This weekend PokerStars made it official.
The site is joining a growing list of online poker operators that are changing their business model by adopting a number of policies designed to do two things: appeal to recreational players and reduce the advantage high-volume players have over these players.
In order to accomplish this, PokerStars is overhauling its VIP program, most notably by reducing the rewards difference between the lowest tier and highest tiers of its VIP scheme.
Additionally, PokerStars is following in the footsteps of other online poker operators and taking action to restrict the use of third-party software.
According to the press release from the PokerStars corporate blog, the changes will be rolled out over the course of 2016, and they are designed to “put the poker ecosystem on the right tracks to deliver growth for the years to come.”
Here is a deeper look at the announced changes, along with my thoughts on each one.
VIP Rewards Program
Under the current system, high stakes and high-volume players earn rewards at an extremely amplified rate compared to new or recreational players. Under the new VIP scheme, PokerStars has announced, all players, regardless of tier status in the VIP program, will earn StarsCoins, which are valued at one cent across the board.
Additionally (the second change), Stars is shaving quite a bit off the top of the rewards program, capping rewards at 30 percent (which will affect only the top two tiers, Supernova and Supernova Elite) and reducing the rewards of Platinum Star players by 10 percent.
However, the most interesting change on this front is the site’s decision to eliminate VPPs in middle and high-stakes games (pot-limit and no-limit games with blinds of $5-$10+, 8-game $10-$20+, and other limit games with blinds of $10-$15+). According to PokerStars, this change is “due to high transaction costs and operation costs of monitoring these games.”
Left unsaid, is the fact that per dollar wagered, these games are very lightly raked thanks to the rake cap. And as noted by Stars, these are also the tables where most of its internal oversight and investigations are focused.
What this all means
With these changes, PokerStars is addressing one of the fundamental problems online poker is currently facing: a growing divide between winning players and everyone else.
This divide is creating an unsustainable attrition rate that has led to fewer depositing players and higher player acquisition costs. If this were to continue unabated, the games would continue to erode and become harder and harder to beat. In this scenario, the sites would have to pass off the increased marketing spend on the remaining players in some way, shape, or form, so doing nothing would only put off the inevitable. And by waiting until the industry hit a code red, the chances the industry could be resuscitated would be greatly diminished.
So what happened is basically that if you’re a winning player, you just received a severe pay cut.
However, if you have faith in PokerStars, and consider what the changes mean for you six months down the road instead of what they mean for you today, you’ll realize you now have a vested interest in PokerStars’ success. Under the current system, your winnings (with a significant portion coming from rewards) were stagnant and far more likely to go down than up, considering online poker traffic is on the decline. This causes the games to become tougher and forces players to move down in stakes.
However, if the changes have their intended effect, the games will become softer with more new players. Yes, you may be losing out some reward dollars in the short-term, but this will be more than offset by softer games – assuming the changes work, of course.
Third-party software restrictions
Based on its announcement, PokerStars, in no uncertain terms, has come out firmly against the use of third-party software, going so far as to call the use of HUD’s and other software “clicking a button because harvested stats tell you to” and saying, “Today, we want to make clear that the line will be drawn to preserve poker as a battle of wits and a test of heart.”
To accomplish this, PokerStars will restrict third-party software through “major changes within our own software,” which I suspect will be a combination of enhanced detection coupled with new seating policies. And perhaps down the road, hand history policies that render such software ineffectual and obsolete.
On this front, PokerStars has already reduced data mining in Zoom!, restricted the use of heads-up displays, and limited the use of Spin & Go seating scripts.
What this all means
By limiting third-party software, PokerStars is doing two things:
- It is leveling the playing field and bringing poker back to a time when parsing data was not a required skill;
- Is is also changing the perception of online poker by letting causal players know they are not at a disadvantage simply because they are not aware of, or capable of buying, the software available.
This may not seem like much, but to a player who loses his $300 deposit and discovers his opponents were using software that gave them an edge, it’s not much different than participating in a home run derby with a wooden bat and watching the next competitor pull out an aluminum bat. Even if you could have used it, because you didn’t know about, you feel somewhat cheated.
Whether it’s the fictional home run derby or online poker, no one was cheating, but some people certainly feel cheated. And instead of several $300 deposits over the course of a couple years, that initial $300 deposit will be all this disillusioned player contributes to the poker economy.
Backlash is unwarranted
Unsurprisingly, the corresponding thread on the twoplustwo forum is littered with knee-jerk reactions from irate players, and the usual number of people trying out their amateur night standup comedy bits with variations of the RIP poker theme and meme.
For some people, these changes do have dramatic real-world implications, but I do not think they cannot be overcome, and I don’t believe that the changes PokerStars has implemented mean poker pros’ best days are behind them. I feel for these players, but let’s be honest, none of us got into poker because it provided a stable income.
What these players are failing to realize are these changes – merely designed to give new players a fighting chance – will make sure online poker is sustainable for the long haul. PokerStars, and the other online poker sites taking similar approaches, are essentially putting an end to hunting on wildlife preserves, they’re not ending hunting altogether.
The game just got harder to beat, but it’s still beatable, and if poker players are anything, it’s resilient.
I’d also add that before you haul off and claim Amaya is destroying poker, think back to all of the other changes (Spin & Go’s for instance) and scenarios (Black Friday, UIGEA, Super User scandals) that have unfolded that people predicted would do the same.