According to Nick Jones at PokerIndustryPro (a paywall news site), PokerStars is trialling a new promotion called CardMatch with users in Canada*. It’s a variation on the CardHunt minigame that first appeared on this past March, and has since been repeated on the company’s various regional sites for ring-fenced markets, such as France, Italy, Spain, and the state of New Jersey.

*: Correction. This article originally stated only select users had access to the promotion, as I was unable to locate it. That was due to my own incompetence, however. It’s available to all Canadian users at the moment, myself included.

According to site representatives, CardHunt has proven to be one of PokerStars’s more successful initiatives since its shift in focus from high-volume (“reg”) players to more casual ones (“recs”). This is despite the fact that the site actually lost traffic when the first iteration of the promo launched, and the latest experiment, on, has recently been pulled in favor of a duplicate of the .com site’s recent Jacks or Better promotion.

It’s hard to tell, just looking at traffic numbers, what effect a given promotion has actually had, however, because there are typically competing factors at work. PokerStars naturally has better data available to its teams internally, so it may well be that CardHunt was successful in mitigating anticipated losses from other causes. In any case, the precursor to CardHunt, Winamax’s “Cash Game Bingo,” was very successful, and plenty of other operators have joined PokerStars in coming up with their own variations on the basic idea.

A permanent fixture?

The focus of Jones’s piece on the promotion is on speculation that it might become a permanent feature of PokerStars, rather than a limited-time promotion. This speculation is based on a combination of information given during PokerStars owner Amaya’s second quarter earnings call, that some sort of permanent CardHunt-like feature was in the works, and reports that the trial version is more deeply integrated with the PokerStars client than the average promotion.

I think this is a very reasonable guess, not only for the reasons that Jones points out, but also because the details of the promotion seem designed to manipulate players’ behavior in specific ways. Typically, promotions are meant to encourage losing players to redeposit, new players to sign up, and intermittent players to start logging in on a daily basis.

When that’s the goal, the promotion is usually structured so as to make it easy to win a prize (e.g. missions which involve playing five Spin-and-Go’s, or winning a few cash game hands), and the randomized payouts are usually quite progressive, with multiple jackpots with ever-diminishing odds and ever-greater dollar figures attached. That’s not what seems to be going on with CardMatch.

Theme and variations

What all of these promotions do have in common is pretty simple: Players are given a set of cards that they have to “collect” in some manner or another. Upon finishing a grid, the player receives a random prize of some sort, usually cash. Sometimes the grid resets every time it is completed, other times the promotion is on a fixed schedule, with the grid resetting every day, usually, whether or not the player has completed it.

The original PokerStars CardHunt promotion was on such a 24-hour schedule, had a grid of between 16 and 20 cards, and allowed players to “collect” only their own hole cards, and then only when winning the hand. Players could also collect some of their cards at one table, and continue working on their grid at another table, another stake level, and even switching back and forth between Zoom and regular tables, or between 6-Max and Full Ring. Prizes were usually $1 or $2.50, but payouts in the $5-25 range were not particularly uncommon, while the $5,000 jackpot would hit only one time in 200,000.

CardMatch, on the other hand, is session-specific (that is, progress is lost when the player leaves the game) and on a much quicker schedule, one based on hands played rather than a 12- or 24-hour cycle. On the other hand, there’s no requirement to win a hand to collect cards, and the board cards are collected as well as the player’s own hole cards: the only requirement is that the player must still be in the hand for the given street, in order for the corresponding community card or cards to be collected.

That last requirement is made necessary by the fact that the promotion apparently applies only to Zoom games. A player who folds in Zoom won’t see the remaining community cards at all, so by restricting the promotion to Zoom players, PokerStars has effectively made the rule “if you see it, you’ve collected it.” As for payouts, the structure is considerably flatter: Players can earn a prize up to three times per day, rather than once, but 99% of the time that prize is in the $0.50-$1.50 range. The top prize available is a $1,000 jackpot, but it comes in just 0.05% of the time, 10 times more frequently than that of the original CardHunt.

