PartyGaming urged to show its hand over bid

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PartyGaming, the newly floated £6bn online gaming group, will face pressure this week to reveal whether it plans to spark an £800m-plus takeover battle with a rival offer for Empire Online, the internet poker operator.

Sportingbet, which operates the Paradise Poker.com site, will this morning confirm that it was the mystery suitor behind a £790m cash-and-shares approach to Empire on Friday.

Although PartyGaming and Empire have a close relationship - Empire is a marketing company that drives punters on to other gaming sites - insiders at the world's biggest internet gaming group played down the significance of that commercial partnership.

Just 3 per cent of PartyGaming's total revenues are generated by Empire, according to the group's listing prospectus. By contrast, Empire's biggest partner by far is PartyGaming. The marketing specialist, known as a "skin" in the gaming industry because its EmpirePoker.com site wraps itself around its rivals' technology, makes money by getting a share of the winnings from each customer it drives onto PartyGaming's software.

Sportingbet, a direct rival of PartyGaming, is keen to acquire Empire to rob its biggest competitor of the stream of new customers Empire puts its way. Internet poker sites rely on having a liquid pool of high-rolling users so that anyone looking to join a game can do so immediately.

PartyGaming's chief executive, Richard Segal, will be pressed to confirm whether the group intends to show its hand when he reports the company's maiden interim results tomorrow. Earnings before interest and tax profits are expected to be about $245.5m (£133m) on sales of $440m.

Since Empire Online listed on AIM three months ago, poker fever has swept the City. PartyGaming is set to join the FTSE 100 this week with a higher market valuation than stalwarts such as Marks & Spencer. 888.com, the world's largest online casino by number of visitors, launched a £700m initial public offering last week.

With much of the highly fragmented industry still in private hands, internet casino operators are keen to have a public quoting to raise their profile and enough cash to mount an acquisition spree. Empire's admission that it had received a takeover approach so soon after listing triggered a sharp rise in the sector.

Sportingbet, which had net cash of £19m in June, made a small bolt-on acquisition last month, while Empire made two. All three companies declined to comment.

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