PokerStars finally seems to be gearing up for a full launch of Power Up, which has been available to dot-com players in beta form since August. Last week, it added $15 and $0.25 stakes and the ability for players to choose their own avatars; these are features which the site originally promised were coming within a few days of launch, but which were then put on hold indefinitely when initial traffic figures for the format were much lower than hoped.
Power Up was almost universally well-received by the press, and even by a majority of serious players, a group which is notoriously difficult to please and skeptical of new products. Even so, it doesn’t seem like Power Up is going to revolutionize poker; PokerStars has now made it impossible to see how many games are running at once, but for several months previously, traffic was holding steady at about 75 concurrent games running at prime-time.
It could be that things will change with the full launch, which will surely come accompanied by promotions aimed at encouraging players to try the new game. But what if it doesn’t? How could a game that took so much effort to create and balance, that created more media excitement than anything which came before, and that was praised by nearly everyone who tried it nonetheless struggle to find any traction at all?
The need for innovation
The poker industry has been in decline for many years – since before Black Friday, in fact, though that certainly didn’t help. While it’s normal for a boom to be followed by a correction, the magnitude and duration of the downswing naturally has a lot of people concerned, both in the industry and on the players’ side.
Even at its height, poker was something of a niche product within the online gambling space, with casino games – especially slots – and sports betting being dominant. Both of these products stay fresh for their respective audience, as cosmetic differences and gimmicks are enough to keep the average slots player engaged, while sports themselves provide ongoing engagement, with sports betting simply being an accompaniment.
To avoid falling between the wayside, poker needs to find ways to provide similar novelty. The game of Hold’em only provides for so many qualitatively different situations, and the pace of online play means that even the more exotic scenarios come up much more often. Even a recreational player will quickly reach a state of feeling like they’ve seen it all.
And yet, poker players in general seem unusually resistant to such innovation.
Many failures, few successes
Power Up, if it does prove to be a failure, wouldn’t be the first by a long shot. At PokerStars alone, in recent memory, there has been: Beat the Clock, which was removed from the client to make room for Power Up; the mobile game Duel, which was spiked before it even saw international release; various unpopular tournament formats like N-stack and Ante Up; and the Omaha-like Courchevel.
Examples of high-profile failures elsewhere are harder to come by, but only because other operators lack the resources to make as many attempts, not because they have a better success rate. PartyPoker’s Fast Five and Americas Cardroom’s 7-Day No Rathole tables come to mind as examples of new additions that failed to get off the ground.
There have been a few successes, however. The most obvious has been the lottery sit-and-go, as popularized by PokerStars’ Spin & Go. Progressive Knockout tournaments have also become popular, and not only at PokerStars; PartyPoker now features them prominently in its weekly lineup and is at this very moment holding its inaugural Knockout Series. Various limited-time promotions at a few sites have proven popular enough to be brought back regularly, and some have even been made permanent.
Resistance to change
To some extent, it’s unsurprising that so many innovations fail, as humans in general are pretty resistant to change. Look at what happens whenever a popular site like Twitter or Facebook makes even a small “improvement” to its interface; for the first week or two, until they get used to it, a large number of users complain very vocally about how bad the changes are.
It doesn’t really matter if the changes are actually bad or not, or even if they’re something people wanted. Once something has been a regular part of someone’s life for long enough, anything that disrupts that sense of familiarity tends to break the person’s flow. It forces them to think rather than just do, and thinking takes effort, and humans hate unnecessary effort.
At the same time, this aversion to change is in conflict with another basic human trait, namely the desire for novelty. We get bored easily, so we want something new, but it can’t be new in a way which demands too much adjustment on our part. We want novel input, but we want it delivered in such a way that the output demanded from us remains instinctive.
This is true across the board, and yet the balance between these competing desires seems stronger for poker players than other sorts of gamers. Yes, when it comes to sequels or downloadable content, there’s always some grumbling that the new thing isn’t as good as the original. But people still adopt new games; there are a few titles or franchises so successful that their most hardcore fans stick with them for a decade or more, but almost no serious gamers play one game exclusively and avoid anything new.
Not so in poker, where there are plenty of people who’ve been playing Hold’em exclusively for ten years or more, some of whom have played on the same site the entire time. What’s the difference?
That’s the question I found myself asking as I started drawing up an outline for this article. Originally, I was planning on taking a more prescriptive approach and pointing out the features of those innovations which have succeeded in the past. But I think this difference between poker players and video gamers is a more fundamental question, and therefore a more important one to try to answer.
The sunk cost fallacy
The conclusion I’ve reached is that the difference hinges on what economists call the “sunk cost fallacy.” This is the same principle that people are talking about when they use the more everyday expression “throwing good money after bad,” but it applies to much more than just money.
When making decisions, people have a tendency to look at the total money, time or other resources that will have been invested in a project as “losses” if that project fails or is abandoned. That’s the correct way of looking at things before any investment has been made, but it’s a fallacy once there are “sunk costs,” that is investments that have already been made and are irretrievable.
For instance, let’s say you buy a beaten-up old car for $1,000, thinking you can invest a further $1,000 in fixing it up and end up with a better car than you could have bought as-is for $2,000. After you’ve bought it, you discover that it’s in worse shape than you thought, and the repairs are going to cost much more than $1,000. It may or may not be worth going ahead with them, but if you find yourself thinking that not fixing up the car means losing $1,000, you’re catching yourself in the sunk cost fallacy.
