PokerStars Protesters Are Running Out Of Options: Should They Stay Or Should They Go?

January 15, 2016
PokerStars Protesters Are Running Out Of Options: Should They Stay Or Should They Go?

We are two weeks into 2016, and the changes PokerStars announced in early November have now gone into effect. As such, it seems unlikely PokerStars will roll back any of the controversial (some more than others) changes they have implemented.

With this being the case, the high-stakes and high-volume players who are infuriated with the site’s VIP changes have some very tough choices to make in 2016.

Where the situation currently stands

After what can only be described as a failed three-day boycott at the beginning of December (although there have been several attempts to put a positive spin on it), the players now find themselves bargaining without any bargaining chips. It also appears that the outrage and support from their core supporters also starting to subside, considering a second, week-long boycott planned for earlier this month gained very little momentum, and PokerStars has for all intents and purposes moved on.

The movement is far from dead, as there is still a lot of applause on 2+2 when a big-name player puts PokerStars on blast, or another boycott is announced, but even the recent resignations of Team Online Pros Alex Millar and Ike Haxton have failed to bring the situation beyond the walls of the poker community.

Essentially, if a person wasn’t initially outraged by the announcement, they were unlikely to change their mind, or care enough about what was occurring that they would feel compelled to get involved. By and large the protesters have been unable to gain the widespread public support needed to cause PokerStars to reconsider some of the announced changes. Couple this with the failure of the boycotts, both of which seems to have had the opposite effect the protesters intended, as it hardened PokerStars’ resolve, and leaving the protesters with two equally difficult choices. The proverbial rock and a hard place:

  1. Do they reluctantly accept the changes?
  2. Or, do they hurt their own bottom lines by leaving the site?

What happens next

On some level, the protesters must feel like they’re in a no-win situation, as they will have to choose between the lesser of two evils, and the lesser evil will vary from player to player.

Choice number one is to begrudgingly return to PokerStars (now or at some point down the road), in order to make a living as an online poker player, assuming they feel it’s still the most profitable place to play. But even this reasoning (my livelihood is on the line) will likely be met with jeers by their peers.

Choice number two is to stick to their guns and leave PokerStars and play at another site. Unfortunately, this will likely mean playing at another site that will only have a fraction of the traffic PokerStars possesses, and may, even with the changes implemented by PokerStars, offer fewer rewards.

The first choice is the more principled decision (particularly for the players who have led the boycotts, used inflammatory language, and hurled insults at PokerStars), but in addition to seriously impacting their bottom line, they have to consider what happens if PokerStars is correct.

What if the changes improve the games and the overall poker ecology at the site to the point that increased win rates offset the loss of rewards? Can they make a big to-do and state they are leaving and then hope to slink back down the road?

It’s a really difficult choice.

There is also the still unresolved resentment about one change in particular.

Why the reduction of SNE benefits matters

Of all the changes PokerStars announced, only one has been almost universally criticized: PokerStars’ decision to reduce the maximum benefits for Supernova Elite players from upwards of 60% to 45% in 2016. Everything else is defensible; this is not.

The reason this has rankled the poker community is that Supernova Elite is marketed as a two-year reward. Players achieving the status in 2015, which takes a tremendous amount of effort — and for most people takes the full 12 months to reach — do so because they expected those rewards to continue through 2016.

In November of 2015 — 11 months into the year — PokerStars announced the players who worked all year to reach SNE wouldn’t receive the benefits they thought they would in 2016. Estimates put the cost of this reduction in rewards at $40,000 to each SNE player.

This is without question the one change that no one seems to agree with, and while it’s within the site’s rights based on their terms and conditions, it hasn’t sat well within the poker community. It seems like it will be one of those decisions that plants a red flag on the company’s brand. A red flag that will likely remain in place for several years.

As I often tell my kids, it’s very hard to earn someone’s trust, but it’s very easy to lose it, and this is precisely the effect this singular change had on PokerStars.

This decision in and of itself is unlikely to drive players away in droves, but it’s the type of decision that will linger and haunt the company. From here on out, every reported mistake or customer support failing, and every new policy change that negatively impacts any group of players will almost certainly reference the company’s decision to prematurely reduce Supernova Elite benefits in 2015, thus magnifying any future issue.

PokerStars could have avoided this by extending Supernova Elite benefits when the fallout began, but it seems like that proverbial ship has sailed. Doing so now wouldn’t erase the damage they’ve already done, so the company must now focus its efforts on rebuilding trust within the poker community, which will take time and effort, and pretty much hinges on the recreational model they’re putting in place succeeding.

This won’t be easy, and will require far more than a reallocation of VIP rewards and promotional dollars.

Making the shift to a recreational model work

First, PokerStars will need to make sure they are in fact using the money that would have gone to SNE players to bring in new players and/or make improvements to their games and software. The worst thing for PokerStars’ brand would be for the critics’ concerns to be realized.

Personally, I’m not overly concerned about this, as I think PokerStars will be reallocating most of, if not all of the money for this purpose, as this would benefit everyone. What I am a bit concerned about is whether it will work, and if they have the right plan in place.

As it stands, it feels like PokerStars wants the high-volume players to go away. However, losing all of the so-called rakeback grinders might seem like an instant improvement, but unless PokerStars changes the underlying reasons that created rakeback grinders (motivating players to multi-table and rely on rakeback for profit) a new crop will simply take their place as the money that can be made (even with the VIP cuts) is substantial.

As Kim Lund noted on Twitter, moving to a recreational model is not as easy as handing new players some extra rewards:

Meaning, losing slower doesn’t improve a player’s experience. Just like if a snooty waiter gives me a piece of dried-out steak that’s impossible to choke down, lowering the price isn’t going to make me return to the restaurant.

What PokerStars needs to do is change the behaviors of their players in an effort to improve the atmosphere at the tables, which theoretically will make online poker more appealing. I’m hopeful this is the journey the company is embarking on.

Time will tell.

Outreach and communication is still crucial

Even though PokerStars didn’t cave on any of the changes, it would be unwise for PokerStars’ critics to end all dialogue with the site, and it would be unwise for PokerStars not to listen to their input moving forward.

PokerStars still needs to make these changes work, and the community should continue to hold PokerStars’ feet to the fire, lest they feel they can make future changes with impunity.

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