Did The VIP Changes At PokerStars Blindside The Poker Community?

November 9, 2015
Did The VIP Changes At PokerStars Blindside The Poker Community?

To say the recently announced changes to PokerStars’ VIP Program has made many of its high-volume players unhappy is akin to saying Seattle Seahawks fans were annoyed with Pete Carroll’s decision to throw the ball on second and goal from the one-yard line in the Super Bowl.

Many of the affected poker players feel PokerStars blindsided them with these changes, and that PokerStars was unfairly punishing the site’s most loyal customers. As one player put it when discussing the reasoning behind the backlash to the changes: “You can’t just expect things to be gone for no reason… it came out of nowhere because there is no reason for this to be cut like this besides Amaya wanting more cash.”

But were players really blindsided by these changes? And were they made for no other reason than a cash grab by Amaya?

PokerStars foretold changes

It’s hard to say you were blindsided by the changes when PokerStars emailed Supernova and Supernova Elites in October of 2014, as well as posting on the 2+2 forum that: “While we are making only this one change this year, it follows a substantial review of the PokerStars VIP Club conducted earlier this year. We are considering more significant changes for implementation in 2016. Details will be available in the second half of next year.”

I am not a fan of PokerStars devaluing FPP’s for certain upper tier players come January 1st (I feel all current FPP’s should retain their full value), or the premature ending of Supernova Elite and capping SNE rakeback through 2016 at 45%, when SNE status is worth 54%-59%, but I do feel they gave ample notice that significant changes were coming.

Other sites had already made similar changes

In addition to PokerStars’ early notice, players who follow the industry should have seen the writing on the wall.

At the operator level, this shift away from high-volume players began back in November of 2011 with the introduction of fully anonymous tables at Bodog, the first step in what the company was calling the “recreational model.” At first it appeared the change was a failure, but several years on Bodog/Bovada is thriving.

Other sites haven’t gone to fully anonymous tables, but they are adopting other policies designed to have a similar impact.

In 2012, PartyPoker decided to eliminate its high stakes tables, and in 2013 the site abolished the upper tiers of its rewards program. More recently they have taken steps to curtail the use of third-party software. PartyPoker is also expected to eliminate downloadable hand histories in the future.

This summer, Full Tilt Poker, the sister site of PokerStars, removed all heads-up games, increased rake, and took steps to curtail the use of seating scripts with a new seating policy.

Flying under the radar was the iPoker Network’s switch to Source Based Rake in November of 2014.

PokerStars has been slowly changing as well. The company flirted with rake changes last year soon after they added and promoted Spin & Go tournaments, and as already noted, foreshadowed major VIP changes.

Industry thinking about these ecosystem issues for years

Furthermore, these ecosystem issues have been discussed in the industry (in the open and behind closed doors) for some time.

While I feel for the affected players, there is also something to be said for keeping up with your industry. I and other people in the media or the industry have been opining about this very thing for years.

In September of 2014 I asked if raising the rake might benefit poker, and even predicted the current argument players are using, “do they trust the site to keep their word and use the extra rake to bring in new players?”

In November of 2014, in the wake of announced rake increases at PokerStars (they were eventually rolled back), Part Time Poker’s Alex Weldon not only wrote about the poker ecosystem, he designed a model to help explain it.

In an article from November of 2014 titled, “Online Poker Players Don’t Like to Grind; They Have to Grind,” I talked about capping and radically altering VIP rewards, as well as other potential solutions such as adding a third blind or antes to the game to increase action and to dissuade people from “grinding” by giving them an opportunity to profit by playing a more exciting style.

I wrote in part:

Who enjoys the current online poker grind xp?” Consultant Kim Lund tweeted. “Do grinders actually find multi-tabling micro-stakes playing tight ABC poker fun?”

What Kim is saying is that instead of making your site unappealing to grinders you could instead make the act of grinding unappealing. As Kim notes, nobody wants to grind, it’s just that the modern poker world (online anyway) rewards grinding.

We almost all play poker because we enjoy it, and grinding is not enjoyable; it’s just profitable in the modern online poker world.

If we want to dissuade people from playing an ultra-tight, boring, style, we need to make this style of play less profitable.

I brought up these issues in January of this year,  and I talked about this problem again in March.

But maybe you don’t read my work. Luckily plenty of other people have been talking about this as well. From PocketFives co-founder Adam Small on Twitter, to industry consultant Kim Lund on social media and on his blog dating back many years (here, here, here, and here). Or how about Daniel Negreanu?

The point I’m trying to make isn’t whether or not these people and ideas are right or wrong. The point is: These ideas are out there, they weren’t created out of whole cloth by PokerStars.

Upshot No. 1

If you haven’t been paying attention to the overt indications PokerStars has been making, the current zeitgeist of the industry, or the repeated calls for fundamental changes to VIP programs by various industry people, yes, you were likely caught unaware by the changes PokerStars has announced.

To say you were blindsided by these changes just doesn’t pass the smell test. Or, perhaps, as eGR Editor Alun Bowden put it over a year ago when Negreanu talked about the ecosystem, the problem could simply be one of most people not caring about the problem:

Here’s why online poker players should be ticked off

On the other hand, the poker community has every right to feel blindsided and/or betrayed by the changes, as it simply adapted to the environment it was placed in. Online poker sites pushed players towards this high-volume style of play, so it’s hard to blame the players for doing what they had to do to survive and thrive; in poker parlance, they simply played the cards they were dealt.

PokerStars and the other online poker operators really have no one to blame but themselves for the current backlash, as they ignored this fundamental problem for far too many years, until it had taken on a life of its own. Beyond ignoring it, the online poker industry nurtured this style of play, even in recent years when it had come to realize it was bad for business, as companies were afraid to be the one to make the necessary changes. As one industry person relayed to me a while back: the problem is known among operators, the only problem is nobody wants to step up and be the first to address it.

But this apprehension only put off the inevitable, and now the industry has come to the realization it can no longer ignore the core issues, and are now caught in a real-world version of the Frankenstein novel.

Upshot No. 2

The industry bears a lot of blame for not nipping this problem in the bud, and the more time it let pass, the stronger the inevitable resentment became.

Fortunately, I have little doubt that many of the impacted players will quickly adjust and learn to thrive in the new environment — an environment that places less emphasis on multi-tabling and rewards, and more emphasis on developing other poker skills.

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