Dara O’Kearney and David Lappin Talk About the State of Tournament Poker and Changes at PokerStars Events

Steve Ruddock : September 7th, 2016


Under the stewardship of Amaya, PokerStars has instituted a number of controversial changes. The changes, most notable among these were the VIP and rake adjustments targeting high-volume players, were initially limited to the company’s online product, but more recently, the changes have started creeping into PokerStars’ live events.

The changes at live events appeared to come to a head at the recently concluded PokerStars EPT Barcelona series, as critics took to social media and the poker forums to vent about their experiences.

Two of the most vocal critics are respected Irish poker players Dara “Doke” O’Kearney and David Kilmartin Lappin. Dara and David are best known for their online accomplishments, but the pair are veterans of the live poker scene (playing 70-80 tournaments a year) and have contributed to livestream commentaries and co-hosted the Irish poker podcast, The Chip Race.

Both men wrote about their EPT Barcelona experience on their blogs (David’s blog and Dara’s blog), and even though I disagree with them on several points, I wanted to give Dara and David a more mainstream platform to air their grievances and rebut their critics.

Here’s what they had to say.

Steve: In recent blog posts you were both highly critical of the PokerStars EPT Barcelona, and wrote about several negative experiences there. Do you think this is venue-specific problem, or more of a degradation in the quality of the PokerStars branded tournament series as a whole?

First of all, I would like to thank you for affording Dara and I this opportunity. Having written your article on August 31st, you were open to discussing your opinions on twitter, admittedly not the easiest format to communicate. That is creditable since the content of your article was unlikely to go down well with players. While we strongly disagree on a lot, we clearly agree on the importance of a rigorous and respectful debate.

The blog I wrote was my most read blog this year but it was Dara’s in particular that got a lot of attention, shining a spotlight on some of the differences between festivals run by different sites. Do I believe that the problems we encountered are venue-specific to Barcelona? Good question. In many ways, Estrellas/EPT Barcelona is a victim of its own success. Growing in numbers every year brings administrative problems. Four years ago, registration at the event was a mess as the organizers were avalanched by the huge numbers. This lead to hour-long queues, an unacceptable inconvenience for the players. The following year, this problem was solved thanks to an improved online process and greater man-power. The year after that, space became an issue for the first time since breaking out of the casino and into the Arts function room. The solution was to hire a secondary function room and annex the space above a water feature by erecting a marquee. These were clever, practical solutions to real problems faced by Natalie Besate and her team.

Dara: To their credit, the Pokerstars team have generally ironed out problems by the following year, with the notable exception of the Arts Hotel, which continues to be a major source of frustration to many players. In fact, the 2015 festival was many people’s live highlight of the year (me included). Having taken several years to get this point, they mystifyingly diverged from “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” this year and made a number of changes that proved very unpopular, including 10 AM starts (which recreational players in particular hated: nobody wants to have to drag themselves out of bed that early on vacation), the removal of most of the lower buy-in events aimed at recreational players budgets in favor of more and more high rollers aimed at a few dozen elite pros, the introduction of a large number of new sub-standard dealers (the EPT was known in the past for hiring the best dealers), 20% payouts that resulted in the min cash being essentially a refund (particularly unpopular with recreational players who at least want their accommodation and travels expenses covered if they cash) and the discouragement of railing.

David: This year, the festival was bigger than ever, evidenced by record breaking attendances in main events. Pokerstars couldn’t build a tunnel to the Nou Camp so their solution was to drive up the cost of play in various ways – there were fewer sub-1K tournaments, fewer side events with 40minute+ clocks, turbo side events were made even faster, structures had levels removed and bigger antes were introduced. The higher the buy-in, the less people who can afford to play. The faster the structure, the more efficient the turn-over with a seat at each table often being recycled as many as 5 times per day. The problem with the decision to drive up the cost of play is that it ostracizes many recreational players who satellited online into the Estrellas Main Event. They want to play something after they bust the Main and, as Dara said, a nightly €220 or €330 is what their poker budget permits. The other problem is the value for money that players experience. Poker players are not stupid. They see that there are no €550 or €1100 events with 40 minute clocks and that playing two turbo tournaments charged at 13.4% rake is the only game in town. There is a tipping point to their tolerance for being greedily gouged but the proof of this won’t be found in the bottom line of this festival. It will, I believe, be reified by the attendances at upcoming stops.

Dara: To come back to the second part of your question; Over the years, I have seen a more general gradual degradation at Stars branded events – lower quality goody bags and t-shirts, worse hotels that cost more, the gradual phasing out of top class dealers in favour of apparent novices, and a shift in emphasis from those new dealers from friendliness and enhanced player experience to efficiency and rigid (but not always consistent) enforcement of rules, less TV and live-stream coverage (a real attraction to recreational players).

