Changes at Online Poker Sites a Punishment or Attempt to Change Behaviors?

Steve Ruddock : February 21st, 2016

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On Saturday evening I went on Joey Ingram’s Poker Life Podcast to talk about the Global Poker League, the changes occurring at PokerStars, and a few other poker topics. While discussing “the why” behind recent changes made by PokerStars, I brought up my belief that PokerStars isn’t trying to eliminate or punish certain players, rather the site was trying to change the behaviors of these players.

As usual, when discussing these types of nuanced concepts in a conversation I had difficulty explaining them in a clear, concise way – the written word is a much better medium for me. So let’s see if I can clean it up a bit in print, with lots of assistance from the backspace and delete keys.

You can watch my appearance on the Poker Life Podcast here:

What behavior is PokerStars trying to eliminate

I’m of the opinion that the behavior PokerStars would like to curtail is mass multi-tabling where player profits are derived almost exclusively from rewards. This won’t be easy, or an easy transition, as this was the behavior the site was promoting for many years – play more and earn more rewards – as online poker sites long ascribed to the idea that the more tables running the more rake they’ll collect.

Unfortunately, mass multi-tabling led to unanticipated problem. The style of play required to play dozens of tables is tight and boring, game theory optimal (GTO) AKA robotic, and prevents chat interactions.

What a mass multi-tabler looks like to a casual player is a robot. Think about it, what does someone sitting at 24 tables, playing very few hands, playing them in a predictable (same raise-sizing) manner, who never interacts with the other players in chat, look like to you?

This style of play makes it difficult to play optimally, as you can’t focus the necessary attention on your opponents and must rely on data and a GTO strategy. But with rewards you don’t need to beat the game, you can break even or even be a slight loser and make plenty of money from rewards.

Furthermore, by playing more tables, online poker players are able to play lower stakes and still post a solid win rate thanks to rewards. This means casual and new players encounter solid players much sooner than they do in a brick & mortar card room.

What behavior does PokerStars want to promote

PokerStars’ goal with their recent changes (in my opinion) is to reward skillful play rather than tight volume-based play. The site appears to be trying to shift to a brick & mortar based poker hierarchy, where players must compete at a certain stake level to earn a certain amount of money per hour. Under the old system (which rewarded volume) players could just open more tables of low stakes games to increase their win-rate, which makes moving up in stakes unnecessary.

The change PokerStars wants (again, in my opinion), is the difference between leaving a table with more money than you sat down with vs. leaving the table with the same amount of money but receiving rewards from the site.

The logical rebuttal to this is: but won’t that mean less tables, and therefore less rake for PokerStars?

In the short-run it might, as players start playing fewer and fewer tables, and mass multi-tablers are winnowed from the site. However, eventually there should be a leveling off as players grow accustomed to the new changes and change their playing behaviors.

Furthermore, there is the not so subtle change to the reward structure that will help offset this. Maybe PokerStars does see the number of tables decrease, but since they’re paying out less rakeback they should make the same or even more in overall rake.

For PokerStars it’s better to collect 80% of the rake at 1,000 tables than 65% of the rake at 1,200 tables. If each table generated just a dollar in rake, PokerStars would collect $800 in the first scenario and $780 in the second.

The more theoretical part of this shift towards skill over volume is whether or not the players will be able to maintain their win rates by playing fewer tables but at higher stakes.

For this part of the new model to work, two things must happen:

  • The games will have to get softer with an influx of new players;
  • Players must learn to adjust, and move away from GTO strategies towards optimal strategy based on the specific table dynamics.

I have little doubt that the very smart poker players who’ve been beating the games can make the necessary adjustments, and learn to live with the higher variance but better win-rates of playing fewer tables but at higher stakes.

The big question mark is whether or not changing the behaviors of winning players will lead to an influx of new players.

I’m optimistic it will.

Creating a good first experience

First, if good players are forced to move up in stakes because they feel the $25 tables are no longer capable of providing them with a living (instead of being beatable for $20/hour with rakeback a player may now find they can only squeeze $12/hour out of these tables and therefore must move up to maintain a $20/hour win-rate) it increases a casual player’s ability to go on a nice run and win a couple hundred dollars from a single $25 or $100 deposit.

Under the old model, these casual players were running into the rakeback grinder buzz saw at the $10 level, which means their run-good (at the $2 and $5 levels) was unlikely to produce any meaningful results. If we can shift where this buzz saw occurs, and maybe move it to the $50 level, more casual players will be able to run it up and have a good experience.

As I opined on Ingram’s podcast, if a player deposits $25 and runs it up to $300 in a single night, even if they then lose it all, the seed is planted that winning in poker is possible.

Theory #1: marketing to new players will create softer games

Second, the theory is PokerStars will be able to use this money they are no longer returning to winning, high-volume players, to market to new players and make the overall player pool softer. If this does happen, winning players should see their win-rates increase, perhaps enough to offset their loss of rewards.

Theory #2: looser play will create “better” games

If former rakeback grinders shift from a nitty style to a looser style the games should be better. My feeling is the winning players will win more (since they’re going from GTO to just plain old optimal) but at the same time variance will increase, and it’s this variance that will give casual players more opportunities to run it up.

As I said to Ingram, the goal isn’t to make casual players lose slower; it’s to give them the chance to have a good experience, and not feel poker is a boring, unbeatable game. As I explained above, a casual player who deposits $100, and goes on a short heater over 100 hands and is up several hundred dollars, and then loses it all in 10 minutes, is more likely to redeposit than a player whose $100 deposit was slowly ground down over the course of 1,000 hands.

A few possible ways to influence the way people play

On the Poker Life Podcast I offered a couple of different ways an online poker site could bring about this behavioral change other than rewards cuts. Namely, adding antes to No Limit Holdem games, or adding a third blind as a means to force players to open up their games, and make ultra-tight play negative EV.

Essentially, players will have to play looser to overcome the cost per round.

Instead of costing $3 per round to play $1/$2 NLHE ($.33/hand at a nine-handed table and $.50/hand at a six-handed table), with the addition of even a $.25 ante the cost per round increases to $5.25 at a nine-handed table, or about $.58/hand. At a six-handed table the cost per round would be $4.50, or $.75/hand.

A third blind (a second big blind) would accomplish pretty much the same thing.

By forcing players to open up their games it makes it harder to multi-table. The more hands you’re playing the more attention you have to give to each table, especially when the hands are on the cusp of profitability to begin with.

Another possibility I’ve suggested in the past is to devalue rakeback and rewards as the number of tables a player is participating in increases.

For example, a player might earn full rakeback (based on their VIP standing) on their first table; 50% on their second through fourth tables; 25% on their fifth through eighth tables; and no rakeback whatsoever on any additional tables.

If a player’s VIP status conveys 40% rakeback and they were playing in 10 $1/$2 No limit Holdem games, they would earn:

  • 40% rakeback at one table
  • 20% rakeback at three tables
  • 10% rakeback at four tables
  • 0% rakeback at two tables

Theoretically this would lead to players playing less tables and playing higher stakes to maintain their win rates.

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