Seemingly not a week goes by without radical changes being made to the services that the big online poker sites offer their players. In this blog I want to talk about why, taken collectively, recent attempts to recalibrate the poker economy by Pokerstars, and other sites, represent a shift in the principles that have traditionally underpinned the poker economy and why it should give us all cause for concern. In particularly I want to focus on the way that these changes are being narrativised in the rhetoric of poker marketing and why we as a community must set about countering them.
The industry's largest poker platform Pokerstars' recently launched a 'Comprehensive Plan for an Enhanced Pokerstars Experience' (CPEPE) in which they announced they were devaluing FPPs, removing VPPs from high stakes tables and closing down their 'supernova elite' program. This news was met in the poker community not only with reasoned criticism, but also with an emotional hurt rarely seen in customers' dealings with corporate entities. This emotional reaction is attributable to two factors. Firstly, PokerStars have shaped much of the context in which poker has been played, at the highest levels, over the last decade and has therefore facilitated many individual players' most proud accomplishments. This is certainly the reason for my own sense of connection to the company. Secondly, whilst its competitors - Lock, Full Tilt, UltimateBet - have self-immolated in a fireball of greed, mismanagement and corruption, PokerStars has remained a pillar of credibility and community within the poker landscape. Having been let down so badly in the past by poker platforms, players are particular sensitive to anything that suggest PokerStars is deviating from their traditional values. It's for these reasons that so many players are eager to make at least a rhetorical distinction between the animosity they feel towards Amaya (the gaming platform's parent company) and their deep affection for 'Stars', even if the distinction is likely moot. It is fair to say, though, that there remains a relationship between the company and the players which transcends the traditional rubric of brand loyalty. A relationship that is being directly jeopardised by the company's new policies.
As poker players our individual achievements are frequently assimilated into a broader poker narrative. Whether our tale is that of the battling pro who has overcome hardships in life, the plucky amateur, or even the soul-crushing end-boss, it is liable to be co-opted into the selling of a specific tour, site or poker product. The boom itself, of course, began with this particular sub-genre's ur-story – Chris Moneymaker parlaying $50 into a WSOP Main Event win. As poker players, who want the game to grow, this appropriation is something to which we rarely object. What I want to emphasise, however, is that winning poker players haven't merely been parasites passively feeding off of the poker industry's growth. In fact it is on the back of the labours of the poker pro and the skilled enthusiast that poker has been marketed to the wider public. If we have shared in the huge wealth generated by the game, up to this point, that is far from unreasonable, given our contribution.
Recently there has been a slight, but perceptible shift in the way the narrative of the poker pro is being related to the public. A disdain for the skills of the poker professional was evident in much of the discussion generated by PartyPoker's outlawing of HUDs, and Full Tilts removal of heads-up lobbies. Amaya's recent 'CPEPE' invoked a similar rhetorical strategy and sought to isolate high stakes pros as a greedy 2% who are taking the fun out of the game. This sentiment has since been echoed by numerous industry bloggers and editorialists. The narrative emanating from the corporate media which cast pros as engorged winners, rich off their harvested stats and unbeatable HUDs is one that the community largely rejects. In fact most player's daily reality is quite the opposite of the one portrayed in the media, with even the hardest working pros and amateurs struggling to maintain their vulnerable win rates in an increasingly arid poker environment.
The daily struggles of those of us who put in large volume online, is one that poker journalists, who in fairness have been as adversely affected as much as any group by the convulsions of the last few years, are rarely incentivised to portray. With so many magazines and forums shutting down, and much of the poker media coming under the sway of the large gaming companies, there has been a real blurring of marketing and journalism within the industry. This has led to a dearth of any real investigation into how the economy is actually structured and wealth distributed. The continual focus on how players stare each other down, what they should wear, and other such ephemera, is of little importance compared to the actual poker ecology and how its various parts interact. Superficial poker culture and the conduct of top pros has been scrutinised beyond all reasonable measure, while the actual economics which underpin the poker economy and the wafer-thin margins which allow players to beat the game for a living are rarely discussed. Nor are the ideological underpinnings of poker sites policies ever teased out and made explicit. It seems possible, for example, that 888 has been deliberately freezing winning MTT regulars when they relocate, or that Spin N Go's are the first format of poker rolled by Stars where the goal from the outset has been to make them impossible for skilled players to win in the long run. If either of these suggestions is true it would represent a seismic shift in the underlying principles by which the poker industry operates. Far more column inches, however, have been dedicated to whether a pro should wear sunglasses, or the first card off the deck rules, than changes which directly challenge the status quo that the poker industry has maintained since the beginning of the boom years.