Rakeback for recs

All of these modifications seem in keeping with PokerStars’s overall direction. Each seems calculated to maximize the interest and value of the promotion to players who log in erratically to play short sessions (recs, in other words), while being more or less useless to high-volume, regular players, especially those accustomed to multi-tabling. It’s easy to see when you break it down:

  • Zoom Only: Fast fold poker in general (including PokerStars’s Zoom) is appealing to recreational players for a few reasons. It’s fast-paced, of course, and lets a player get a reasonable numbers of hands played in a much shorter time window, making it ideal for short sessions. At the same time, it’s so fast that the advantage of multi-tabling is seriously reduced – the table maximums for Zoom and non-Zoom tables on PokerStars indicate the site considers a Zoom table to require three times as much attention. Finally, the continually randomized seating of Zoom play makes so-called “bum hunting” (strategic table selection to play only against known weak opponents) impossible, which serves to protect recreational players from professionals to an extent.
  • Predictable Payouts: Although big numbers have marketing value when it comes to announcing a new promotion, most of those which emphasize the size rather than probability of a jackpot tend to fizzle after the first week, as the recreational players notice that the amounts they’re actually receiving amount to pocket change. Meanwhile, payouts in the $0.50-$1.50 range may not sound like much, but it is possible to earn three per day, so a recreational player playing $0.05/$0.10 can collect about a quarter of a buy-in per day, fairly consistently. Looked at that way, it amounts to a fairly significant rakeback, but only for those low-volume, low-stakes players that PokerStars is currently working on keeping in the game.
  • Attainable Jackpots: The 0.05% figure is pretty key, as it’s quite a high probability as jackpots go. Since the jackpot is $1000, the 0.05% odds mean that it represents only 5 cents in statistical equity per payout, but if it turns out that Jones’s guess is correct and the promotion does turn out to be permanent or at least a long-term feature, the odds of a given user winning it at some point start to look pretty decent. 0.05% works out to one in 2,000, and a player could theoretically win up to 1,095 prizes in a year. Few will come close to that, of course, but the fact that they’re on the same order of magnitude means that it’s not an unrealistic dream for a recreational player to chase, and those who are members of a circle of friends who all play will, within a year or two, be pretty likely to have seen someone they know hit the jackpot.
  • Change in Preflop Dynamics: At the penny stakes, where players are most likely to be paying attention to the promotion and actively trying to complete their grids, the rules of the promotion incentivize a style of play more closely resembling low-stakes live play. You only collect two cards when you fold preflop, but seeing a flop gets you another three. At that point, if you don’t have a hand worth continuing with, you can fold and repeat. That means that players adjusting their strategy to the promotion will be likely to start limping more and calling more preflop raises when they’re close to completing a grid, then folding when they miss the flop. One common complaint made by recreational players about online play is that the aggressive style of play means you don’t get to see as many cards, which is less fun. Of course, that also makes the games softer for those serious about making a profit, which, in addition to the effective rakeback supplied by the promotion itself, may make the penny stakes less of an inescapable raketrap than they are at the moment.
  • One-More-Hand Effect: The frequent resets combined with rapid acquisition of cards mean that players will often be in a position where they are close to completing a grid, but will forfeit the chance of doing so if they stand up. That means there will often be the temptation to extend a session for a few more hands, and perhaps even attempt the next grid as well, if the frustration of having missed the last one by a single card is too great. In particular, if players who tend to sit out on the big blind also start extending their sessions when a grid is nearing completion, it may take a while to have those two occurrences line up. That would make little difference for the play time of regulars, who put in long sessions to begin with, but could result in a substantial percentile increase in the hands played by recreational players who tend to play just a few orbits at a time, especially mobile users.

Taking all those factors into account, I would expect that Jones’s hypothesis will prove true, and that this turns out to be at least the first draft of whatever new incentives structure PokerStars implements: it’s fun, it feels like gambling, it ensures most of the money ends up with players who will proceed to lose it again at the tables, and the details seem crafted to encourage playing habits that fall into the category of “good for the ecosystem.” The regs will hate it of course, especially if we see another small rake increase to pay for it, but anyone who thinks PokerStars cares what they think at this point hasn’t been paying attention.

Update: Having tried it out now, it is indeed very easy to complete a grid. My attempts were split roughly evenly between success, getting down to one card and failing, and cancelling after a bad start, which you’re allowed to do ten hands in. Overall, it took me 242 hands at 6-Max Zoom to win my three prizes for the day, or about an hour of play.

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