PokerStars and Rakeback Grinders: the Messiest Breakup – Part II

Alex Weldon : December 12th, 2015

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God help me, I never thought I’d say this, but I feel sorry for Daniel Negreanu. It’s hard to feel bad for a guy who wears his privilege like it’s cologne, but the situation he’s currently in is not something I would wish on anyone. On the one hand, he has his contractual obligations to PokerStars, and the changes they’re making, although unpopular, are something he himself has been saying is necessary for years. On the other hand, he’s also held the longstanding albeit unofficial job of being the voice of the professional poker community – a community which, by and large, is now calling for his employers to be tarred and feathered.

On Thursday, I described the situation between PokerStars and its high-volume professionals as resembling a couple going through a messy breakup. Continuing with that analogy, Kid Poker is in fact the metaphorical kid in this scenario, the child of the couple who is now deeply conflicted because he still holds loyalties to both his parents, who used to love but now suddenly hate each other.

Negreanu’s ability to express his feelings about the situation has been limited due to the requirements of his contract. As a paid representative for PokerStars, there’s only so much he can say about the situation publicly without getting sued for breach of contract. Still, he recently did an interview on Joe Ingram’s podcast, in which he was harshly critical not of the changes themselves, but the timing and manner in which they were communicated to players.

Laplante’s Twitter meltdown

Although Negreanu’s hands are tied when it comes to speaking against his employer publicly, a lot of what’s been going on behind the scenes came to light Wednesday night, by way of a series of private conversations leaked by Ryan Laplante.

Laplante has been perhaps the most vocal and obstinate opponent of the changes, haranguing PokerStars executives on Twitter on a daily basis and treating both PokerStars advocates and anyone with a nuanced view of the situation as an enemy. Laplante believes that the changes are motivated purely by shortsighted greed and that high-volume players are necessary for a site’s survival, and has repeatedly said that anyone who doesn’t agree with completely with his viewpoint is either stupid or lacking in integrity.

Given the extent to which he’s made a nuisance of himself, Laplante is quite likely exactly who Eric Hollreiser had in mind when he composed his needle-filled blog post on the upcoming changes and the results of the recent PokerStars player strike. Much of what was written therein seemed to me to be deliberately crafted to provoke as much rage as possible in someone with Laplante’s view of the situation… and it worked.

Laplante flew off the handle almost as soon as the blog post went up. He had apparently believed there was some chance that the player strike would persuade PokerStars to bend on the issue of extending Supernova and Supernova Elite benefits through 2016 as the players had demanded. Instead, Hollreiser gloated that the site had in fact done better during the strike, that the self-removal of high-volume players had confirmed that the changes would have their intended impact and that there would be no flexibility whatsoever in terms of implementing them.

Laplante’s anger was not so much directed at Hollreiser, however, as at Negreanu. This seemed an odd choice at first, as Negreanu’s only visible sin had been to share Hollreiser’s post on Twitter without commenting one way or another, which could be taken as tacit endorsement. Once Laplante began posting screenshots of their private communications, however, it became obvious that his anger was due to promises made in private, which had not been kept.

The first conversation with Negreanu that Laplante posted to Twitter (and has since taken down) dated back to early November. In it, Negreanu told Laplante that Supernova Elites losing their benefits in 2016 “won’t happen,” that he “won’t stand for it,” that it’s an issue that would cause him to end his relationship with PokerStars if not resolved to his satisfaction and that he’d told them as much.

The subsequent conversations – one in mid-November, then next just after Hollreiser’s blog post went up – involved Laplante attempting to hold Negreanu to his promise to quit if PokerStars did not back down. Negreanu defended himself and his decision to stay by saying that he felt he’d done everything he could, that by staying on he could continue to advocate for players in the future, and that he’d already gotten himself in enough trouble with the company over his comments on Ingram’s podcast.

Laplante then decided to take matters into his own hands, essentially threatening to out Negreanu to the community for what Laplante sees as a lack of integrity. He then followed through on the threat, posting the screenshots of their conversations on Twitter, calling Negreanu a “scumbag” and generally continuing to pressure him to quit or at least donate all the money he receives from PokerStars to charity.

Matt Glantz’s perspective

Reactions to Laplante’s rant were mixed, but even those opposed to PokerStars’s approach were for the most part critical of Laplante’s decision to leak private conversations, especially given that he had promised Negreanu in those very conversations that he would not say anything publicly.

Matt Glantz seemed to me to be the one playing the role of “voice of reason” in the midst of the meltdown, pointing out that Negreanu’s situation was an impossible one and that Laplante was going too far. I reached out to him for further comment on the situation. Here’s what he had to say:

Daniel takes his reputation very seriously. He would never do anything to jeopardize what he has built. If you don’t think Daniel took every reasonable effort he could have to fix this situation for the players, then you don’t know Daniel.

Anyone asking him to resign is just not being realistic. He needs to stay on and continue to give a voice for the players. In this one situation, even he recognizes that he wasn’t successful in getting the point across to the company he represents. That said, going forward, there is no better person for the job.

My take is similar to Glantz’s. I can’t imagine that PokerStars is very happy with Negreanu right now, and it’s clear that Negreanu is not happy with how things turned out either. And yet, they’re both giants in their respective areas: PokerStars has more players than all other sites combined, and Negreanu likewise holds singular status as poker’s far-and-away biggest celebrity. Their relationship is going to be rocky going forward, but neither can afford not to continue that relationship for the time being.

It’s easy to understand why Laplante feels betrayed and lied to, but in actuality, I think both he and Negreanu made the same mistakes: Believing that Negreanu held more influence than he actually does, believing that his threat to quit was credible in the first place, and thinking that PokerStars wouldn’t call his bluff in that regard. Only Negreanu himself can say whether he ever truly intended to quit if PokerStars wouldn’t back down, but I suspect that he never thought it would come to that, because he genuinely believed he’d get them to change their minds.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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