Budding online gaming site TonyBet announced yesterday that in an effort to build a player base, it is making its Texas Hold’em and Omaha cash game tables rake-free. For a limited time, players will be be able to compete at TonyBet’s tables without the site taking a dime.
It’s not as big a deal for the site as it might sound, because the site’s poker traffic is so low as it stands that the rake being collected was trivial to begin with. Conventional flop-based poker is a new offering at TonyBet, and according to data from PokerScout, they have an average of 30 users playing at a given time, with a daily peak of around 55.
It’s no surprise, then, that acquiring new players is considered a priority over collecting immediate revenue. This cuts both ways, however; the players most concerned about rake are high-volume professionals, but even rake-free play is unlikely to attract many of these grinders so long as only a small handful of microstakes tables are running at any given time.
TonyBet, which was founded by poker pro and businessman Antanas Guoga, aka “Tony G.” has been following a bizarre evolutionary path. The site began its life in 2009 as a sportsbook, following Guoga’s acquisition and rebranding of an earlier sportsbook known as OmniBet. Its primary claim to noteworthiness came later on, becoming the only globally-operating site to offer real-money Open-Face Chinese Poker (OFC); most recently, it has taken on Isabelle “No Mercy” Mercier as a sponsored pro to promote OFC to the poker public, especially through a series of strategy articles at PokerNews.
I call this a bizarre path because, relative to the rest of the industry – and PokerStars in particular – TonyBet seems like a bit of a “Benjamin Button.” PokerStars has recognized that the market for conventional poker offerings is drying up and has focused on new formats like Spin-and-Go and on branching out into the sportsbook, fantasy sports and online casino markets. Meanwhile, there are questions about the future of OFC, whether it’s here to stay or just a blip, and if it is here to stay, how to introduce such a complex game to a casual audience.
In a way, then, TonyBet was ahead of the curve – beginning as a sportsbook, and adding casino offerings and OFC – but now seems to be driving backwards towards 2003, introducing Texas Hold’em and Omaha as “new” offerings and providing direct bottom-line incentives to attempt to attract pro players. Even the use of a sponsored pro and choice of Isabelle Mercier specifically seem like throwbacks to the previous decade. But perhaps there’s something to be said for moving against the current in this way, and hoping to capitalize on a void left in the wake of overall industry progress.
Certainly, if TonyBet’s rake-free play could capture even a small percentage of the players threatening to desert PokerStars due to that site’s slashing of rakeback, that would be huge, but pro players need recreational players to feed on, so the question is where TonyBet plans on finding many of those in 2015. A possible hint is to be found in this surreal statement from the page promoting the rake-free offer:
New to Texas Hold’em and Omaha? No worries. According to many poker professionals these games are even easier to play than Open Face Chinese. To get familiar with the new games, check out the rules.
Is TonyBet really hoping that some of its OFC players somehow found that game without first playing conventional poker, and can now be converted into Hold’em newbies? To me, that sounds like trying to get kids hooked on reading by starting them out on Dostoyevsky. TonyBet might be aging in reverse, but I doubt very much that its users are; Texas Hold’em is still poker’s gateway game as far as I can tell, and can be expected to remain so for many years to come. Maybe Hold’em and Omaha are mandatory additions for that reason, but it’s probably a more reasonable hope that rake-free Hold’em could feed the OFC tables than vice versa.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.