What do Poker Sites Owe Their Players?

Steve Ruddock : November 3rd, 2015

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For the better part of the past two years, online poker sites across the board have been toning down their promotions and rewards programs that have disproportionately benefited high volume players, eliminating high-stakes games, and placing new restrictions on the various tools winning players have long used to increase their advantage over less skilled players. With PokerStars recent announcement of major changes to their VIP program and third-party software policies, what had been a subtle trend in the industry, now appears to be the future of online poker.

Setting aside they way they have been unveiled and if promised value of rewards is kept (I hope and suspect PokerStars will honor all of its promises on this front), reaction to these changes within the poker community has been quite polarizing. People like myself see them as a necessary evil, that will be beneficial to the long term health of the poker industry. On the other hand, many of the players that will be negatively impacted by the changes (and the people who aspire to become these players) see the new policies as nothing more than a cash grab, a way for the sites to further squeeze their best customers and make it increasingly difficult for these players to earn a living.

The argument goes something like this: if an online poker site implements these types of policy changes they could drive their best customers away en masse (likely to a competitor), thus making their site less appealing to casual players who often look at traffic to determine where to play. Personally, I don’t believe this is the case, or at best, it’s largely overstated.

First, removing even 10% of a site’s players would go unnoticed by most casual poker players. The site would hate to see these high-raking players go, but the mass exodus wouldn’t last, because removing the top 10% of a site’s players would make the games far juicer and fun to play. In the end, the winning players would return because no reward system is better than a soft game.

On the other hand, if a site continues to cater to its high-volume players at the expense of recreational players they will eventually lose the war of attrition. New, depositing players will be culled, and the site will be left with players who (because of their high rewards) produce small profit margins. For players, the games will become harder and harder to beat; the high-volume players will eventually turn on one another; and at some point the site will reach a threshold where it can’t increase rewards any further to offset this. And then what happens?

For online poker sites in 2015 there aren’t many easy choices. Should they jump out of the third floor window of a burning building or stay put and hope by some miracle they are rescued before the flames overtake them?

The choice PokerStars has presented with was, act or do nothing; take a chance or be resigned to your own fate.

Fiduciary responsibility

In my opinion, the debate over the changes can be answered by asking the following question: Does an online poker site owe it to its players to make their games beatable?

The answer to the first question is no. But the situation has been made far worse by poker players’ increased reliance on rewards as profit over the years.

The problem with relying on a site’s reward system or the use of a playing aid to beat the game seems to be lost on some grinders. They argue that the loss of these rewards, and/or targeted rake hikes on high-attrition games, and/or the site taking steps to stop seating scripts and limit the use of HUD’s and tracking software, make the game unbeatable.

This simply isn’t true. The only way an online poker site can make their games unbeatable or far less profitable is by hammering their customers with an unassailable rake. The new policies only make the games unbeatable for the players who can’t beat the game without these aids. Which technically isn’t beating the game, it’s beating the game under certain favorable conditions.

Consider for a moment that there are plenty of hard-working grinders who can’t beat the rake under the old, high reward, system. Do these players also deserve a living? I’m sure the players who were slight losers under the old rake model felt it was already too high, or that the promotions didn’t go far enough.

So, if you think a poker site has a fiduciary responsibility to its players, where is the cutoff point? The idea that a certain percentage of people are entitled to make a living playing poker is self-serving nonsense. And since when did poker players feel they were entitled to steady income?

All the new policies do is move the line of who is good enough to win, or what it takes to win – and in my opinion there were far too many players winning money in recent years. Too much money was going out and not enough going in.

What does a site owe the poker community

The amount of rake paid or promotions doled out is not formulated so a certain percentage of poker players can make a living; these are simply the agreed upon sweet spot between a company’s ability to make money and what consumers are willing to spend for that product. Because make no mistake about it, most players are losing money at online poker sites.

If the market allowed them to charge $10/hand in rake they would, even if it meant every player ended up being a losing player in the long-run. All this would do is change poker from a beatable game of skill to an unbeatable game of skill, like blackjack – and last I checked people still play blackjack.

Continuing on this point, the vast majority of an online poker site’s traffic is in micro-stakes games that most people feel are unbeatable to begin with.

Point is, people will gamble with the worst of it. Winning poker players try not to, but the vast majority of people already participate in games with near-unbeatable or unbeatable rakes and don’t care because they:

  1. Can’t beat the game anyway
  2. Have different motivations for playing
  3. Don’t play for the long-run

The only thing an online poker site “owes” you is a safe, secure, and hopefully fun and entertaining place to play poker. If they want to make every game unbeatable that’s there prerogative.

Final thoughts

It’s a hard truth, but then again poker is a cold game that requires looking in the mirror and accepting some hard truths, but quite frankly, you’re not entitled to make a living playing poker no matter how much you study and work on your game. A poker site doesn’t owe you anything, they’re in business to make money. As Daniel Negreanu put it when people were complaining merely about the introduction of Spin & Go’s (the 294th thing that was supposed to kill poker in the past decade), as this was something they felt would lure the casual players they feast upon away from the sharky waters:

“Look at it this way, PokerStars provides a service that allows some of you to make a living… As with any service, if you don’t feel it’s worth it to use, then you are free to choose a different service. That may seem harsh, but I get a sense that some people have entitlement issues that aren’t warranted.” – Daniel Negreanu speaking to 2+2

Daniel is 100% correct, poker sites provide a place to play, they’re not in the business of creating a certain number of winning players or making sure a certain amount of the money they collect as rake is returned to players. Their product isn’t a beatable poker game, it’s offering an appealing place to play poker for everyone so they can make a profit.

If you think a poker site owes you a chance to beat the game let me ask you this: What do you owe the poker site? Do you owe it to them to conduct yourself properly at the tables and not berate other players? Do you owe it to the poker site to be loyal and not play at other sites? Do you owe it to them to not violate the T&C’s even if you think them frivolous?

If your hairdresser raises the price of a cut you can either stay (because you think it’s worth it) or shop around. If the local deli raises the price of their subs you make the same decision. A small percentage of poker players (less than 10%) now have to decide if all of the other reasons to play at PokerStars offset the loss of rewards… A decision some have made:

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