The Avengers - Top 5 Poker Pros Who Have Stood Up to PokerStars4 years ago
Sometimes in life, when you feel you’ve been mistreated badly or something you care deeply about is negatively affected, you simply have to do something about it.
Complain, make a public statement, refuse to co-operate, go on strike, whistle blow, or whatever – there are a thousand different routes available to let people know you are unhappy.
In poker, the last six months have seen most of these approaches being used by many of the top names in the online and live game – all aimed at what they feel are the terrible decisions and behavior from PokerStars.
Today we’re going to look at the top 5 ‘Avengers’, the players who simply refused to take the wholesale changes made by the poker giants lying down. Their livelihoods and the game they love were being ripped apart – so they made their stand.
One of the first players to attempt any kind of protest against the wholesale changes that Stars decided to introduce – the worst of which being the withdrawal of SuperNovaElite status and rewards halfway through the earning period – high stakes pro Dani ‘Ansky’ Stern took to the poker community to drum up support.
Calling for a 3-day strike at the beginning of December, he persuaded several thousand PokerStars players and others to stay away in a show of solidarity.
We are organizing a strike/boycott of PokerStars from December 1st-3rd,” he said on 2+2. “Starting at 12:01 AM EST, we ask everyone who values the game of poker at all, recreational or pro, to show their support… Please do not play a hand of poker on PokerStars for those 72 hours.”
Explaining the reasons behind his actions, Stern stated:
They are telling their players outright lies, and we will not stand for it,” adding, “They have deceived SNE players about benefits they would receive, are discontinuing the SNE program, and they have completely removed all rewards for high stakes (5/10+) cash games. Beyond that, it follows an ongoing trend that PokerStars/Amaya has been taking in recent years. A site that was once clearly for the players, has completely lost sight of that.” He continued: “PokerStars has made it clear they do not respect us, so we need to demonstrate that we are able to fight back with volume and force,” finishing with, "The fight is on, this is the first battle and we will continue fighting as long as we need to.”
A second strike, this time for a week at the very start of January, attracted similar numbers of ‘stay-aways’ and the cost to Stars’ pockets was calculated at about $1.3 million in lost rake – a number which PokerStars deemed acceptable as they refused, point blank, to go back on their changes.
Naturally, in such a diverse group of players there would be limits to what each unhappy member would be able or prepared to do. Some joined the boycotts, others disagreed, many had ties to PokerStars or other sponsorships, and more still felt they simply couldn’t afford to not play.
One man who cut across most of these reasons was Alex ‘Kanu7’ Millar, another of the high-stakes online crew. On December 15th, last year, he walked away from his contract as a PokerStarsTeamOnline pro and spoke to Pokerupdate.com about his reasons shortly before the 2nd strike.
To start with, I felt pretty angry and then a lot of frustration got added in as it was becoming clearer that they would not reverse the changes,” he said. “To be honest, I prefer not to talk about the boycott too much. On one hand, my personal feeling is that I didn’t think it was the best idea. On the other hand, I am aware that I could easily be wrong and didn’t want to talk people out of doing something that may work just because I don’t agree.”
He did, however, sit out with his fellow players on the boycott days, “ out of respect for the players who were taking part. I didn’t want to go and play the games and take the EV they could have had while they tried to help the situation. PokerStars sponsored me at the time, so I didn’t officially take part.”
However, as an ‘insider’ with an ability to discuss matters among his PokerStars colleagues and team, he grew increasingly frustrated as it seemed clear that the higher management had decided the changes would stay.
In the past, we have been able to make a difference with some things by working with these people,” he claimed, “but the decisions, this time, were made at the top so there was nothing we could do.”
He tweeted of his departure:
I’d like to apologise to the players for my complete failure to be able to help in any way with the recent pokerstars VIP changes (1/2)
— Alex Millar (Kanupoker) December 15, 2015
With @RealKidPoker eventually failing as well I no longer feel I can represent the company and I have now left Team Pro Online (2/2)
— Alex Millar (@Kanupoker) December 15, 2015
As with most good protests, alternative ideas to those being made were put forward. Millar was central in pushing these alternatives.
If Amaya wants to make more money from high stakes games,” he said, “it is a much better idea to raise the rake of full six handed games while keeping the rake the same for shorthanded games. Shorthanded games will almost always be pros playing against each other to start games, and this behaviour is directly suitable for PokerStars as they get rake from players who would otherwise end up cashing out the money. Removing all rewards from all high stakes games just means that people will be less likely to play shorthanded games with other pros, and you will push things toward a more predatory, less recreational player friendly environment.”
This point hit directly at part of PokerStars strategy – the ‘levelling the playing field’ line which was being spouted left, right, and centre by Eric Hollreiser at PokerStars.
These changes directly encourage people to behave in a more predatory manner at a time when they are justifying these changes by claiming that new player retention rates are not good,” explained Millar. “The changes do not fix the problem that they are claiming they are trying to fix. Then by further alienating (by the awful and insulting communication) the base of loyal players who have always played significant volume on Stars.”
The awful communication from Stars about their changes was met with widespread condemnation in the community, Millar explaining that he “would have been a lot more honest in communications with the players.”
The announcement made in a blog with the title “Comprehensive Plan for Enhanced PokerStars Experience” is absolutely pathetic. The whole blog post smacked of being written by someone who thought they were an extremely clever spin doctor, putting a positive light on everything. It actually looked like it was written by an idiot. Perhaps it was.”
As for the other players on his online team, he stated:
Everyone has their personal situation and eventually makes their own decision on whether something like this is worth leaving over, but I was far from the only one trying to get the players points across to management.”
His plans to continue playing on the site may seem strange after resigning, but, as with many of his colleagues, sometimes the alternative simply isn’t there. Players were protesting as far as they personally felt able to.
I’m a professional poker player, and PokerStars is where the highest stakes action goes on. I expect that many people will do the same. What has changed is not that everyone will pick up and leave PokerStars immediately, rather it’s that people no longer have any loyalty to or preference for PokerStars.”
On the very first day of the second strike, one of the biggest names in online poker also decided to quit his role as a PokerStarsPro.
Isaac ‘Ike’ Haxton publicly announced his decision, stating: “I believe PokerStars is behaving unethically. As of today, I am sad to report that my PokerStars Team Pro Online contract has expired and I have made the decision not to renew it,” wrote Haxton on 2+2.
The well-known high stakes figure joined the PokerStars Team Online roster in 2012, but despite being offered a continuation of his contract, he felt simply couldn’t ignore the behaviour of PokerStars, who seemed intent on devastating the high stakes and semi-pro ranks.
“There’s a lot not to like about these most recent changes and the way they’ve been communicated, but there’s one aspect that I just can’t accept,” he wrote.
Announcing in November that players who earned Supernova and Supernova Elite status in 2015 will not receive the benefits they had expected in 2016 strikes me as dishonest and unfair. As a four time SNE, I know what it takes to rake1M VPP in a year. It’s a tough grind. For most of the players who do it, it is an all-consuming commitment more intense than most full time jobs. Many of them have relocated far from their homes and families to pursue it. Finding out, just as you approach the finish line, that your efforts will not be rewarded as you expected them to be is brutal. I cannot in good conscience continue to endorse a poker site that treats its players this way. In the past, when I have disagreed with a PokerStars decision, it has been on practical matters of which goals are most important and which policies most effectively advance those goals. This time my disagreement is simpler, and deeper - I believe PokerStars is behaving unethically.”
So the dispute rumbled on, and a meeting between Haxton, Stern, and Daniel ‘Oxota’ Dvoress, with ‘go-between’ Daniel Negreanu, and the Amaya management even happened in mid-January.
Of the meeting Negreanu said:
There was no resentment or anger. It was a very positive meeting from both side’s perspectives. Points were contested from both sides. Let’s call them healthy debates. I am not the representative of online poker. I am an ambassador type guy, but these guys are part of the online poker fabric. It’s important they got an opportunity to speak directly to the people making these decisions.
Ike Haxton tweeted that the meeting was “civil and courteous, but yielded no progress for players" but both he and Dvoress took issue with Negreanu's statement that the players left the meeting "happy". Dani Stern also stated publicly:
— Dani Stern (@TheRealAnsky) January 21, 2016
Fast-forwarding, with the changes not being reversed and the strike action not having the desired effect, the campaign against PokerStars has taken on a different hue – players taking potshots whenever the opportunity arises guerilla warfare of a sort.
One of those using his own skills to undermine what he sees as an over-active and dishonest PokerStars PR department is top Scottish pro David Vamplew.
He recently penned an opinion piece for Calvinayre.com in which he states:
I believe they have gone too far in their methods, veering into dishonesty and deceit and frankly insulting the intelligence of their customers in attempting to trick them.”
