ujogoscreenshot_22.gifUjogo, a site where you can play free online poker tournaments and win real prizes, launches today.

The world of online poker is bewildering. There are so many companies offering so many models, we’re somewhat bemused that another one, Ujogo, is getting financed. The Silicon Valley-based company has raised approximately $1 million from undisclosed investors.

Ujogo might actually engage people that enjoy real poker, however, and is worth a look.

If you are the slightest bit serious about the game, you know free online poker is a joke. On portals like Yahoo and MSN Games, casual gaming sites like Pogo and Gamesville, even dedicated free poker sites like Pokerstars.net, people play carelessly; it’s almost impossible to find an intelligent game. This makes sense: When there’s nothing at stake, there’s no reason not to bet all your chips on a terrible hand. After all, you can just get more free chips and jump right back in.

Despite the overwhelming lameness of basic free poker, the majority of poker played by millions of people online today is free. HeyCosmo, which we recently wrote about, makes the game more interesting with webcams, so you see and talk to the people you’re up against. A handful of sites, most notably the National League of Poker, TripleJack, and Prizewagon have emerged to offer free poker with an incentive to play well: At some of the tournaments on these sites, the winners can win real cash or prizes.

Ujogo will use the tournament prize model, and try to engage the broad range of free online poker players. Its chief executive, Eric Gonzales, a former venture capitalist at DCM, says a full 40 percent of these players are female, and the company will target some of its prizes — like jewelry and gift cards to popular women’s stores — directly at this demographic, which the three prize-based sites mentioned above appear to ignore. In a tournament with a thousand players, the winner can expect a prize worth about $150 dollars, with smaller prizes for the top 29 finishers. There will also be a point-based system that rewards players simply for playing a lot, referring friends, or doing well in smaller tournaments. These points will be redeemable at Ujogo’s store, which is currently under construction.

The company believes many advertisers will want to reach the online poker audience but have been restricted by laws that make it illegal to advertise on gambling sites — though one wonders why these companies are not already all over existing free poker sites. Gonzales projects Ujogo will eventually generate approximately $1 dollar per player per hour, and will feed as much as half its revenues into the prize pool. It also hopes to host occasional bigger events with much bigger prizes, like cars, vacations and free entries into real-money tournaments.

To expand its appeal, Ujogo aims to help beginner and intermediate players improve their games, and has full tutorials that range from the basic rules to the more advanced topics like calculating odds. It also offers some nifty statistical analysis metrics that show you hands you’ve been playing well, and hands you shouldn’t have played, and why. Another interesting feature in the pipeline enables you to see the hands that other people played during the tournament, so you can find out if you folded your pocket aces to a big bluff. This is risky for Ujogo: Even though this exposure happens after the tournament is over, some people may not want their strategies revealed.

Ujogo emulates the look and feel of real-money poker sites like PartyPoker, with good-looking tables and avatars in a flash-based interface that does not require a download. The problem it faces is that its model is not hard to copy, and the existing poker sites can easily add prizes to their free games. It would be great to see Ujogo team up with HeyCosmo to add webcam functionality and make a truly differentiated poker site that is not boring for broke poker junkies like me to play.

Ujogo acquired an early-stage poker site, GamingEverywhere.com, in an all-equity deal earlier this year. The company hopes to raise $5-9 million in about six months.


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