David: I imagine every venue poses its own unique challenges but the challenges posed by Estrellas/EPT Barcelona do not necessarily require solutions which degrade the quality of Pokerstars tournaments. Pokerstars don’t need to hold 60 events at a 10-day festival. They could hold 40 better structured events with several lower buy-in tournaments. Yes, they would rake less but they would still run a profitable festival. Importantly though, it would be a festival that all the players would enjoy. Remember, the vast majority of these players are the same people who rake tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on the mobile client. Pokerstars press releases in the past two years have insisted that the poker eco-system was broken, that the recreational players were not getting enough bang for their buck and that the measures taken by them were for the good of those players. It strikes me, however, that at no point did they lower rake or improve structures, two actions which would unquestionably give all players more bang for their buck. It strikes me that all these changes that they said improved the recreational player’s poker experience coincidentally benefit their bottom line. It strikes me therefore, as discussed in my blog, that Pokerstars are in serious danger of being like that farmer who wants to increase profit from his land and whose greed ultimately reaps him corn-cockles and weeds.

Steve: How much of the blame do you place at the feet of Amaya, and why?

Dara: Before I answer that, let me just point out that I have no real inside track on this apart from bits and pieces I’ve heard from people within Pokerstars. So my view is just the opinion of an outsider looking in. From that viewpoint, it seems like every recent development is aimed at short term profit rather than long term viability of the poker ecosystem, or enhanced customer experience. That ties in with a lot of what friends inside Stars say to me: that it’s no longer the same company and the focus is much more short term. I would argue that that’s a foolish objective, and one they are not even meeting in general. For example, the loyalty program changes (which appeared as a total money grab at the time due to the timing and manner of the announcement) was supposed to boost profits and allow a greater marketing spend to help grow the market by attracting more new players, but all the recent financial reports I’ve seen say that earning from poker are flat.

If you are effectively charging customers more but only making the same money, that means you are shrinking the market, not expanding it. Whether this is down to Amaya or might have happened anyway once Stars reached their current position of dominance close to monopoly doesn’t really matter. What matters to players is that a company which seems to feel invulnerable to customer dissatisfaction be shaken out of this complacency. A friend who worked (as I did) in IT summed it up perfectly as “Stars are now IBM just before Microsoft came along”.

David: In terms of responsibility, Dara and I both have a lot of friends in Pokerstars, people who I know work very hard and are responsible for so many good things in poker so it is tempting to lay blame at the feet of a faceless corporation. Without doubt, communication has been a big issue since the take-over, both the lack of it at times and the tone and veracity of it when it press releases were made. The poker community are a smart, sophisticated bunch who know a snake-oil salesman when they see him and are particularly insulting when that snake oil is labeled ‘medicine’.

That said, it is redundant to blame Amaya. Sure, there have been many unpopular changes since the Scheinbergs sold up, and the reneged promise to Supernova Elites was just plain wrong, but it gets you nowhere to create a rigid dichotomy between the pre- and post-Amaya eras. Pokerstars is owned by a Canadian gaming giant which is, at the time of writing this, publicly listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. It has a lot of debt. It has shareholders. Its purpose is to make money. It is better therefore to appeal to the powers-that-be in terms they understand. I believe the recent changes made to the live product (and many changes to the online product) are bad for business. There will probably see greater short-term gains, the profits for this quarter may be larger and Amaya’s share price might well go up but that does not mean the company is doing the right thing. The regular customers, upon whose business Pokerstars rely, are hurt and without doubt, their loyalty is waning.

Steve: In American politics, pollsters often ask people about the direction they think the country is headed; do you think tournament poker as a whole is headed in the right direction or the wrong direction?

David: I think live tournament poker on the whole is fine but the people in charge have to appreciate that the game is simply contracting – it’s not dying. Several industry professional I know, some within Pokerstars, have expressed an almost panicky negative sentiment about the state of the game. They feel like mistakes were made with the millennials, a demographic that are now lost forever. I simply don’t accept this. The game is the game and the aspects of it that drew in me and others still exist. They just have to be communicated better.

