Addition of $100 Spins Highlights Need for Horizontal Mobility

Alex Weldon : July 31st, 2015

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When PokerStars initially launched the Spin-and-Go format last year, the buy-ins ranged from $1 up to a maximum of $30. Shortly thereafter, a $60 option was added. Today, they’ve upped the stakes one notch further, rolling out $100 Spin-and-Gos.

The rake (5%) and prize distribution is the same as for the other stakes $15 and up, and the top prize is likewise in proportion to the other stakes: 3000x the buy-in, with 300x consolation prizes for the two losing players. The maximum you can win is therefore $300,000; if buy-ins run any higher than this in future, the prizes are going to start getting close to the $1 million formerly offered by the $5 “limited edition” spins.

Are spins the magic bullet?

Despite some of the flak they received when first introduced, Spin-and-Gos are kind of a work of genius, since they manage to do something no other format of poker has yet accomplished, combining the two most critical features of recreational gambling: instant gratification and a high potential-to-risk ratio.

Cash games and turbo or hyper-turbo sit-and-gos have always offered the former, but not the latter. At a cash table, each hand is a separate game, while the fastest formats of sit-and-go are done with in minutes. In both cases, the player is free to play as long or as short a session as she wants. The downside, however, is that the ceiling for short-term profits is pretty low. This is bad for the average survival time for losing players (who benefit from variance), and it’s also uninspiring. Recreational gamblers do it mostly for the dream of a big score; very few are depositing $50 because they hope to withdraw $60.

Conversely, multi-table tournaments (MTTs) offer the latter advantage, but not the former. Especially with the size of field these tournaments can generate on a site like PokerStars, the potential to profit is huge, with first-place prizes which are often hundreds of times the buy-in or more. On the other hand, they represent a huge time commitment, with even a turbo tournament taking hours to complete.

Spin-and-Gos, meanwhile, offer MTT-style variance and profit potential, but with a snack-sized time commitment. It’s entirely possible to kill several hours playing spins, but the initial decision to sit down is much easier to make because the player knows that if something comes up, or they start to feel bored or frustrated, they’re always going to be done with the current game in five or ten minutes at most.

And so it might seem that Spin-and-Gos are a sort of magic bullet for recreational poker. Unfortunately, things aren’t quite that simple, and further innovation is probably going to be needed in the near future, because there’s a third requirement for the long-term sustainability of a recreational format, which is a variation or progression in experience. The big problem with Spin-and-Gos currently, in my opinion, is that one game feels much the same as the next, and the big wins don’t necessarily lead you to new and better things.

Variety in other formats

Cash games offer variety in a few ways. For one thing, players come and go, so the table size is always changing. For another, the deep stacks allow more flexibility in play, so every table is a new experience. It also means that one stake level plays very differently from another: A recreational player who has run hot at, say, 0.10/0.25 NLHE and decides to take a stab at 0.50/1.00 is going to encounter very different challenges there. Of course, they may be unable to adjust and get knocked back down quickly, but at least they’ve seen something new.

Tournaments also offer a varied experience, both within a single tournament – early game, bubble play and final table all being very different – and in that individual tournament structures can feel very different, depending on field size, stack depth, blind levels and so on. A player who final-tables the Hot $5.50 and decides to take a shot at the Sunday Million with his winnings is going to discover a whole new world of play.

Conversely, a $1 Spin-and-Go doesn’t feel much different or play very differently than a $60. The average player at $60 is better, certainly, and so will be playing a more balanced range of hands, but the situations and decisions one encounters are always pretty much the same. Thus, the same simplicity and accessibility which makes the format great for drawing in new players is also its greatest weakness when it comes to keeping players interested.

The idea of horizontal mobility

Horizontal mobility is as important as vertical mobility. That is, you want to encourage players to switch between formats as well as moving up and down in stakes. Boredom and frustration go hand in hand, after all; a player who’s getting sick of a given format even when running well is much more likely to tilt when things start to go badly. You want those players to change things up for themselves rather than quitting entirely.

It’s clear that PokerStars understands this, because of their “Mission” or “Challenge” promotions, which offered players the chance at prizes in return for trying new things. These would include, for instance, playing a certain number of ring game hands, or winning a sit-and-go, or cashing in an MTT.

Spins are their own little world

Part of the problem with Spin-and-Gos is the way they’re presented. They’ve got their own tab in the PokerStars client and the presentation is entirely different from anything else. All the player has to do is click on the stake level they want, decide how many tables they want to play, and off they go. This is great in terms of barrier-to-entry, but it makes Spins feel like their own little world, disconnected from all the other games on offer.

