One of the advantages of operating in an unregulated market, I suppose, is that you don’t have to worry about all this “responsible gaming” nonsense that regulated sites are legally obliged to pretend to care about. Americas Cardroom, the flagship skin of Winning Poker Network, has introduced a new Double or Nothing feature to its cash games and tournaments, and it’s hard to imagine that it’s going to do anything good for the life expectancy of losing players’ account balances.
Winning Poker Network, or WPN for short, is one of two major operators in the US black market, alongside Ignition Casino (formerly Bodog). So far, these two giants have seemed safer and more trustworthy than smaller unregulated sites, which have a tendency to go belly-up and take players’ funds with them. However, despite the veneer of legitimacy, they are still operating in the “Wild West” sector of the internet, and can do more or less whatever they want.
Double double, toil and trouble
The way the new feature works is as follows: When a player stands up from a cash game table or busts out in the money of a tournament, a screen pops up offering them the chance to risk their winnings for the session on a simple game of “Red or Black.” There are two jokers shuffled into the deck, however, which result in a loss regardless of which option the player has chosen, making this a game with a 3.7% house edge, slightly better than American roulette, but worse than most other standard casino games, not counting slot machines.
For tournaments, this one-shot gamble is going to be for at least a minimum cash (i.e. usually around two buy-ins) and potentially a lot more. For cash games, it could be a relatively small gamble in the case of a short or break-even session, but could likewise be quite large, perhaps in excess of a full starting stack. Not only that, but if the first double-or-nothing is won, the player is offered the option push her luck a second time.
In other words, the feature presents players with the possibility of making an impulse decision to gamble what can easily be more than they risked in the entire session to that point, on what is essentially a casino pit game.
Worst of all, when it comes to cash games, the double-or-nothing option isn’t only presented in the case of a winning session. If the player has booked a losing session, but has funds remaining in their account, she’s given the option to double down, either erasing their losses, or more likely doubling them.
So far, the response on Twitter has broken down into two predictable camps: Those who feel that it’s a terrible idea, both ethically and in terms of its long-term impact on the poker ecosystem, and those who subscribe to the libertarian notion of letting the market decide.
— Michael Josem (@MichaelJosem) May 17, 2017
Personally, my gut reaction is that I hate the idea, but I do think that there are complexities to the question that neither camp is really addressing. There are two main things to be considered: The ethics of offering the feature, and more pragmatically, what it’s likely to do to the flow of money on the site.
The ethical question
On the one hand, it’s pretty clearly not in the best interests of recreational players to have this temptation shoved in their faces at a time that they’re most likely to be susceptible to it. A recreational player needs to get lucky to book a winning session, so is likely to feel like he’s on a streak when he gets up with more than he had when he sat down. On the other hand, a player booking a losing session may well be on tilt, and even if not, there’s a naturally inclination to want to get back to “even” in the quickest way possible.
The obvious counterargument is that live casinos already do very much the same thing. It’s impossible to get from the poker room at a casino to any of the exits without passing through the pits. They tend to be buried in the guts of the property for good reason, namely the hope that players getting up from a poker game will be tempted to either run their winnings up or attempt to recoup their losses.
But is it really the same thing? Americas Cardroom and other sites have casino and sportsbook offerings, which are often made available directly through the poker client for those that want them. One could argue that this is the closer parallel, while what Americas Cardroom is doing is more akin to having the cashier at the cage ask you if you’d like to flip a coin to double your payout before giving it to you. That would go against gambling regulations, for good reason, but again, Americas Cardroom is an unregulated site.
Another point that can be made in favor of Americas Cardroom is that the now-ubiquitous lottery-style sit-and-goes (Spin & Go, Blast, etc.) are functionally very similar, except that the luck-based portion of comes before the skill-based portion, rather than after. Would we find it acceptable to have a three-handed sit-and-go where the winner is offered a choice between taking a fixed 2.8x payout or spinning for a randomized payout between 2x and 10,000x?
I think I would have less of a problem with such a product, and for that reason, I think I would have less of an ethical problem with Double or Nothing if it were only offered to players booking a winning session. It’s the psychological manipulation of players at the end of a losing session that sits more poorly with me.
The ecosystem question
As I said up front, it’s hard to imagine that tempting players with a comparatively high-stakes, purely random gambling opportunity could positively affect the life expectancy of recreational players’ deposits. That may not be the point, however; while most of the major operators in regulated markets are highly concerned about the “ecosystem” these days, that doesn’t generally appear to be the case for unregulated US-facing sites, with the notable exception of Ignition.
One thing to consider here is that players who are on tilt, looking to gamble, or have poor bankroll management find ways of doing similar things even when playing on sites with only conventional poker offerings. Turbo or hyper-turbo heads up sit-and-goes are one popular avenue for this sort of self-destruction, as is sitting at a cash game at much higher-than-normal stakes, so as to be able to put most or all of one’s bankroll on the table.
If a player is inclined to go down this path, then it doesn’t matter much to him whether he’s punting off his roll at poker or a game of chance like Red or Black. In fact, even at something as high-variance as a heads-up hyper-turbo, it’s likely that a recreational player on tilt will fare worse than -4.7% after rake is taken into account, so providing him an opportunity to gamble in a straightforward game of chance may actually be doing such a player a small favor.
From the site’s point of view, however, there’s a big difference, as a player tilting off her bankroll at poker is likely to do so far too quickly to generate much rake. Most of the losses end up in the accounts of those players lucky enough to find her at their table.
That, I think, is the answer to the question of what Americas Cardroom is looking to accomplish. It seems likely to me that they’ve looked at their data, found that the last dollars from a recreational player’s balance tend to be lost quickly and usually to winning players, and have decided that this means they’re leaving money on the table. If that’s the case, then something along the lines of this Double or Nothing feature is a natural way to make sure that “tilt equity” ends up in their accounts and not those of net-withdrawing players.
So far, it seems that most of the people objecting to the idea are industry-watchers and journalists like myself. Conversely, most of the players who’ve weighed in seem okay with it because they accept Americas Cardroom’s logic that they can just opt out if they don’t like the idea, as can anyone else.
This isn’t surprising. Generally speaking, most online poker players seem to reject the idea of an “ecosystem.” It doesn’t mesh with their personal experience, for one thing, and the decisions made with the goal of improving the ecosystem tend to be damaging to winning players’ bottom lines in the short term.
And yet, it’s probably winning players who should be most concerned with this idea. Regardless of whether or not one has ethical qualms about encouraging bad or tilting players to gamble more, it’s a fact that a lot of winning players’ profits, especially at lower stakes, come from these players. It may not matter much to the fish whether they drain their account at the poker table or in a side game like this, but it likely does matter a great deal to their potential opponents. I wonder if those shrugging the change off now would change their tune if they thought things through to this conclusion themselves.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.