The State of Poker in a Time of Transition5 years ago
There has been a lot of talk in recent months about where online poker is heading, and as you might expect it's not all good news.
Are you getting to the point where you feel enough is enough? Is is time to find a new hobby or career choice? What would drive you to finally quit?
Talking to my poker friends about the answer to this question, I was given quite a lot to think about. The poker community is made up of such a wide spectrum of personalities, backgrounds, and age groups that it becomes impossible to keep everybody happy. Most people have their own set of ideal circumstances when it comes to their poker environment and obviously there will be conflict with how others wish things to be organised. This is further complicated by the fact that we rely on profit orientated businesses to provide the games whether online or live. It's complicated, to say the least.
What Has Changed Over the Years?
Post 2003 when the 'Moneymaker effect' was in full swing, loads of new online poker providers were clamouring for a piece of the pie. At the front of their attack were offers such as 100% sign up bonuses and extremely generous rakeback deals. This continued for around ten years until finally noises were being made about how more needed to be done to protect recreational players.
One of the first changes that affected me a few years back was the introduction of what was called 'Essence' on the Ongame network. The idea was to reduce the rakeback payments to winning players and to pass on these cuts to the players who lose over the long run and deposit money into the poker economy.
I had never before heard anybody working in the poker business express publically that a shift in policy was needed to protect the players who repeatedly deposit. Inevitably, when involved with a company whose sole aim is profit, this means taking the money from elsewhere. Most recently, this has seen Pokerstars decide to heavily penalise their high stakes and high volume customers by reducing their benefits. Nothing has been announced about helping out the recreational players who deposit, but the overall health of the game was the reason given for these changes.
After the massive loss of confidence following Black Friday, this new change could lead to the biggest loss of players from the poker ecosystem. Whether or not you have any sympathy for the affected players, it's undeniable that Pokerstars could set off a chain of players deciding it's just not worth the effort involved to play any longer. Don't underestimate how many of these 'rakeback grinders' are out there.
One important factor we never see mentioned is how the perception of the game for new players influences how seriously they involve themselves. If we arrive at a situation where players are leaving the scene in droves following unpopular changes, we might also see the number of new sign ups fall drastically.
Armageddon hasn't arrived yet, and we did survive Black Friday, albeit with much tougher games as a result. Unpopular rule changes don't happen too often in the poker world, but keeping up with related internet chatter over the last month has indicated that a lot of players could well be inclined to quit.
What Else Could Push Players to Seriously Consider Giving it Up?
The changes that Pokerstars have rolled out this year might sour the deal for many, but alone they won't send them over the edge. What could happen though, is that it might be the final straw in an accumulation of different factors.
Online poker gives players many advantages over live play, the most obvious being an increase from approximately twenty five hands per hour up to the possibility of more than two thousand. This massive increase in potential hourly rates convinced many players to take the plunge as a professional player, often without much thought of a long term plan.
Although life may have been good for a long time, following Black Friday there has been little positive news about the health of the games. Every edge any player achieves in today's games is hard earned. Much more so than ten years ago. Successful players today have to commit to a self disciplined regimes just to stop themselves from being overtaken by inferior players.
'If you stand still, then you start to go backwards'
This old adage is so true today in the poker world. Previously, many players were able to win big without needing to push their learning curve close to its potential. So long as they played with inferior players they would still win easily.
Today we have more than twelve years of progress following Chris Moneymaker's WSOP main event victory, with an incredible amount of data to draw from, and some incredibly intelligent people sharing their conclusions from what they analyse.
The guys who didn't even start playing until a couple of years ago have been given a leg up with all the training material available, such as on our sister website PokerVIP.com. It's now a lot easier to reach your potential than it was ten years ago, the problem is that the games are much tougher because it's the same for everybody.
There must be a lot of players wishing they had made a plan B. A fair percentage of these will have realised that the work involved to earn the money they had become accustomed to, is now just not worth it. But on the other hand they might feel as if they don't have a better option, quitting would give them just as many life problems as carrying on.
A Wasted Generation
It was around twenty years ago that internet use really started to take off, with online poker arriving in 1998 at PlanetPoker. Imagine how an eighteen old kid turning professional back in 1998 will have given the best years of their life to poker.
Given how the poker landscape looks today, and the difference in how an eighteen year old thought back then, and how a thirty five year old thinks today, there's a lot to consider.
A more mature ten year professional should now be thinking about the opportunity cost of neglecting the chance of a recognised career. The time commitment involved to remain a profitable player at respectable stakes is significant. It's almost impossible to give poker the attention required at the same time as pursuing serious work related projects elsewhere. Of course there will be stories of people doing so, but these are the best players at their stakes. My point is aimed at those who are unlikely to move much further up the food chain. Poker is tough, and improvement is far from easy.
In a changing world where more and more people are able to work remotely, it's not too late to change focus to another industry and retain the possibility of a little poker at lower stakes as an additional income stream.
One of the best benefits of being a poker professional is the ability to work all over the world. Just a computer and an internet connection are required. Are we now seeing a generation of poker players realising that there are other options to make good money whilst on the move? There's no doubt that some have already moved on, a case of maybe jumping because they felt they could be pushed very soon anyway?
Areas such as blogging and affiliate marketing have become extremely popular with digital nomads. Basic web development skills are something many will have picked up as a useable skill as they spend so much time in front of a computer screen. And there are lots more options out there for branching out.
Family pressure is another issue for the younger professionals. As mentioned earlier the opportunity cost for dedicating yourself to poker is considerable, and parents or even partners may feel compelled to encourage a move away from poker while a serious mainstream career is still possible.
Where is the Poker Market Heading?
There can be no doubt that the most successful story on the business side of poker is Pokerstars. Currently servicing 68% of the entire marketplace. Opening its doors for business in 2001 the company was formed by the Israeli Scheinberg family. A family of poker players!
One of the most important factors in Pokerstars' continued success was that they understood what poker players wanted and how to keep them happy. The Scheinbergs steadily attracted players to their platform and until Black Friday things couldn't have been better.
But times change and on 1st August 2014 a takeover deal was sealed with Amaya Gaming for $4.9 billion. Amaya is a Canadian gaming company based in Montreal, the world's biggest publicly listed gambling company.
There is quite a contrast in how the previous owners cared for their customers compared to a faceless corporate entity. We did receive a vague warning about a year ago that big changes were on the way, but I doubt anybody expected what we witnessed over the last month.
Another talking point was regarding HUDs possibly being phased out, it's impossible to deny that this change would be enough to see players walking away. They have become such an integral part of how the game is played online that I'm sure many players would be unwilling to make the change and just quit.
It was pointed out to me this week about how Sit n Go tournaments are dying off due to the popularity of Spin n Go three man tournaments. Introduced a year ago with extremely shallow stack depth, the Spin n Go quickly caught the attention of recreational players leading to much less traffic in the Sit n Go player pool. There is no table selection available, and with such short stacks the edge for a skilled player is greatly reduced.
Maybe reducing the edge skilled players have is the aim across all variants. This way recreational players lose their deposits slower and the money gets raked more times if they continue to play. Ten years ago nobody really talked about edges too much because there were plenty of bad players throwing money around. But now everybody is talking about how we are moving towards unbeatable games. In this scenario serious players will fight as hard as they can before it is too late.
The professionals and high volume amateurs are important to the game because they provide liquidity. They will start cash game tables and try to get a full table going, even when they might not want to play shorthanded. If conditions deteriorate to the extent where the best players don't feel welcome anymore then it doesn't matter if there are weak players are around, the games will slowly die off with people quitting every day.
Pokerstars as the industry leader has a big responsibility if they value the long term future of the game. Everybody involved wants to see sustainable games, with high volume professionals showing the new guys what is possible. We want to see the dream kept alive. Supernova Elite was the game's showcase loyalty reward, and it will be missed not only by those who achieved it, but also those who aspired to reach the pinnacle. If the dream dies off then the players will leave. We need people who are dreamers to help fill the tables.
Time will tell. This month has already seen a player strike at Pokerstars as a show of 'player power'. As I've written elsewhere, next year is so important for the future of poker, and a lot of it might come down to how much Amaya wants to play hardball to achieve their aims. I can see many players leaving Pokerstars, but not quitting the game, just moving on .
A lot could depend on how much investment we see from a recognised rival such as 888. Maybe another company could threaten Pokerstars' dominance by offering deals that are hard to ignore. If this happens then people will be a lot less inclined to quit.
These are just my thoughts and I'm sure many won't agree with everything I've written. I look forward to seeing your comments below.
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