Earlier this month, Full Tilt announced that it was planning some changes to make the site more appealing to casual players, but that it would need to raise the rake at the highest and lowest stakes in order to raise the capital necessary to make the changes. This morning, the site announced the first wave of these changes, with only ring games currently being affected; additional changes to Sit-and-Gos and the rewards system are upcoming, and perhaps multi-table tournaments will be adjusted eventually as well.

Differentiating Full Tilt and PokerStars

Before we discuss the changes themselves, I’d like to provide a little context.

Whereas Full Tilt and PokerStars were once competitors prior to Black Friday, the former acquired the latter back in 2012 and agreed to return the funds of players who’d been playing there prior to the shutdown. Although this was good PR for PokerStars, from the standpoint of pure profit it has so far seemed like a questionable move; despite PokerStars making it easy to move money back and forth between the two sites, traffic at Full Tilt has never recovered to anything remotely resembling what it had in its heyday.

From the start, the plan has always pretty clearly been to target high-level, more serious players with the PokerStars brand, and attempt to draw a more recreational crowd to Full Tilt; you can see it in terms of differences in graphical presentation, the proliferation of more gimmicky tournament formats on Full Tilt, and even in the structure of the two sites’ rewards systems.

So far, it doesn’t seem to have worked out, largely because recreational players have largely disappeared from the online poker world, leaving only winners, aspiring winners, and disgruntled former winners who’ve been left behind as the game grows tougher. That said, there’d be little point in Full Tilt reversing course at this point, especially as it would only mean competing for the same player base as its partner site; the only option is to double down on the strategy and hope that by becoming even more friendly to recreational players – and more unfriendly to grinders – that the clock can somehow be dialed back and a new wave of casual poker created.

The changes

This first round of changes involves the cash games at Full Tilt.

Firstly, they’ve removed their remaining high-stakes games. This follows on the heels of the site first ending its sponsorship deals with its high-stakes cash pros Gus Hansen and Viktor Blom last fall, then removing a lot of cash games including most high stakes tables this spring. The rest of them are now gone as well.

Somewhat more radically, they’ve eliminated heads-up cash play altogether, because of its predatory nature. Losing players don’t last long in a heads-up match against a winning player, while winning players generally refuse to play one another heads-up unless there’s a personal rivalry at play.

Finally, and most noticeably, they’ve changed the way seating works for cash games. Gone is the “lobby” structure employed by most sites, including PokerStars, in which all available tables are shown and players are free to seat themselves as they see fit. In the new system, players simply specify the game, stakes and table size they want to play and are seated automatically; as people leave a game, the table may likewise be broken up and the players reseated at other, fuller tables. Players aren’t stuck with their table – you can request a table change – but no longer have the opportunity to seek out or avoid specific opponents. As well as avoiding predatory behaviors by winning players, this system is much more intuitive for new players and also more closely resembles the live poker experience.

General reaction

Obviously, some players who are directly impacted by the changes – people who’ve been grinding heads-up games on Full Tilt, for instance – are unhappy about them, but for the most part the reaction has been positive, both from players and the rest of the industry.

In terms of player perspective, the Full Tilt Feedback Thread on 2+2 is an interesting read with a fairly broad spectrum of opinions. On the negative side, there’s the usual knee-jerking, but also a substantial dose of unfounded paranoia from people who believe that the seating will not be truly random – that the site will end up deliberately seating players with those close to their own skill level in order ensure that players gradually go broke to the rake rather than to each other. These players are in the minority, however, and the majority of posters are in agreement that these sorts of radical changes are needed.

The consensus is both stronger and more nuanced on the industry side of things, with nearly universal agreement that something like this needed to happen, but that it’s going to pose some challenges for the site in the short term. Kim Lund at Infinite Edge Gaming makes the excellent point that the players who will benefit from the changes won’t necessarily understand why they’re benefitting, while the players best-equipped to understand the changes are not necessarily going to like them.

Others in the industry have expressed similar sentiments, that the changes are going to be good for Full Tilt and poker in general in the long term, but are likely to make things worse in the short term before starting those positive effects kick in.

My take

Although I’m generally of the same opinion as others – that the changes are a step in the right direction – I’m concerned that it may already be too late, both for online poker in general and Full Tilt specifically. I don’t know of anyone who disagrees that the current online ecosystem is out of balance and that a greater ratio of fish to sharks is required. There are two components to correcting that ratio, however: attracting recreational players to the game, and keeping them there.

Heads-up play and so called “bum hunting” (highly targeted seat selection by grinders who only want to play against the weakest opponents) are surely big contributing factors to a short life expectancy for recreational players online, so these changes will help with retention. The trouble is that online poker on all sites has been brutally punishing for newbie players for many years now; most potential recreational repeat visitors have already been chewed up so many times that they’re likely to have sworn off of online poker for good by now.

In order to actually see the long-term recovery everyone is hoping for, the other half of the equation needs to be addressed as well. Either players who’ve had previous bad experiences online will have to be persuaded to give it another go, or else a new player base will need to be found. For other sites contemplating similar changes, the gradual steps we’re seeing made towards regulation and legalization of online poker in the U.S. are promising; there’s a whole population of potential players there whose last experience of online poker dates back to before things got really tough. As long as the experience those players receive once they (hopefully) get to play online again is a positive one, there’s potential there, but that’s probably not going to help Full Tilt even if they’re eventually allowed back in, given the damage that Black Friday did to their brand in particular.

On the other hand, I’m not sure there’s as much downside to the changes as others have suggested. The nosebleed games were basically dead on Full Tilt to begin with, and don’t actually generate very much rake for any site – low stakes games with lots of players are where all the money comes from. Heads-up, meanwhile, is a doomed format for online play because it’s the easiest for bots to beat – Limit Hold’em has already been solved, and although a team of top humans did beat the world’s currently-strongest Heads-Up No-Limit bot “Claudico,” Jason Les opined afterwards that very few human players would be able to do so currently, and the time will come soon when the best bots beat even the best humans.

As for the changes to cash game seating, I think the only significant hurdle is the unfamiliarity factor. People in general tend to be reactionary when it comes to changes in software interface or the design of a favorite website; just look at the backlash every time Facebook makes an adjustment, for instance. This is a really short term effect, however. Faced with the new cash game interface for the first time, some users may close the Full Tilt app in disgust or go play a Sit-and-Go instead, but they’ll soon come back. The only users likely to leave for good or reduce their volume in the long term are those who need to seek out weak players in order to come out ahead, and those are exactly the ones Full Tilt would like to get rid of.

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