Online poker operators love to describe anything new that they’ve added to their sites as “revolutionary,” but that’s rarely anything more than wishful thinking. If you think about what the word means, simply being new and popular isn’t enough to make something “revolutionary,” and many products and features presented as such don’t even clear those bars. No, to be revolutionary, an innovation must cause a revolution in the industry: it must be something that was never seen before, and which goes on to become a standard.

Revolutionary developments in online poker are rare, but they do happen. Aside from the invention of online poker itself, I would say there have been four developments that merit the label. In chronological order, these are: tiered VIP rewards programs, fast-fold poker, progressive knockout tournaments, and lottery-style sit-and-goes (e.g. Spin & Go).

So, it was to my great surprise when I started skimming the latest blog post by Phil Galfond about his poker site in development, Run It Once Poker, and discovered it contained an idea that I think has the potential to be revolutionary: the “Splash the Pot” rakeback system. That’s not to say that I’m predicting Splash the Pot will be revolutionary, just that in my opinion it has the necessary prerequisites. That’s high praise in and of itself, however, as the vast majority of new ideas in online poker come saddled with flaws that make it easy for me to predict that they will not revolutionize the industry.

What’s Splash the Pot?

Splash the Pot is going to be Run It Once Poker’s rakeback system. As Galfond correctly states in his blog post, some sort of rakeback system is essential for a poker site’s success; professionally-minded players might prefer there simply to be less rake charged up front, but recreational players notice money coming back to them more than they do money that’s taken off the table. It’s therefore better for the recreational user’s experience and therefore the site’s ecosystem to take more rake than the site intends to pocket, and then give some of it back in a highly visible way.

The usual ways in which this is done are either by giving out reward points that can be redeemed in an in-client store, or through various kinds of promotions or missions. Most recently, PokerStars has moved to a chest-unlocking system similar to what’s often seen in casual mobile games.

Galfond’s idea is to make rakeback part of the game itself, dropping money directly onto cash game tables at the beginning of randomly selected hands. In total, 51% of all raked money will be put back into the game this way, in amounts ranging between 1 and 1,000 big blinds. That’s all there it to it: Whoever wins the hand will win the bonus cash along with the regular pot.

Galfond’s Reasoning

Galfond devotes a lot of words to explaining the reasoning that led to this system, but most of it boils down to four basic points: It’s fair, it’s fast, it’s fun and it’s visible.

The first two of these are mostly important to serious, professionally-minded players. Historically, sites rewarded these players more than others, because their profit motivation makes them more sensitive to changes in the effective rake. This is good for maximizing traffic in the short term, yet charging more rake to net-depositing players in order to give bigger rewards to net-withdrawing ones has long-term ecosystem consequences.

Meanwhile, more “gamified” rewards, though appealing to recreational players, can be a chore for high-volume players, especially if they require additional actions to opt-in or to claim. Therefore, two of Galfond’s requirements for his system were that it would be obviously fair for everyone, and that it wouldn’t require additional effort to participate in.

From the recreational player’s perspective, on the other hand, Galfond needed something that would be fun and visible. Recreational players need to be made clearly aware of when they’re receiving a bonus from the site for its marketing value to have full effect. Furthermore, recreational players are there to gamble, so small but certain rewards have less impact than randomized ones where the player can clearly see that they have a chance at something big. Splash the Pot manages that admirably, in that, assuming six-max tables, the average player will see six prizes hit the table for each one they win themselves.

It’s also fun for both recreational and serious players in that it mixes up the gameplay. A single big blind splash might just change players’ opening ranges a bit, while a 100-plus big blind splash might just lead to a six-way all-in, but intermediate sizes will require more serious adjustments. For instance, five big blinds worth of dead money in the pot isn’t enough that players should play any two cards, but it will necessitate some significant strategic adjustments.

Prerequisites for Revolution

Those are all good reasons why Splash the Pot is likely to be a good rakeback system, but they’re not the reasons that I say it has the potential to be revolutionary. To have an impact on the industry that’s both broad and lasting enough to be described that way, I believe that an idea needs to have three properties, and ideally four:

  1. It needs to be so simple that you can explain the concept in a single sentence.
  2. The appeal needs to be so obvious that it requires no additional explanation once the mechanics have been conveyed.
  3. It needs to produce lasting engagement after the initial novelty wears off.
  4. Ideally, but perhaps not necessarily, it should help the industry differentiate itself from other similar ones: In the case of online poker, that means adding something to poker that would be difficult or impossible to implement in live poker.

