Poker Business Bets on Energy


Stockholders who hoped to rake in the chips by investing in World Poker Tour have found they’re now in a different kind of game: the wildcat oil business.

And it looks like they may have drawn aces. Since WPT became an energy company last month, share prices have more than doubled.

This odd story began in November, when WPT Enterprises, an L.A. company that organized poker tournaments, sold its assets to British online gambling company PartyGaming PLC. Suddenly, WPT became a paper company with $28 million in cash.

WPT changed its name to Ante4 Inc. to avoid confusion with its former identity while keeping a connection to gambling terminology.

At the time, Steve Lipscomb, a documentary producer before becoming chief executive at WPT, told stockholders he was planning to use the money to enter a new type of business.

On April 16, the company merged with an oil leasing firm in Billings, Mont., to form Voyager Oil & Gas.

Filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission show Lyle Berman, a former professional poker player who served as chairman of WPT and holds the same position at Voyager, said if the company had distributed the $28 million in divestiture profits to shareholders, it would have equaled about $1.40 per share.

“We thought if we could find a company with a great business model that needed cash, the stock would trade significantly above $1.40,” Berman told the Business Journal. “We have fulfilled that mission.”

Voyager shares went from $1.40 at the time of the merger to about $3.20 last week. The stock trades on the over-the-counter bulletin board under the symbol ANTF, although the company plans to change the ticker to reflect the Voyager name.

The three original founders of World Poker Tour – Lipscomb; Berman; and Berman’s son, Bradley Berman – have no experience in the oil business.

They hired investment banks, one in Los Angeles and one in Minneapolis, to find merger opportunities, and settled on the Montana energy company, then called Plains Energy Acquisition.

Lipscomb and the Bermans will serve on the board of Voyager but will have no day-to-day responsibility for running the company. Those duties will fall to J.R. Reger and Mitchell Thompson, respectively the chief executive and chief financial officer of Voyager, who formerly worked at Plains.

The company headquarters are moving from Wilshire Boulevard on the Miracle Mile to Billings.

Lipscomb declined to comment.

Through the merger with Plains, Ante4/Voyager got ownership of oil and gas leases on about 98,000 acres in the Bakken formation on the Montana-North Dakota border and the Tiger Ridge region of Montana.

Each share of WPT was exchanged for 0.86 shares of the new company. Shares were diluted – from about 21 million at WPT to about 45 million.

As such, the three original founders own about 19 percent of the new company, compared with the 31 percent they owned at WPT. Reger in Billings owns 6.5 percent.

Berman said that WTP investors can now decide if they want to stay in the game or cash in their chips.

“They have a company with good management and a stock trading over $3 per share,” he said. “So I don’t think we have many unhappy shareholders.”

Reger and Thompson are the only employees of Voyager. Reger has agreed to work for no compensation until the end of 2011. He declined to comment for this article, but said in a press release that the company starts with $28 million in cash and no debt, and plans to devote all its resources to developing its oil and gas properties.

Slick business model

In an SEC filing, Voyager stated that it holds the legal right to the land, but will use partners to drill. If the drilling leads to an active well, operating partners will handle the pumping, transport and marketing of the oil.

“This model provides us with diversification across operators and geologic areas,” the filing states. “It also allows us to continue to add production at a low marginal cost and maintain general and administrative costs at minimal levels.”

The company estimates the drilling costs for a typical Bakken well at $4.5 million. With $28 million to gamble, Voyager has money to fund drilling at five or six sites before it needs more capital.

Robert Michael, president of consulting company R.C. Michael Co. in Fort Collins, Colo., said that should be enough to find oil if the geologists have done their job right.

“Nothing is guaranteed in this business, but you have an overwhelming chance of success in the Bakken with five or six strategic holes,” he said.

Oil leases typically cost $1 to $1.50 per acre per year, Michael explained, but they are limited to a period of five to 10 years. A leaseholder that establishes a producing well can keep the lease indefinitely as long as the oil is flowing, a process known as “held by production.”

Michael said Voyager has a period of years to develop its land, but if the company strikes oil it could need large amounts of capital to establish production. Voyager could then issue stock.

As for the risks involved, Michael said the Bakken region is a great location for drilling, but that’s widely known, so the competition is intense.

The region has been known to hold oil for decades, but until recently no technology existed to remove it. Bakken oil is trapped in shale, a hard clayish rock. To get the oil flowing, the shale must be fractured with special chemicals, a process that adds to the cost.

However, with the cost of oil currently between $80 and $90 a barrel, it’s likely that a well could pump out profits, Michael said.

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