By Hilary Russ
(Reuters) - Gamblers across New Jersey will be able to place bets online beginning at midnight after state regulators on Monday approved 13 internet gaming websites run by six Atlantic City casinos.
If a five-day test phase has been any indication, demand in the state of nearly 9 million people could be high. The total number of players logging on hit 10,000 during the first three days of 24-hour testing, regulators said.
New Jersey is the third U.S. state, but by far the most populous, to roll out online gaming. Officials hope the effort can rescue Atlantic City's sagging casino revenues.
During testing, regulators found "no significant, widespread regulatory problems or technical barriers for going live," said David Rebuck, director of the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, in a call with reporters.
Casinos were limited to 500 players on each site at one time during testing, and they were not allowed to advertise widely. As of midnight the restrictions will be lifted for those who won regulatory approval.
"You have to be gradual. You have to be cautious. You have to be measured," Rebuck said, noting that casinos didn't want to invite large numbers of players until they knew the systems could handle the traffic.
"You're going to see accelerating efforts by them to be much more aggressive" about marketing, he said.
The casinos use geolocation services to figure out whether someone from outside the state is trying to hack in online. Such technology has been used already in Delaware and Nevada, the other two states to offer some form of online wagering, but Rebuck said regulators in New Jersey demanded "a higher standard of operations."
Regulators and casinos sent testers out of state and asked them to try to crack into the New Jersey websites, but nobody broke through, he said.
"I'm not saying this is foolproof by any means," he said. "Somebody at some time will find a way to get around this, and we have to be extra vigilant."
The first test patron logged on to a site operated by Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa from somewhere in New Brunswick on Thursday evening. Many hits came later from areas within New Jersey that are near New York City and Philadelphia, he said.
Borgata, owned by Boyd Gaming Corp and MGM Resorts, is one of the six casino operators moving forward to live sites at midnight.
Borgata spokesman Joe Lupo would not reveal specifics about where in the state their players were located, how much they were betting or how long they spent online, because the information is proprietary, he said.
A spokesman for Caesars Entertainment Inc, which received permission to open several online gaming sites to the public, said the company was pleased with the number of players and that it expected to see "an uptick in users every day," but wouldn't provide details.
Golden Nugget, whose parent company is Landry's Inc, decided to remain in a test phase after regulators reviewed with it some "shortcomings," Rebuck said.
The casino expects to resolve those issues - which included problems reporting revenues internally and to regulators - within the week at the latest, according to its general manager Tom Pohlman.
(Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)