In the absence of independent journalism it is left to the professionals to speak out against the increasingly anti-pro narrative of the larger poker platforms and challenge decisions the ongoing transfer of wealth from players to share holders. This is not an easy task. To begin with, criticising a company for maximising profits is not something the majority of pros are eager to do, when they are involved in such a capitalistic enterprise themselves. There are aspects of being a pro which are very predatory and if you spend your time working on maximising your own expectation it's hard to condemn a publicly traded company for doing the same. The top players who earn excellent livings from the game are doubly hand-cuffed in this respect. Having done so well out of the game they often feel they don't have a sympathetic story to tell. However, especially as many of the original 'poker-boomers ' reach their thirties and become home owners, or have children, it is legitimately distressing for them to have their income significantly reduced overnight. It is a particularly harsh turn of events given that unlike the majority of careers there is little chance of a players income continuing to grow as they enter their late thirties and forties.
For more mid-level pros it can be equally tough to speak out about the realities of life as a poker pro. Many on the games periphery are reluctant to reveal just how precarious our living actually is. In my own case, I've seen my income from the game decline each the past three years, my ABI has dropped and I've increased the number of days I'm playing. In this instance, it's tough to speak out against changes that further damage your win rate, for fear of looking like your only whinging because you can no longer beat the games. It's true that pros have always got left behind as the game as evolved and, of course, as many on Twitter are eager to point out, 'no one owes us a living.' However, it is less easy to be blasé about the situation when you actually have friends who are being left on the sidelines. I know players who have earned a reasonable living from the game for several years who now find themselves unable to be competitive and have very little on which to fall back. These narratives are not in the interests of anyone to share, but they should be some of the inspiration for us to raise our voices and combat changes that push more pros out of the game.
Most players' assessment of the 'CPEPE' is that the stripping away rewards and earning potential from the game's most elite players at high-stakes will have consequences that reverberate down through the poker economy. As many have already articulated, the best players will always survive. If they move down stakes, however, or move across into a field like my own specialism of MTTs, the vulnerable win rates of pros will be all but extinguished. Some will in turn move down themselves, go bust, or try and find a living in the live arena. Personally I can attest that many London cash games venues have already been greatly impacted by people deserting tough online games and taking up residence in poker venues around the capital. It's not just the high stakes community, or the online economy that will be damaged, these changes affects us all. Perhaps most worrying of all is the ease with which Stars have stripped Supernova of rewards implicitly promised for 2016. It suggests, as did their refusal to honour commitments to affiliates, that Stars now feel they are operating in a market where they can act with impunity and still maintain market dominance.
It's hard to be really certain of PokerStars' overall strategy and it's not the central purpose of this blog to second guess it. It does seem possible, however, that there is an ideological shift within the industry and a move to over turn the traditional model of poker as a game that differs from other forms of gambling because produces long term winners. If this is the case then CPEPE could be the early stages a longer term strategy of trying to eliminate pros from the site. From a marketing perspective this will mean fewer first deposit to EPT glory narratives with which to sell the public on poker, a problem they seem intent on bypassing with an influx of sport's stars, models, and TV celebrities. In short, it's a marketing model that places the emphasis not on poker, but on stars. With the fiasco of Full Tilt's player ownership, and the media recalcitrance of emerging stars like Colman and Schemion, it seems understandable that marketing experts would push the companies in a new direction. Although it is worth noting that Nadal's near invisibility in the poker landscape suggests the strategy is far from fool proof. However, to introduce changes that so greatly penalise successful players that not even the company's own 'team pros' can publicly endorse them seems foolish. In the end the poker industry can't ignore the most skilled exponents of the game's strategies any more than the NBA can ignore LeBron James. The NBA doesn't get people excited because celebrities play basketball, but because it's greatest exponents elevate it to the level that inspires the public.
The mind-sets and skill levels of winning poker players are not necessarily suited to combating the changes that the big gaming providers are rolling out. Individualism and self-reliance are skills well suited towards adapting to maximise EV in a competitive environment, but less well suited to collective action. We need to demonstrate that we are not passive self-centred consumers who simply accept whatever we're given. We need to identify where these changes are coming from, who the key decisions makers are and engage them with something which the community does have in plentiful supply; reason and logic. We need to provide the industry with a vision of future growth in which both players and share holders reap the benefits. Above all, now is the time to show that the idea of a poker community is not an empty fiction of marketing conceit, but an active and dynamic collection of people who care about the game and care about the livelihoods of their peers.