Speaking from personal experience, when I hit my first big score back in 2012 – final tabling the Hot $11 – the first thing I did was go back to the single-table Sit-and-Gos (STTs) I’d been playing before, but at considerably higher stakes. I ran well at the $15s, then the $30s, then the $60s for a while… of course, my luck didn’t hold, but once I started to swing back down, I taught myself Badugi and played some cash, then when I got bored of that, I went back to MTTs.

Now, being a full-time writer and a parent, I don’t have time for many MTTs, but I play around with the spins a bit. So, when I got lucky and scored myself a $9000 jackpot last month, what did I do? I went and started playing the $15s and $30s spins, obviously. It was all the same, though, and I rapidly got bored. I kept some money in my account to play some Stud and other cash games, but the vast bulk of that money ended up getting withdrawn. Whatever portion of it gets spent on poker now is mostly going to be covering my buy-in for live events.

Now remember, I’m a veteran player who’s seen pretty much everything PokerStars has to offer, and even so, my feeling on hitting that jackpot wasn’t, “hey, I’ve got some money in my account now, I should play some more Sunday Millions, or put together a WCOOP package,” it was “well, I guess I can play some bigger spins now?”

Based on that experience, I can’t help but feel like the addition of $100 Spin-and-Gos represents a lack of imagination both on the part of players and at PokerStars; there are all these big prizes being won, but no one seems to see anywhere that money can go other than upwards, to ever-larger spins, or out, into the players’ bank accounts. This is what leads to the sense a lot of profitable players have been expressing, which is that that spins, for all their success, are hurting rather than helping traffic on the rest of the site. Something needs to be done to get some of that money flowing horizontally, rather than vertically.

Spin-and-Sats? Spin-and-Steps?

There are probably a number of ways the problem could be addressed, but here’s my idea, which may be either crazy or just-crazy-enough: Create a new class of Spin-and-Gos which integrate with some of PokerStars’ other offerings by awarding prizes in forms other than straight cash. In order to make them appealing, they would need to be raked at a rate lower than the current spins, but the fact that the winnings would be guaranteed to be reinvested in other areas of the site would make it a worthwhile proposition for PokerStars as well as the players.

For instance, imagine a special WCOOP Edition $5 Spin-and-Go, where the jackpot payouts are $5000 cash and a must-play $5200 WCOOP Main Event ticket for the winner, with the runners-up getting $500 cash plus a generic $215 ticket, good for a $215 WCOOP event, Sunday Million or anything else. Similar promotions could also run to award packages for the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, for instance, and other PokerStars-affiliated live events.

Spins could also form a natural pairing with the currently-not-very-popular Steps program. What if there were Spin-and-Steps, where the buy-ins could be paid in either cash or Steps tickets, and the payouts were likewise in the form of Steps tickets of a randomly-determined tier? Not only would this create a flow of players from the Spin-and-Go world into the mid- and high-stakes tournaments, but it would also give players something fun, fast and useful to do with Steps tickets earned elsewhere, perhaps through Mission-style giveaways, “Carnival” MTTs, deposit promotions, etc.

Never forget the aspirational element

This spin-for-tickets suggestion is just that: a random suggestion I’m tossing out. Meanwhile, this article has grown longer and filled with more digressions than I had originally planned. Let me finish, however, by hopefully driving home the point with a couple of rhetorical questions.

Do you remember the name of the guy who won the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event, thereby kicking off the poker boom?

Now, do you remember the screen name of the guy who won the first $1 million Spin-and-Go?

Admittedly, “Moneymaker” has slightly more of a ring to it than “sss66666,” but the real difference between the two is that the former won the Main Event slowly, in real-time, on television, with the whole world knowing his face. The latter’s big win, by contrast, came in a matter of minutes, anonymously, online and with a relatively small crowd of users watching.

Of course, everyone would like to have a million dollars, but no one wants to be sss66666 in the way they wanted to be Chris Moneymaker back in the day. That’s because it’s not just about the money for most people; it’s also about the aspirations. Not just to win, but to be seen winning and to be seen as a winner. The money which comes out of Spin-and-Gos can be great as a means to that end, but it doesn’t achieve that end itself. Thus, the format is never going to be poker’s magic bullet unless that money has somewhere visible to go.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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