PokerStars Strategic Shift Continues: Eliminates Non-Zoom Heads Up Games

Steve Ruddock : February 9th, 2016
PokerStars ZOOM

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As they continue to move in a new direction, PokerStars has confirmed they will be eliminating all of their non-Zoom heads-up poker tables on February 12. The elimination of these tables is part of the company’s new strategic direction, which began last November with the announced changes to third-party software usage and the controversial overhaul of the site’s VIP rewards program.

The news of the removal of standard heads-up tables first came to light on 2+2, when several posters indicated they had received the following email:

“We are writing to inform you that as of Friday 12th February No Limit Hold’em, Fixed Limit Hold’em and Pot Limit Omaha Heads-Up regular tables will be removed and will be replaced with Zoom pools.

“Heads-Up Zoom is already in place at most stakes and will be added at $50/$100. We will also be adding Zoom No Limit Hold’em Cap games at stakes up to $25/$50.”

PokerStars has confirmed the above email is being sent to heads-up players, and also confirmed all non-Zoom heads-up games will disappear from the lobby on February 12, 2016.

Here is the statement from Amaya Gaming Head of Corporate Communications Eric Hollreiser on the decision to remove regular heads-up tables:

“These changes are part of PokerStars’ ongoing strategic plan to improve the poker ecosystem and enhance the player experience. We expect these changes to incentivize more players to be focused on playing poker and less focused on selecting opponents. Ultimately we believe this will raise the competitive bar and help increase a fun and fair playing experience for everyone.”

In my opinion, the removal of heads-up games is long overdue. As Hollreiser notes, the way things are, heads-up players are incentivized to seek out bad players rather than improve their own skill set.

Incentivizing players to change their behavior is also behind the VIP changes, as PokerStars is trying to shift players away from relying on rewards for profit (which incentivizes mass multi-tabling and tight play) and towards a more fun style of play that will attract more casual players and hopefully offset the loss of rewards if win rates rise.

What’s the problem with heads-up games?

I’ve never been a fan of heads-up games. Not only do I dislike the format, but heads-up games are the quickest way to chew up and spit out new and/or losing poker players.

In fact, I’m not even a very big fan of short-handed games, although I can tolerate six-handed tables.

Before heads-up games caught on (largely because good players can increase their win-rate and rewards by playing more hands per hour), online poker sites started trending toward six-handed tables, where, once again, more hands per hour are dealt.

While a good thing for the site (more hands equals more rake) it also decreases a losing player’s hourly return, and the faster a player loses the more likely they’re going to have a poor experience.

All things being equal, a player whose skill level has them losing $.25/hand is going to lose a lot quicker playing six-handed games compared to full ring game, where the average number of hands per hour is around 90 for six-handed tables compared to 60 for full ring. Over the course of an hour, our hypothetical player would lose $15 playing full ring and $22.50 playing six-handed.

Obviously heads-up games further exacerbate this problem, as even more hands are dealt per hour. But the reality of the situation is much worse than more hands per hour.

The problem with heads-up games has to do with the one-on-one nature of heads-up play. Because poor players are sought out by professionals, they’re not simply playing against a random lineup, but are being handpicked by players that are much more skilled than they are, and thus further reducing their already negative EV per hand. So, on top of playing two to three times as many hands per hour, their negative EV per hand is likely 50%-100% higher than it is playing six-handed or full ring.

In this case our hypothetical poker player is losing up to $.50/hand and playing upwards of 200 hands an hour. Heads up games where good players are carefully selecting their opponents are essentially a slaughterhouse.

PokerStars didn’t go all the way with this change, as they’re keeping heads-up Zoom tables, which further increase the number of hands per hour a player is dealt, but, they do eliminate the ability of good players to handpick their opponents.

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