Mason Malmuth Jumps Into the Poker Ecology Debate

In a purposely shallow post on the 2+2 poker forum about fixing the poker ecology (the post was largely meant to spark debate), Mason Malmuth put forth six fixes for the much ballyhooed poker ecology. In the post, Malmuth qualifies his suggestions by saying he may not be right, and not to view these suggestions as a finished product.

The six suggestions were:

  1. Limit multi-tabling.
  2. End most of the bonuses for playing lots of hands.
  3. At the smallest stakes, leave the rake the same.
  4. At the next tier, but still small stakes, raise the rake.
  5. At the next tier and all higher games (except perhaps the biggest games), lower the rake significantly.
  6. At limit games, especially limit hold ’em and seven-card stud, lower the rake even more.

Without proper elucidation, the other posters at 2+2 were quite dismissive of most of the fixes put forth by Malmuth. However, I’ve actually spoken to Mason about this very topic not that long ago, and, even before seeing his explanations, know that his reasons for  espousing these solutions are solid.

In a companion Publisher’s Note in this month’s TwoPlusTwo Magazine, Mason went into a bit more depth about his proposed changes (something he also does later in the thread as he goes back and forth some of the posters), and his overarching goal, which is to restore balance between skill and luck in poker.

In Mason’s words, if this balance is reached, “the expert players will do well enough in the long run that they’ll have a decent long term win rate, but it also means that the recreational players will have enough winning sessions that they’ll keep coming back.”

With this new subtext, let’s look at each of Mason’s suggestions in turn. And why they’re far better thought out than people originally thought.

Point #1: Limit multi-tabling

Of all Mason’s ideas this received the least amount of blowback.

Limiting the number of tables a person can play makes sense, as mass multi-tabling necessitates a boring, tight strategy. This is a solid idea, and one I’ve espoused before myself. However, after some considerable thought on this topic I think the better way to go about this is to disincentivize multi-tabling, rather than putting a strict cap in place.

One way to disincentivize multi-tabling will be explained in Point #2.

Point #2: End most of the bonuses for playing lots of hands

I’m assuming Mason is referring to VIP rewards systems that are based on volume of play, not deposit bonuses. If so, I wholeheartedly agree with him – although the ideas below could just as easily be applied to clearing deposit bonuses too.

The best way to do this is to start rewarding players with VIP points based on the amount of time played (with some type of bright line based on the stakes played), not by how many hands a players plays, or by how much rake they are assigned. As noted above, this would disincentivize multi-tabling.

Essentially, it would be switching to a rewards system similar to what people will find in live poker rooms.

Point #3: At the smallest stakes, leave the rake the same

Point #4: At the next tier, but still small stakes, raise the rake

I’ve combined these two points because most people responding in the thread have lumped them together, and it’s also the points that have led to the most criticism.

The bulk of the posts focusing on these suggestions are somewhat ironically being made by people breaking down rake percentages in a very derisive way, and asking if Mason understands anything about online poker.

The reason this is ironic is because most of these people only have a first-level understanding of rake (who is actually paying it), and even less of an  understanding of what raising the rake means. Most just assume it puts more money in the card room’s pockets and in doing so, fewer people can overcome the rake to beat the game – they don’t get the behavioral changes it can cause or how it affects the player makeup of the games.

But when we further unpack these two suggestions, we start to see what this would actually accomplish.

What it accomplishes is something I’ve mentioned many times in the past; it creates a barrier between new and casual players and the sharks. An unbeatable or near unbeatable rake is the equivalent of a shark net around beaches, it won’t keep them all out, but for the most part the waters are pretty safe.

It goes against conventional wisdom, but yes, you are protecting new and casual players by implementing a near unbeatable rake. And just because a game is unbeatable, doesn’t mean people won’t beat it and use it as a stepping stone to other games. The long run only applies if you play the game for the long run. In the short run, terrible players can beat a game, even one with an ungodly rake, quite handily.

Point #5: At the next tier and all higher games (except perhaps the biggest games), lower the rake significantly

Once again, what Mason is suggesting seems counterintuitive to everything we’ve been told about rake. So, why is Mason suggesting this? Most of the responses argue that the rake is less impactful at these levels, and a much lower percentage of the pot, therefore these players should be able to afford paying a bit higher price. This is true, but with the level of competition win rates are pretty low in these games.

Furthermore, lowering the rake at higher stakes games does a few other things:

  1. It allows you to radically reduce rewards without getting crucified by the community.
  2. It makes these games more appealing to winning players.
  3. It provides a clear level of attainment for people who take poker seriously can strive for.

This is like installing a second shark net, but instead of keeping them out, it’s meant to keep them in, and instead of being content to play 8 tables of $1/$2 NLHE, smaller sharks may be enticed to play one or two tables of $5/$10 NLHE, where the rake is much lower – assuming the rake at $1/$2 is raised and the rake at $5/$10 is decreased.

Point #6: At limit games, especially limit hold ’em and seven-card stud, lower the rake even more

Mason’s goals seem to be focused on two things:

  1. Creating barriers between professional players and the majority of recreational players.
  2. Moving players out of games where skilled players win infrequently, and into games where the casual player will have more winning sessions.

In theory, these barriers should create an ecosystem where professional players are only feasting on the proverbial fish on a heater, or more experienced recreational players. They should keep the predators from eating all of the babies in the ecosystem before they mature.

In my opinion, the sweet spot Mason is talking about occurs when pros win 60% of their sessions, and casual players win somewhere between 40%, give or take a little.

With the way online Limit Holdem now plays, I’m not sure I would want casual players moving into these games. Incentivizing players to head to Stud tables, or even to Omaha 8 and Stud 8 tables would seem like a good way to create a better balance between winning and losing sessions.

Final thoughts

The key to finding the right balance is less about pushing players out of and into different games, and more about nudging them in the direction you want them to go. If you create the right incentives they’ll organically migrate to these games and they’ll think it was their idea all along.

Furthermore, while I like most of Mason’s suggestions, and agree that balancing skill and luck is important, I also believe he left one aspect of this unaddressed, and that is that recreational players not only need to win more frequently, but they have to be able to book big wins.

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