PokerStars Caribbean Adventure Not All Fun in the Sun

Alex Weldon : January 12th, 2016

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The PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA) is approaching its conclusion; the Main Event is in the money as of yesterday, and the final events of the series will run on Thursday.

In terms of sheer numbers, the series has been a success: Main Event attendance is up to 928 from 816 last year, largely as a result of the buy-in being sliced in half, and this year the PCA once again played host to the Latin American Poker Tour (LAPT) Bahamas Main Event, which also saw entries rise from 736 in season 8 to 851 this year. Meanwhile, the series also featured a lineup of side events that’s unprecedented for not just the PCA but any tour. There were a whopping 104 events all told; for comparison, last year’s World Series of Poker (WSOP) had 68, although of course both the fields and average buy-in are much higher in the WSOP.

It all looks very good on paper, but has the experience delivered held up to expectations? Based on what I’ve been seeing on Twitter and the poker forums, it seems that for many people it hasn’t. Of course, people in general and poker players in particular are typically more inclined to complain about things than to point out what they do like, and it’s often hard to know how recreational players find things because they tend not to tweet or blog about it. Still, some of the complaints are serious enough that they should be concerning to PokerStars at a time when the company’s popularity with the poker community is at an all-time low to begin with.

Here’s a list of some of the more serious complaints I’ve seen.

Peegate

Unless this is the first poker article you’ve read this week, you’ve probably already heard about how Antonio Esfandiari established himself as – in the words of my fellow writer Robbie Strazynski – the new “king of live streaming.” If you haven’t already, you should read Brad Willis’s excellent telling of the story, but the nutshell version is that Esfandiari was disqualified from the PCA Main Event for public urination. Esfandiari had made a $50,000 prop bet that he could go 48 hours moving from place to place only via split lunges; when his legs quit on him partway through the second day, he couldn’t make it to the bathroom and decided to pee into some sort of container, leading to his ejection by tournament officials.

As the parent of a three year-old and owner of an elderly, accident-prone dachshund, I’m pretty well desensitized to the idea of dealing with other people’s (or animals’) urine, so my reaction to the story was essentially eye-rolling and head-shaking. It seems that some people are more offended by bodily fluids, however – way more so. I’ve heard some people say that if they’d been present for such an incident it would put them off attending any PokerStars-organized event in future, while others feel that losing a 100,000 chip stack in a $5,200 event was insufficient punishment for Esfandiari. Some feel he would have faced a lifetime ban if he were not a big name pro, which I find dubious, and some even think he should face criminal charges for public indecency or the like.

“Congratulations on making the money, ha ha just kidding.”

In a less-covered but, in my opinion, way more outrageous story, self-described recreational player Chris Underwood took to the PCA thread on the TwoPlusTwo forums to vent about the frankly abusive treatment he received from tournament director Mike Ward following a mix-up in a $300 turbo side event.

Play was hand for hand on what players were told was the tournament’s money bubble. Another player proceeded to bust out, and Ward announced to the field that they had made the money. Underwood had been left short-stacked due to trying to fold his way to the money as recreational players often do, so once he knew he’d locked up a min-cash it was time to look for a double up. He picked up Ace-Jack, got his chips in and lost.

His $500 prize was credited to his PokerStars account, but shortly thereafter he was approached by a staff member and asked to speak to the assistant floor director. The latter then told him that they’d miscalculated the number of seats paid based on the field, and that he should actually have been the bubble, not the first in-the-money finisher. He was then told that the “right” thing to do would be to return the money. Underwood correctly pointed out that he had not been planning on risking his stack on the bubble and never would have been all-in had the correct information been given; since their mistake had affected his play, they should bite the bullet.

He was not immediately forced to return the money, and was thinking that the one unpleasant conversation would be the end of it, but when he attempted to register for a tournament the following day, he found that his PokerStars account had been locked and he’d have to speak to Ward himself before playing any further events. Ward then told him that he’d be prevented from playing or from accessing his funds on PokerStars unless he coughed up the $500. Left with no choice, Underwood agreed to let them have the $500, but being coerced in this way left such a bad taste in his mouth that he found himself disinclined to play much more in any case.

