There was big news in the poker world today, as the US Department of Justice announced a settlement with PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker that allows the latter to forfeit its assets to the former, which will pay the government $547 million over the next three years.  Any player who still has money frozen in their Full Tilt account will be able to get it back (if you’re one of them, read this FAQ), and PokerStars says it will re-start Full Tilt Poker as a separate online poker site.

The links above contain the basics of the deal, but I’ve been bombarded with other questions today, so let me give you my best-guess answers…

Q: Does this mean online poker is going to become legal in the United States soon?
A: It depends on your definition of “soon.” Since Black Friday (April 15, 2011, when the government shut down PokerStars, Full Tilt, Absolute Poker, and Ultimate Bet), I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen that I’d be surprised to see it happen until 2014. It certainly won’t happen this year, because everyone in Congress is too busy trying to get re-elected. There will probably be federal legislation introduced in 2013, but it will have to establish the regulatory hoops that potential licensees will be required to jump through, and considering the speed of our bureaucracy, that’s likely to take another year.

Q: If it’s going to take that long for the federal law to be changed, how about at the state level?
A: That’s likely to happen more quickly. The wheels are already in motion in Nevada, and other states will consider following suit if the tax revenue is juicy enough. However, I doubt that any single state — with the exception of California — has enough of a player base to make it worthwhile to play online only against other residents. The choice of games and opponents would be significantly smaller than what former online players were used to. That would change once several states pool their resources a la Powerball, but that’s not imminent, either.

Q: Will PokerStars and Full Tilt be allowed to run US-facing sites once legislation is passed?
A: It depends on how the law is written, but the DOJ’s settlement explicitly states that it has no objection to them becoming licensees anywhere online poker gets the okay.

Q: What does this mean for other online poker sites?
A: Companies like Caesar’s Entertainment (which owns the World Series of Poker brand), Party Poker, and MGM/Mirage can’t be happy today. They’ve been ready to throw the switch and turn on their own US-facing online poker sites after funding massive lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, but they were hoping to do it without having to compete with PokerStars. While Caesar’s (Harrah’s) has a large database of poker players and other gamblers it can market to, PokerStars (the world’s largest online poker room) had tens of thousands of Americans playing online for many years and, after Black Friday, the company engendered a tremendous amount of goodwill by not hesitating to return money that players could no longer use on the site. None of the other online operators did that — and PokerStars will get even more positive feedback from the poker community for ensuring that former Full Tilt players get their money back, too.

Q: Once Full Tilt Poker returns under the auspices of PokerStars, will former players still play there?
A: We’ll have to watch how the rest of the world reacts, since they’ll have exclusive use of the site until US law changes. There’s no doubt the Full Tilt brand is tarnished, but PokerStars can overcome that by offering users an experience like the one they were used to there, only with player funds actually (not just promised to be) separated from company funds. My gut says that many former players won’t withdraw their funds to play elsewhere because: a) they trust PokerStars; and b) they’re worried about tax implications if they ask for a check for their balance. But the real bottom line answer will be even simpler — poker players will go wherever they can find a good game they can beat, with plenty of action. If the new Full Tilt provides that, they’ll be ready to click away.

Q: Does this mean Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson can come out of hiding?
A: Absolutely not. The former Full Tilt executives are still facing federal charges. Even after those are resolved one way or another, The Professor and Jesus will remain pariahs in the poker community for a long time before you see their faces at a poker table again.

Q: What about players who haven’t gotten their money back from Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet?
A: Those companies’ assets will be liquidated by the Department of Justice, which will then attempt to return funds to players — but it’s likely to be pennies on the dollar.

Q: Does this mean that poker TV shows like “High Stakes Poker” and “Poker After Dark” are coming back?
A: Not until the situation changes in the US. Those shows were bankrolled by PokerStars and Full Tilt, respectively, and they’re not going to spend the promotional dollars until the market is open to them. Until then, the World Series of Poker coverage on ESPN (which began tonight and runs through the end of October) will be the only fresh poker programming on your TV.

Q: What does this mean for people who play in brick-and-mortar poker rooms?
A: Since Black Friday, there’s been an influx of former online-only players who were looking for someplace to play poker, and started coming into casino poker rooms for cash games and tournaments. For many, the transition was a shock to the system because the pace of play is so much slower, they can only sit at one table at a time, and they have to wear actual pants. Some of them adapted and became regulars, and may continue to play live. But the larger majority that didn’t make the switch are eager to get back to playing online — as are some of those who patronized both virtual and real-world poker rooms.

Once online poker gets the governmental thumbs-up in the US, business may drop in the casinos at first, but there will also be an entirely new group of poker players coming to the game, and we’ll have a boom period even bigger than the post-Moneymaker era. With the stigma of “I’m not sure it’s legal” removed, folks who only play for free on Zynga and other sites will start giving online real-money poker a try, as will those who play in basement home games and charity fundraisers. From that point, poker will have a new growth curve that could easily double the number of entrants in the World Series Of Poker Main Event from its current level of 6,598 players, thanks to online satellite tournaments awarding free seats all year long.

We’re still a couple of years away from the federal legislation that will light this fuse, but when it does, the poker fireworks will really begin.