Lowering the Rake Is Not the Way to Attract Recreational Players

Steve Ruddock : June 27th, 2016

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As poker’s popularity continues to wane, there are no shortage of ideas when it comes to what needs to be done to reengage with the masses and, to borrow a line from Donald Trump, make poker great again.

There is little debate that the poker ecosystem has grown more and more imbalanced in recent years, containing too many predators and not enough prey. But the solution to the problem is a hotly contested debate.

Some of the bolder ideas include, the creation of games with less skill and more gamble (Spin & Go’s are a good example of this); improved mobile capabilities; faster paced games; and even assimilation with eSports and the sportfication of poker, as the Global Poker League’s Alex Dreyfus has taken to calling it.

For the more purist-minded, poker isn’t broken, it’s only mildly sprained, and simply needs a bit of tweaking in order to bring the ecosystem back into order. One of the common refrains I see from this camp is to reduce the rake, particularly at lower stakes games.

The idea they are putting forth is a lower rake gives people more play, which can lead two things

  1. It allows them to better hone their skills by getting more practice in.
  2. The more time they get from each dollar is seen as a better value.

This notion that lowering the rake gives people more play is something I disputed in a previous column, in which I explained why making a game beatable by lowering the rake doesn’t necessarily mean new players will last longer in these games, as it could attract more sharks to these tables. In this column I’m going to discuss a different problem with this line of thinking, namely that a longer stay leads to a better customer experience, or the feeling that you’re getting better value for your money.

More of the same

The reason the idea of prolonging a customer’s stay doesn’t hold water for me is that you don’t grow your business and retain your customers by giving them more of a shitty product, or by lowering the cost of the shitty product.

If a comedy show sucks, patrons aren’t going to come back because you’ve added two more crappy comedians to the lineup for the next show, or because you give them a voucher for a free drink. This might attract some customers, but for the most part these are the customers the club doesn’t want.

If a restaurant’s food is terrible, giving them more of it, or for a cheaper price, doesn’t make it any better. Again, you might get some new people walking through the door, but not the people you are hoping to attract.

The proper way for a business to address bad food or a bad show is pretty simple; improve your cuisine or make the show better. Simply put, you improve the experience not the length of time or the amount of the product you offer.

Continuing on with our comedy show analogy. Sometimes this means charging the customer more, with the business increasing prices so they can attract better comedians. Sometimes it means giving the customer less, by cutting the show from two hours to one and a half, in order to get rid of some of the unfunny deadweight.

The point is, the time spent engaging in a specific activity doesn’t always correlate to the quality of the experience. Not every three hour movie is better than a 90 minute movie.

Getting back to poker, even if we assume I’m completely wrong that the lowering of the rake to a beatable level will simply attract better players to lower stakes games, extending a players’ lifespan isn’t going to lead to a better experience. Now, if you have a good product to begin with, extending a customer’s lifespan helps retain them and attracts new players, but if the ecosystem remains broken it doesn’t do much good. In and of itself, lowering the rake isn’t fix to what is ailing poker.

It’s about action

The solution, as I see it, is to force action.

This is the poker equivalent of having a really funny comedian on the stage. And in these situations you’re willing to pay top dollar for the experience.

What’s more enjoyable for the average player: Getting their entire stack in preflop three ways holding AJ vs. 66 and QQ, or slowly getting blinded away in a tight aggressive game where they stand little to no shot of doubling up short of a cooler?

If a player doesn’t play for the longrun (most fun players don’t) prolonging their time is a moot point. In fact, most fun players don’t want to devote hours to playing poker. They’d rather have the opportunity to double and triple their stack in 10 minutes in a game that has a long-term expectation of -5BB/100 than grind out small wins in a game with an expectation of -1BB/100.

Frankly, the more all-ins a fun player sees during their time at the table, the better experience they will likely have.

This fundamental lack of understanding is why so many winning poker players believe recreational players want to grind out profits and work their way up the poker ranks. Recreational players don’t want to grind out anything. By and large, they (fun players) play poker because there is a chance, just like other games in the casino, they can book a good session and a big win. If you take that away from them they stop playing.

We could set up a social experiment to see what people prefer: A slot machine paid back 98% but it’s largest payout was 5x, or a slot machine that paid 95% but had six and seven figure jackpots.

In my opinion, it’s not about presenting them with more boring play for their dollar, it’s about presenting them with more action during their time at the table, no matter how brief.

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