Needless to say, the reaction both of the forums community and players and media on Twitter was one of disgust. Daniel Negreanu quickly stepped in to offer to pay Underwood his $500 out of pocket if PokerStars wouldn’t. After a few days, however, PokerStars did eventually agree to return the money and offer an apology, although Ward himself has not spoken on the subject and PokerStars has defended his actions as being in keeping with protocol.

The handling of this controversy is, in my eyes, an unmitigated PR disaster for PokerStars. Although Underwood did get his money in the end, it’s such an obvious call that it should have been made right instantly, not deliberated on for days while Underwood was left to stew about it. His vacation was ruined as a direct result of Ward’s actions and the failure of PokerStars to fix the situation immediately; he said that after getting the money, he changed his flight and flew back home early as he was no longer in the right mindset to play well or even to enjoy himself at the Atlantis. In my opinion, Underwood should have received some sort of extra for the distress he was caused – an event ticket or some such token of apology – not just for ethical reasons, but because the value to PokerStars in terms of public image must surely be greater than a few hundred or thousand dollars in lammers. Instead, PokerStars has opted – as it generally has, of late – to be tight-fisted both in terms of money and in willingness to admit fault. The only one who has come out ahead in all of this is Negreanu, who has at least managed to claw back a little bit of the goodwill he lost as a result of his failure to broker any sort of compromise on the VIP Rewards changes.

No making up for lost time

In another bubble-related situation, Allen Kessler is none too pleased about way he says PokerStars prioritized video coverage of the Main Event bubble over the strategic concerns of the players. Kessler is of course well-known to everyone in the poker industry as someone rarely happy with how things are run, but I think even he has a valid gripe this time around. He says that once play was hand-for-hand, every all-in required the dealers to wait for the camera crew to come over and set up, so as to capture the runout for purposes of the live stream. Since there were enough tables running that multiple all-ins were bound to happen, this process had to be repeated several times almost every hand, leading to delays which slowed the pace of play to a crawl.

By Kessler’s accounting, by the time the bubble burst, the needs of the camera crew had cost the players about 30 minutes of time, or about half a blind level. When he tried to complain and have the situation rectified, he was told that Head of Live Poker Operations Neil Johnson was “not available.” It turns out that Johnson was in the commentary booth, talking on the live stream, rather than making himself available to the players at a critical juncture in the most important event of the series.

When Johnson finally did speak to Kessler, he denied that the camera crew had held anything up, and claimed that the pace of play was due to players stalling. Of course, as Kessler points out, the whole reason for doing hand-for-hand play is to remove the incentive for players to stall. No fault was admitted by Johnson or anyone else at PokerStars, and Kessler’s suggestion that some time should be put back on the clock was dismissed out of hand. I don’t think it would be right for them to adjust the tournament clock based on one player’s complaining, but neither should the needs of the coverage team be allowed to affect play in a tournament in a way which has strategic impact on the players. It’s a foreseeable problem and one which, as Kessler points out, other tours have measures in place to adjust for.

Food poisoning?

One would hope that a place charging $4 for a single banana would at least provide food that doesn’t make you sick, but one poster in the forums thread and several people on Twitter have claimed to have seen multiple cases of food poisoning at the Atlantis during the PCA. It’s not clear what food item is actually the culprit and it’s plausible that it’s an outbreak of gastroenteritis or a stomach flu being mistaken for food poisoning, but whatever the case, people are spewing their lunches rather than their chips.

Like “peegate,” this is not something that PokerStars has any direct control of, but it’s just another way in which not everyone at the PCA seems to be getting the experience they signed up for. Between flight, room, food and buy-ins, it’s hard to make a reasonable trip to the PCA for less than $6,000, even if you’re avoiding the Main Event and not staying for the entire series; I would guess that most attendees’ combined bills and losses creep into the five figures. It’s therefore a rather expensive vacation for all but the most well-heeled recreational players, and thus not a trip you’re going to want to have ruined… regardless of whether it’s by uncaring PokerStars staff, E. coli from the buffet table, or the contents of Antonio Esfandiari’s bladder.

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

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