His main issue – that the PS communications department “are trying too hard to spin each announcement as a positive change” and that they have “gone too far in their methods” – centres on a “Comparison With Competitors” chart that “appears to show that PokerStars rake is significantly lower than the competition, even after the changes.”
This is their graph:
It does nothing of the sort claims Vamplew, and he contends that:
“PokerStars are knowingly displaying poorly collated data in the hope it will be misinterpreted by many.”
This is another look at the numbers:
Although his analysis may seem complicated to those not familiar with how such things work, there seems little wrong with his approach. PokerStars have simply included that which they deem favourable (restricting their figures to low/mid-stakes games) and omitting the numbers which any grinder would know off by heart (rakeback figures, which coincidentally were changed considerably by PokerStars in their recent changes).
He also takes real issue with how the data is presented, claiming that:
A fudged scale on a chart such as this would not pass a high school science exam and for a professional data analyst to allow such a clear flaw to be published is appalling.”
"This one chart is not the only example of Pokerstars attempts to obscure the facts with flawed arguments and insincere presentation,” writes Vamplew. “The way details are presented in their announcements is consistently deceptive and the Twitter feeds of their PR team are enraging to read as an informed customer.”
It is clear from Vamplew’s opinion column as well as actions and posts elsewhere, (see Bonomo’s tale below) that the players most affected by the changes are refusing to take the ‘treachery’ of PokerStars lying down – nor have they forgotten about it.
He ends his piece with:
The prevalence of misinformation and flawed analogies is alarming and it is worrying that a number of less astute players may actually be satisfied with their answers. I hope that my writing here can go some way towards correcting that.”
This week saw yet another rumbling in the great PokerStars debate, with Justin Bonomo taking to the Twittersphere with his own protest against the moguls of the online game – only this time it was at a live event!
PokerStars sponsor a huge number of poker tours and events, one of the biggest being the European Poker Tour (EPT) which last week held its Grand Final in Monte Carlo – a showcase for the best players and a huge draw for PokerStars media profile.
Justin ‘ZeeJustoin’ Bonomo, however, has been less-than-impressed by PokerStars of late and tweeted during play in the Main Event:
1/2 Playing the EPT MC 100k Super High Roller. I will be refusing all media requests from Pokerstars and the EPT. Pokernews, GPL etc. are ok
— Justin Bonomo (JustinBonomo) April 28, 2016
Fighting words, and expressly against the PokerStars-sponsored EPT rules and contracts for players, a definite sign that Bonomo’s ire was way up. It looked like nothing would come of the matter as Bonomo busted out of the Main Event, but he took down a €2K side-event for some €110,000 and the real fun began.
Under the impression he wouldn’t get paid if he didn’t pose for the promotional winner’s pic, Bonomo concocted a sign which read: “They said they won’t pay me if I don’t take this photo – SuperNovaElite: PokerStars stole $50,000 from me.”
He also tweeted:
Part of the deal is that I get the trophy and the win, which I really wanted so I can say fuck you to Amaya and refuse to do a winner photo
— Justin Bonomo (@JustinBonomo) May 4, 2016
Not impressed, PokerStars reacted by declaring that “The European Poker Tour has not – and will not – withhold player funds for declining to take part in a photograph” although they did point out that: “As a condition of participating in the PokerStars and Monte-Carlo Casino European Poker Tour Grand Final, all players agreed “to carry out any reasonable request by PSLive during any Event in which you participate to assist in publicising, televising, webcasting or promoting the Event".
PSLive events are only open to players who agree to abide by the rules. If a player declares that they will not abide by the rules that govern PSLive events, then they will obviously not be able to play in future PSLive events.”
Of course, this poses a conundrum for those players brave enough to take on PokerStars. It’s one thing refusing to play online on PS – playing other sites can be done. But not playing the biggest flagship events on the world tours is quite another.
Where this latest bust-up between the top players and PokerStars will lead is anyone’s guess. The Amaya-owned site – this week taking Full Tiltunder its wing as a skin – will be unlikely to lose much sleep over it short-term, but the words of Alex Millar should be borne in mind with every new story that appears.
With the evaporation of the good brand and reputation that Stars have built up over some years, they will become just another site and people will be more inclined to play elsewhere whenever they get the chance,” said Millar, adding that “… people are just so disappointed at what they see now compared to what they saw a couple of years ago when they look at PokerStars.”
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