PartyPoker has found itself in hot water after attempting to correct a minor error in one of its highest stakes tournaments and creating what some see as a much larger problem as a result. It’s no small blunder either, as the event in question is the latest instalment of its “MILLIONS” series: a heavily-hyped, multi-day, $5,200 buy-in, $5 million guaranteed behemoth of a tournament.
The error in question had to do with the timing of the conclusion of Day 1A. Quite simply, the tournament was supposed to end at a certain time, and didn’t, due to a software glitch. Because it happened in the middle of the night, it took PartyPoker staff roughly an hour to become aware of the problem, decided what to do about it, and stop the tournament. During that time, naturally, play continued, chips changed hands and some players busted.
The damage done
At first glance, it might seem that the problem is relatively minor and doesn’t need to be corrected for at all; though some players benefitted from the extra time played and others were hurt by it, the number of chips in play didn’t change, so the average player neither benefitted nor lost out.
However, there are a few problems with this. Firstly, the structure of the tournament is such that the starting flights play down close to the bubble: Flight 1B, for example, played from 233 down to 37 players, or 16% of the starting field. Given the speed of online play, leaving the problem uncorrected would be equivalent to forcing roughly a quarter of the players in a tournament to play an extra seven or eight orbits with the bubble approaching, while the rest of the tournament goes on break. That’s clearly unfair to the shorter stacks in that situation.
The next most obvious possibility, and the one which a plurality of people feel should have been the one adopted by PartyPoker, would be to add an extra hour to every other Day 1 flight. This would have been simple to implement, since the problem occurred in the first flight. However, here too there’s a problem.
How should party poker have handled the drama in the 5k 5mm guar
— Mark Herm (@dipthrong) December 5, 2017
You see, the intended end time of the Day 1A flight was not just given in the tournament lobby, but announced at the tables by way of a countdown clock. That’s a useful feature, assuming it works properly, but here the clock hit zero and play continued. What that meant is that many players who had no other tournaments open at that time proceeded to shut down their clients and go to bed once they figured they were not going to be dealt another hand before the last few seconds ticked off. As a result, they were sitting out, getting blinded off for that hour of unintended extra play.
That being the case, simply ignoring the problem or adding an hour to the other flights would not fix the problem, as it would penalize players unfairly for having left the table thinking the tournament was over for the day. Compensating those players in chips would be unfair to players in later flights, as it would inflate the average chipstack of a Day 1 entrant. Compensating them financially would be expensive, and might not be to everyone’s liking, since there’s no perfect method of determining what X amount of chips equates to in dollar equity for a given player given their play style and skill edge versus the field.
The least-worst option?
Having looked at all these options and consulted with its players’ consultant and ambassador Patrick Leonard, what PartyPoker elected to do was to run the clock back. That is, stacks were reset to what they had been at the time the tournament had originally supposed to end and players who had busted were put back into the tournament. Objectively speaking, this is fair, as it leaves the situation exactly as it would have been if the problem had not occurred in the first place.
But it’s a common problem in poker that what is fair and what feels fair are different things. In particular, for those who had managed to accumulate chips during the extra time, having those extra chips taken away felt like outright theft. This is due in large part to the way things work in live poker, where this sort of turning back of the clock is impossible for practical reasons. If a problem is discovered, it is corrected going forward, but once the result of a hand has been accepted, there’s no recourse. If the problem is serious enough to undermine the integrity of the tournament as a whole – in the case of the counterfeit chips at the Borgata, for instance – the tournament is simply cancelled.
Generally speaking, online poker follows the conventions of live poker, even when better options are available due to the technology. This is precisely because players’ feelings about what’s fair are guided less by logic and more by pre-established expectations. It’s debatable, then, whether Leonard and PartyPoker actually made the right call in selecting a recourse that’s objectively more equitable, but runs counter to those expectations.
A painful predicament
What’s not debatable is that it’s a PR disaster for PartyPoker and likely would have been no matter what solution was selected. No option would have been agreeable to both those who’d lost and won chips, while also being fair to those entering subsequent flights. And poker players who feel they’ve been wronged are notoriously difficult to appease. PartyPoker split up $75,000 in tournament credit between the affected players by way of apology, or a little over $300 apiece, but that’s little consolation to those who feel they’ve been robbed of many thousands of dollars’ worth of equity. Those players are likely to remain vocal about their dissatisfaction for some time to come, and as PokerStars has been discovering of late, a small group of loudly unhappy customers can do a disproportionate amount of damage to a company’s reputation.
The timing is particularly terrible for PartyPoker, as it has been funneling a huge amount of money into courting precisely that demographic of cantankerous grinders which has been abandoning PokerStars in droves and making a fuss the whole way. That strategy has been successful for PartyPoker so far, in that it has nearly overtaken 888poker as the second-largest western-facing dot-com site after PokerStars. That group is fickle and prone to carrying grudges, however, and too many missteps like this could cause them to abandon PartyPoker as they did PokerStars. If that were to happen, all the overlays, bonuses and rakeback PartyPoker has handed out to attract them will come to look like a hugely expensive mistake.
The good news is that MILLIONS has done very well despite the mistake and the ensuing controversy. Its four starting flights drew a combined 1,027 entries, managing to clear the $5 million guarantee if only narrowly. Leonard also says the structure he designed has played out just as he’d hoped, and that over 30% of the field qualified via satellite, which is a positive both for recreational players hoping for a life-changing score and for professionals looking for value. If this proves to be the worst mistake PartyPoker makes, they’ll likely do just fine, but it’s nonetheless an unfortunate stumble for a company betting all its chips on establishing a relationship of trust with the most difficult-to-please segment of the market.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada.