The Myth of Poker’s Pollyannaish Past and Dystopian Future

Steve Ruddock : August 30th, 2016

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As someone who spends much of my time analyzing and opining on things, one of my favorite expressions is, “can’t see the forest for the trees.” It’s a simple saying that refers to someone who’s focused on specific details rather than the situation as a whole, and an expression I’ve found myself using with increased frequency over the past year or so when I disagree with people.

In any walk of life, people often get bogged down in the minutiae of things without ever stepping back and taking the 30,000 foot view of the situation. I’ve noticed poker is rife with this point of view.

By way of a general example, people often post hand histories for feedback and they might list four or five factor that went into their decision, but the overwhelming majority of respondents tend to focus on one particular aspect.

A more specific example was when PokerStars cut their VIP rewards. When this happened a segment of the poker community went ballistic. They broke down what this would cost them to the penny, organized boycotts, hurled insults at the new owners of the company, and proselytized about the impending demise of the company.

What they weren’t willing to even consider was the bigger picture. They were so focused on the immediate loss of their rewards (the micro view) they didn’t consider what impact the changes might have on the poker economy as whole, the macro view. They lost sight of the forest for the trees.

They didn’t consider the health of PokerStars, or the current experience new players were having.

If the status quo was slowly eating away at the company (high attrition rates and a system that rewarded unappealing styles of play), continuing on to placate your “most loyal” customers would have been the equivalent of slowly drowning yourself. Most of the players who complained (and yes, there was a legitimate complaint about the manner in which the rewards were ended) refused to see the risk of continuing on the same path. They were locked in a watertight room and could see the water rising, but it was rising so slowly they weren’t worried about it, and were instead focused on their rewards.

As I noted here, the people who berated PokerStars for the direction they were taking the company are discovering they weren’t an all-knowing oracle, as Amaya’s most recent earnings call painted a positive picture of Amaya’s future, and new CEO Rafi Ashkenazi even mentioned the changes as having the positive impact the company expected.

“No negative revenue impact from high revenue players,”  Ashkenazi said. “Bankrolls from recreational and casual players are lasting longer.”

Despite missing by a mile on this previous prediction, I’m seeing this “PokerStars doesn’t know what it’s doing” attitude reemerge. This time it’s the changes to PokerStars live events the company recently announced.

The best example of this thinking was written by poker player Dara O’Kearney, who regularly posts his thoughts and opinions on anything and everything poker at his blog.

*Author’s note: I use O’Kearney’s words to make several points below, but I’m not singling out O’Kearney, or his point of view. His blog post makes a number of valid points, but it’s also a good microcosm of the attitudes of professional poker players.

Who wakes up that early?

Setting aside the notion that correlation doesn’t equal causation, the following statement by O’Kearney is the perfect example of the micro point of view.

“The 10 am starts means they can churn more bums thru seats every day,” O’Kearney wrote. “The 10 am starts also make for a lot of tired grumpy players and dealers.”

This argument will really only resonate with other poker pros, and his feelings on this are a perfect example of looking at something myopically; in this case, looking at a poker tournament through the eyes of a professional player.

My day starts by 7 AM, as does most of the world, including poker dealers, and most of us are fine with that. By the time 10 AM rolls around I’m wide awake an far from grumpy. Asking me (or others of my ilk) to wait until Noon to play a tournament, which requires us to play well past midnight if we survive, is as annoying for me as getting up for 10 AM is for you.

More importantly, there are a lot more of me than you, and so long as enough me’s (recreational players) show up, so will all of the you’s (professional players).

The good old days

There is also this strange version of history emerging, where everything was fine and dandy before Amaya got their hands on PokerStars, and PokerStars is now in a calamitous freefall – it’s not.

PokerStars was a great company under the Scheinbergs, that was very focused on their customers, but it wasn’t infallible. The environment at the time allowed them to do certain things other ownerships couldn’t, and they did a great job capitalizing on this.

Furthermore, if you were paying attention, you would have realized the changes made by Amaya were inevitable, and were being put in motion by the Scheinbergs. If the Scheinbergs still owned the company most, if not all of the changes would have occurred, although they might have been rolled-out a little better – Amaya seems to come up short when it comes to breaking bad news to their customers.

A particular passage in O’Kearney’s blog is a great example of this, “let’s make poker great again,” mentality, where the past gets rewritten.

In his blog post, Okearney states, “I remember a time when OnGame was the fourth biggest site. Then Amaya took over, and killed them.”

Let’s unpack this a little bit shall we.

Here’s what actually occurred with OnGame.

Following the merger of bwin and partypoker (announced in 2010 and completed in 2011), the OnGame Network became redundant, and a few years after the merger the company merged bwin players to the partypoker platform. Essentially, prior to bwin.party offloading the OnGame software to Amaya in October 2012, they were taking assets from OnGame’s cupboard to prop up partypoker.

In the leadup to bwin.party selling OnGame to Amaya, bwin.party worked on a massive software overhaul for partypoker, while OnGame was left relatively untouched.

More evidence of OnGame being an afterthought for bwin.party, can be seen by traffic dropping 20% in the year leading up to the sale to Amaya, and going back even further paints an even grimmer view of OnGame, as traffic went from 4,700 players in January 2008 to 2,100 in January 2012, according to PokerScout.com.

Yes, the freefall continued for several months after the sale, before OnGame settled into its current traffic rankings, but it began under the stewardship of its previous owners.

Amaya only owned OnGame for two years. They sold it to NYX Gaming in November 2014NYX later divested itself of its ownership percentage in OnGame.

Furthermore, during the period of time Amaya owned OnGame, BetFair left the network, and OnGame left some of the newly legalized markets like Spain.

Also of note, since NYX (a recognized top flight online gaming company with a terrific track record) has owned OnGame traffic has continued to decline.

O’Kearney’s Full Tilt example can also be similarly explained away.

“I remember when Full Tilt came straight back in at number two when they finally got up and running again post Black Friday. Enter Amaya and another death spiral began” O’Kearney writes.

By the time Amaya took over Full Tilt in late 2013 the site had already dropped to around 2,000 players (PokerScout cash game traffic numbers) since its relaunch – at relaunch over 8,000 players flocked to the Full Tilt tables.

Like OnGame before it, Full Tilt had become a redundant product (with a tainted brand) for Amaya, just as it would have had PokerStars’ previous owners remained at the helm. The thing is, Full Tilt’s software was too good to spin-off to a competitor in a sale, so the Scheinberg’s and Amaya, more or less, put it out to pasture rather than see a competitor take hold of it.

Upshot

This Pollyannaish view of the past, and dystopian view of the present simply isn’t reality.

I’m not saying O’Kearney doesn’t make valid points about the state of tournament poker in 2016 compared to tournament poker a decade or a half-decade ago, but I disagree that Amaya is to blame, or that had PokerStars remained in the hands of the Scheinbergs nothing would have changed.

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