Killing the dream of becoming a poker pro is a bad strategy but it is one that has been adopted by Pokerstars. The idea that a person can deposit a hundred bucks, or better yet play freerolls, and parlay that into making a living from poker is so fundamental and it’s what separates our great game from other forms of gambling. Removing that carrot is a tactical error and a knee-jerk reaction by the powers-that-be who are failing to realize that the game is experiencing some course correction after a period of boom. Much like the pro player who hits a big one early in his career and afterward endures some bad variance, Pokerstars should be sticking to their original game-plan, perhaps with a few tweaks rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Dara: I think some organizers are clearly headed in the right direction and some are going backwards. For example, I flew to Barcelona from an MPN tour stop in Tallinn. That Tallinn stop, and also other MPN tour games I have attended, were a model in what sites with a limited budget can do to attract recreational players and give them a great vacation experience. It doesn’t surprise me that MPN is one of the few networks currently growing its market share. They are not alone: Unibet and Winamax also have a very good track record on this front, as had Stars until recently. The WSOP and WPT seem to be at least holding their own as far as player satisfaction goes. So overall there’s no major problem.

David: In terms of specifics, there have been loads of changes over the last decade, adopted by most organizers, which have refined and improved the game. 300bbs deep with no ante is a painful ordeal and most tournaments have minimized or removed that phase altogether. This has allowed tournaments of set duration to have more play later, when it really matters. A further improvement, in my opinion, would be slightly shorter deep levels. So, if it’s a 25K stack with an hour clock, I think the 3 pre-ante levels – 50/100, 75/150 and 100/200 – could reasonably be of 45 minutes duration. I’d also like to see the clock reduced on final tables at 4-handed, 3-handed and heads-up (an hour clock going to 50minutes, 40 minutes and 30 minutes heads-up).

I hope there will be further standardization when it comes to rules, structures and even practical stuff like chip colors. I think it should be first-card off the deck, I think players should be allowed to talk about their hands when in a heads-up pot and while I understand the player frustration with gratuitous tanking, I’m against the shot-clock as I think it’s unfair to pressure inexperienced players who may need more time. Railing should be actively encouraged and not discouraged as was the case in Barcelona. Also, this 10am starts nonsense should be consigned to the scrap-heap and the person whose idea it was be publicly flogged, preferably at 1pm so the poker community can get a lie-in before going to watch. Ideally, a proper independent representative body for the players would be created, similar to what they have in snooker. It would put together a book of standards and practices, something that included fair rake ratios on buy-in levels with the tournament’s structure in mind. Then, if poker organizers want that body’s seal of approval, they must adhere to those standards.

Steve: In your opinion, what steps can PokerStars and other tour operators take to improve the customer experience?

David: Pokerstars need to take a page out of the Pokerstars handbook. I think they just about perfected the live experience 4-5 years ago. Kirsty Thompson did an incredible job with the UKIPT, building a brilliant regional brand. They pumped out seats through the mobile client with 2-3 satellites per night. Allowing players to have the tournament dollars for multiple seats was a master-stroke, ensuring plenty of liquidity. There were hundreds of regulars. I barely ever missed a stop. David Curtis has done a great job, continuing in that tradition, adding the personal touch, making the regulars feel appreciated. The other regional tours were great too – I used to play about half the Eureka, Estrellas and FPS events.

I guess that’s why Barcelona was so disappointing and why it’s sad to see the dismantling of Pokerstars’ regional tier. It’s become obvious to the players that Pokerstars want all their live stops to make them money where it used to be okay if a tour simply washed its face. I genuinely believe that any money put towards free drinks at the parties, the goody-bags but above all, the well structured and fairly raked tournaments was more than paid back by the loyalty to the mobile client it engendered. Tour operators should always feel like they are building something that both complements and augments their primary business as online operators. At the moment, it feels like Pokerstars is sapping what it can from the remaining good will that exists.

Dara: I agree wholeheartedly. A week after Barcelona, I attended a regional Stars event, UKIPT London. This was a great event in the tradition of earlier UKIPTs, great fun for both recreational players and pros alike. All of the sticking points from Barcelona were redressed. no 10 AM start, no 12 hour days, no 20% payouts, no elimination of affordable side events in favor of high rollers, very friendly staff, great dealers, fun atmosphere at the tables, and my friends were able to rail me on the final table from a great vantage point. Stars need to ask themselves whether they just want to squeeze every cent of short term profit from their events, or they want to create an event that generates good will and word of mouth. And having done that, entrust and enable the right people with a track record of delivering to keep doing what they’ve done in the past.

The EPT Malta schedule announced looks a lot better, but the proof will be in the pudding. It will be interesting to see how the numbers there are, given the overwhelming negative sentiment post-Barca. The emphasis always needs to be creating a positive experience for recreational players. Pros will always follow the recreational players, without whom there is no game. My fear is so many recreational players were turned off by the deeply unpleasant and stressful conditions they endured in Barcelona that they may not want to attend another EPT. An even bigger fear is that many may be lost to live poker forever.

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