For example, take a look at lottery sit-and-goes, which were arguably the industry’s biggest revolution to date. You can explain them as simply as “Fast, three-player sit-and-goes with a randomized prize anywhere from two times to several thousand times the buy-in.” Once you’ve said “several thousand times the buy-in,” no further explanation of the appeal is needed. Big multipliers from 10x and up always feel important when you hit them, no matter how many games you’ve played, so the lasting power is there. Finally, they’re difficult to implement in a live setting; it’s been done, but they don’t work very well. That’s because registration and seating takes too long and part of the appeal of the online version is that you’re always just one click away from firing up the next one.

Splash the Pot has all the same characteristics. You can explain it just by saying that “the site occasionally adds random amounts of money to pots at its cash game tables.” Once again, the appeal of that is self-explanatory. It would be logistically complicated to do in a live environment. And finally, it’s likely to be even more engaging than lottery sit-and-goes in the long run because splashed pots change the game’s strategic nature in a way that big prize pool multipliers don’t.

Potential Stumbling Blocks

All that said, there are a couple of hurdles Splash the Pot will need to clear to be a successful rewards system for Run It Once, let alone a game-changer for the industry as a whole.

The first, which is somewhat obvious, is that it’s a solution which, in its current form, only works for cash games. Tournaments, whether scheduled or sit-and-go, don’t collect rake in the same way, and the chips don’t have any cash value, so you can’t return rake to the players by adding chips to the pot.

That’s not a problem for Run It Once for the time being, as it intends to launch with only cash games, but it would be something other sites would need to address immediately if they were thinking about implementing something similar. Furthermore, cash games are of diminishing importance to the industry as a whole, so it’s unlikely a site can survive long without tournaments and sit-and-goes as well. Run It Once does intend to add tournaments after not too long, so Galfond and his team are surely thinking about how to deal with rakeback in these other games.

It’s not that the problem itself is difficult to solve. One idea that springs to mind readily is to gives players who’ve cashed a chance to have their winnings multiplied by a random amount, effectively turning every tournament into a lottery sit-and-go of sorts. Another would be to occasionally turn random tournaments into knockouts, with bounties added by the site. The trouble with this is that the site’s rakeback system as a whole is no longer a single-sentence explanation. Having two separate rakeback systems in place – even if each is individually simple – might no longer be as immediately comprehensible as is needed to spark a revolution.

The other, more subtle issue is in the details of how rake is calculated for the purposes of determining the frequency with which pots are splashed. Conventional rakeback systems award points to players based on their contributions to the pot, and the amount of rake taken from those contributions. With Splash the Pot, prizes are awarded to tables rather than players, yet players will move between tables and not all tables generate rake at the same rate.

For the sake of simplicity, chances are that Run It Once intends to calculate average rake per hand for all games of a given type (e.g. all six-max $0.25/$0.50 NLHE games) and use a rolling average over some time period to establish the splash frequency for all such tables. The trouble with such a system is that it disproportionately rewards tight play; a tight table will generate less rake per hand than others at the same stake level, yet receive as much rakeback. Calculating average rake per hand for each table separately doesn’t really fix the problem, as it simply incentivizes players to seek out tables where the average player is playing looser than they do.

That’s a considerably harder problem to fix without adding tons of complexity to the system, but it might also not be a deal-breaker. It’s already the case that profit-minded players seek out loose tables where they can profit by playing a tight style, so it may just be that Splash the Pot exacerbates that existing problem slightly. If so, then its benefits may outweigh that downside.

Update: Run It Once Poker has clarified that the odds of a splashed pot are based on the rake generated in the preceding hand. This makes the impact of play styles all the more dramatic and possibly problematic in that a tight player at a loose table can profit off of rakeback that would be due to his opponents under any conventional rakeback model.

When Can I Try?

Of course, all of this is conceptual at this point, because Run It Once Poker hasn’t yet opened for business, save for a couple of invite-only private beta tests. It won’t be until it does that we’ll know whether the site itself and its Splash the Pot system are popular with players.

The good news is that it looks like it should be up and running soon. Reports from participants in the private beta tests have indicated that the site’s reasonably polished and seems ready to go. Furthermore, Galfond said in his blog post that the next one he posts should be a launch date announcement. Of course, that date could still be a ways off, but the way the project has been managed so far, a launch date is likely to be a hard commitment not a vague prediction, which in turn means it’s likely to be in the near future, and that the announcement will only be made once the only thing left to do is to throw the switch and start taking deposits and dealing hands.

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