainly going to consider other possible buyers, especially those with less checkered backgrounds.

    Even with an unfavorable hearing outcome, PokerStars may nevertheless press the lawsuit on the deadline issue, with its primary remedy being the $11 million already paid. Again, if PokerStars ultimately loses on that point, then it could be required to pay the additional $4 million.

    If PokerStars somehow pulls off the purchase of the Atlantic Club, one major question remains. Would the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement approve PokerStars to operate in the State? Again, it depends who you ask. I’ve heard both “no way in hell” and “it’s all but a certainty” from respected industry insiders. It seems a bit difficult to place much optimism with either response at this stage. What does seem a certainty is that the drama will not end soon.

    QuadJacks – May 17, 2013

    About Brad Polizzano

    Brad Polizzano is a tax and gaming attorney in New York. He advises clients on tax compliance, with an emphasis on gaming industry issues. He also represents taxpayers in disputes with the Internal Revenue Service and the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. He blogs about tax and gaming law issues at taxdood.com. Follow him on Twitter @taxdood.

    View all post by Brad Polizzano

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