Experienced poker players are very familiar with this when it comes to poker. Beginners tend to be reluctant to fold once they’ve put money into a pot because they still think some of those chips are “theirs.” One of the first lessons we learn in becoming skilled at poker is that chips in the pot don’t belong to anyone until the pot is won, and that folding is always “zero EV,” because we’re only weighing future investments against potential winnings.
Sunk time costs
You may think where I’m going with this is that players who’ve lost a lot of money at one form of poker want to try to win it back before they move on to anything else. There’s probably some truth to that, but it’s only a small part of the story. After all, players who’ve invested lots of money in a game with in-app purchases like Hearthstone or Clash Royale will be reluctant to abandon the game entirely, but it doesn’t stop them from playing other games, nor from spending their money on them.
Rather, I think the sunk cost that keeps many players away from anything really different is the amount of time they’ve invested in learning Hold’em. At this point in time, there are very few true newbies entering the game, and those that do don’t last very long. Most seemingly new players either have experience playing live, or for play money, or are simply picking the game up again after some time away.
The thing is, in the current world of online poker, it takes an incredible amount of skill just not to get chewed up, even at the low stakes. A perfectly average player in 2018, breaking even against his opponents and just losing slowly to the rake, would have been absolutely crushing the game back in 2005.
For most skills, there’s an (not entirely scientific) rule of thumb is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve what can be called “mastery.” Between playing, studying and writing about poker, I’ve certainly put at least that much time in, and I’m definitely not a crusher these days. At any given table you’re likely to find at least a few people clearing that bar, and even someone just dabbling at five to ten hours per month for the past ten years has something like 1000 hours of experience.
When you’ve invested that much time in developing a skill, especially one that can potentially make you money, it’s very hard to walk away from it. One thousand hours is more than a full month of your life. Ten thousand is more than a year.
Think about that for a second. If I were to completely walk away from poker at this moment, I would go to my grave knowing that I invested between 1-2% of the entire time given to me on Earth playing one stupid game, and at the end of it, still wasn’t usually the best player at my table in a random $20+2 online tournament. Good thing I now get paid to write about it, right?
Framing it like that, you can see why so many players have a deep unconscious emotional resistance to stepping away from the variant they’ve spent so much time mastering and “starting over.” But whether we’re talking about time or money, the sunk cost fallacy is still a fallacy.
The skill arms race
Just as with money, there are better and worse ways to spend your time. If you’re doing something only for your own pleasure, then no time spent developing a skill is really wasted, but if you want to be competitive – whether in the job market or in something like a game or sport – you have to consider the fact that skill is relative.
Competition always leads to an arms race of sorts, but how quickly it escalates depends on the number of people competing, and how many positions there are at the top. Theoretically, chessboxing should be more difficult to master than either chess or boxing, given that it requires the skills of both. And yet, the effort required to have a shot at becoming the world’s best chessboxer would be far less than that to have a shot at chess or boxing; that’s because the stakes are higher and far more people are interested in competing in those.
So it is with Hold’em. A player who has sunk 5,000 hours into Hold’em and still can’t beat the games is naturally going to feel like walking away equates to wasting those 5,000 hours of effort. Yet that time is already gone, and if getting ahead in the skill arms race is the goal, the player would likely be much better served investing additional time in a novel variant which hasn’t yet taken off; another 1,000 hours spent on Hold’em might still not make that person a winning player, but if they invested the same amount of time in something like Power Up, they’d likely become one of the top authorities on the game.
Two paths forward
Unfortunately, it’s hard to overcome human nature. Worse, there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy at work, in that the players most inclined to competition are reluctant to invest even a relatively small amount of their time in something if there’s a good chance that once they’ve reached the top levels, they won’t be able to find a worthwhile game.
I see two paths forward for sites, depending on whether they’re attempting to foster a more recreational or a more competitive community.
These days, most sites have already chosen the latter route, and need to innovate in ways which line up with that strategy. Specifically, it’s probably necessary to accept that most recreational players will be averse to anything which feels like starting the learning curve over again.
The consistent pattern seen with most successful innovations in the post-boom years is that they all change the experience of Hold’em without changing the basic strategy. Fast fold just speeds up the game. Lottery sit-and-goes and card-collection minigames offer additional ways to win money, but which are based purely on luck and therefore not requiring any adjustment in the user’s play. Progressive knockout tournaments do change the strategy, but in a way only advanced players are fully aware of; players who aren’t already thinking in ICM terms will likely just play their usual game and occasionally make a loose call to try to win a bounty. We’re therefore likely to see more developments along these lines, various kinds of “game within the game” which increase engagement without asking players to learn new skills.
What’s the other path? How could a site like PartyPoker, attempting to cater to a more competitive audience, attempt to overcome the psychological and self-fulfilling prophecy hurdles?
There too, I think the answer lies in the strategies already being employed. PartyPoker’s philosophy is that once a critical mass is achieved, traffic will sustain itself. As a result, its strategy has been to throw financial incentives at players in order to get them into its games.
How that plays out in the long run remains to be seen, but if it’s successful at building overall traffic, it would probably also work to encourage adoption of more innovative formats.
PokerStars will likely have some kind of launch promotion when Power Up comes out of beta, but based on the company’s overall strategy, it probably won’t be generous enough or sufficiently focused on volume to make the format stick. Although PartyPoker hasn’t shown much inclination towards innovation of late, something as radically different as Power Up would probably be a better fit for their model. Several months of big leaderboards would be effective at priming the pump, giving serious players the guarantee they need that whatever skills they develop won’t be for naught.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada.