Last week, PokerStars announced a new promotion called All Stars. Unusually for this era of the company’s history, it’s targeted at high stakes players, and specifically winning high stakes players. At first glance, that would seem contrary to the site’s recent strategy of catering to low-volume recreational players and attempting to maximize the longevity of their deposits. When the promotions likely impact is considered, however, it’s clear that the intent is to improve the so-called “ecosystem,” that is, distribution of player skill levels throughout the various stake levels. This time they’re simply going about it in a different way than what we’re used to seeing.
The concept is simple: for a one-month period during April and/or May, all players who’ve achieved a significant level of profitability at No Limit Hold’em from NL100 stakes and up in the past year will be invited to compete against one another. The incentive is that these All Stars tables will be rake-free, and PokerStars will contribute an additional $100,000 in leaderboard prizes to the players with the greatest winnings over the course of the promotion. If the response is as PokerStars hopes it will be, then this may become a recurring event.
In effect, the promotion is an experiment in bribing net-withdrawing players to remove themselves from the general pool for a time. Assuming that the temptations of rake-free play and a leaderboard are sufficient to convince a significant percentage of these players to play in a more competitive environment, then the regular tables should become softer as a result. That, in turn, should allow break-even players to become winners, and for higher-budget recreational players to enjoy those stake levels without getting chewed up too badly.
Of course, not everyone in a given pool of players can be a winner, even with zero rake; the weaker winning players will become net losers at the All Stars tables and, rationally, should switch back to the raked tables. That, in turn, would make the All Stars tables even tougher, and convert more winners into losers, and so on. However, a combination of ego and variance may prevent losing All Stars from identifying themselves as such, so the experiment may work regardless.
Assuming it does play out the way everyone hopes, then it seems like a win-win: The best players get what they want, namely a chance to keep all of their own winnings, while PokerStars gets what it wants, namely to stop those players preying on the net-depositors the site needs to retain to keep its business sustainable.
And yet, there’s something that makes me a little bit uneasy about this plan and the enthusiasm with which professional and aspiring-professional players are embracing it.
Pulling Up the Ladder
On the players’ side of things, my issue is that the approval of the promotion exposes the selfishness and disingenuity underlying their opposition to other changes PokerStars has made, particularly with regards to the VIP system. It’s been obvious from the start that the only real problem high-volume players have with what PokerStars has been doing is that it’s bad for them personally; in order to try to make their objections more persuasive, however, many of them have attempted to concoct arguments about why the changes will also be bad for other types of players and PokerStars itself in the long run.
Most of these arguments hinge on some combination of two notions: firstly, that high volume players are needed in order to generate rake at a sufficient pace for site profitability, and secondly, that interest in poker will dry up if there isn’t a realistic possibility of grinding a small stake up into a professional-sized bankroll.
One would expect people making these arguments to object to All Stars on the grounds that it does nothing to address the latter concern, and actively works against the former. Encouraging winning, high-volume players to play in a segregated, rake-free environment should be seen as counterproductive if one believes that the rake they generate is critical to the site’s operations.
Meanwhile, the majority of PokerStars promotions are primarily beneficial to losing and break-even players at stakes of 10NL and below, while All Stars benefits winning players at 100NL and up; surely we should be seeing some handwringing over the fact that the players attempting to work their way from the former group to the latter are being conspicuously neglected.
I should say that one would expect to hear those concerns provided that players’ beliefs in the necessity of high-raking players and the stake-climbing ladder were sincerely held. The fact that such discussion is almost entirely nonexistent goes to show that these theories are and have always been just talk, to try to make players’ objections to increased rake seem like anything other than basic self-interest. The truth is that, so long as there are still a few whales willing to sit at the tables, those who already have the bankroll and the skills to play at those levels benefit from it being as hard as possible for others to follow in their footsteps.
Regarding Skill Distribution
There’s also something about the idea that may come back to bite PokerStars. It’s something that I discussed a little over a year ago, back when the 2016 changes to the VIP Rewards program had just come out, and player outrage was at its peak.
What I pointed out at the time is that discussions about which players are valuable to a site – recreationals or regulars – miss the fact that every hand of poker involves at least two players. It’s the interaction between those players which creates value both for the site and for the players themselves. The nature of that interaction depends on the players’ relative skill level.
Sites would like players to be matched against others as similar in skill to themselves as possible. When skill levels are equal, money gets exchanged back and forth at random, but no player profits in the long term; that means that most or all of the money will tend to be collected by the site as rake, and very little will end up being withdrawn.
Winning players, on the other hand, would like their edge to be as large as possible. The bigger the skill differential, the more money is won by the better player on a per-hand basis, giving the professional a better hourly rate.
Sites and players therefore have polar opposite ideas about what an ideal ecosystem would look like. Each needs the other, however, and so a compromise is needed. If no one is winning, players will eventually figure it out and leave the site, while the site needs to generate enough rake to cover its expenses and will close down if it can’t.
My argument was that the compromise that best balances the needs of the two sides is a skill distribution that resembles a classic bell curve, with a large number of moderately-skilled players who would be roughly break-even without rake, and decreasing numbers of extremely good and extremely bad players. This produces the maximum number of matchups where the better player has enough of an edge to overcome the rake, but only barely; thus, both the site and some portion of higher-skilled players can profit.
The Missing Middle
The problem that I pointed out is that many factors have come together over the years to gut online poker’s “middle class,” resulting in a double-peaked skill distribution. This is good for no one, but especially bad for the site, if the high-skill group is allowed to target the low-skill group.
It’s natural, then, for sites to want to try to segregate their players as PokerStars is doing; by providing one set of incentives to high-skill players and a different set to low-skill players, you can try to persuade them to keep themselves separate. This is only a short-term solution, however; by keeping the player pools separate, you force the good players to get better, while allowing the weak ones to remain weak. This exacerbates the underlying issue, and because winning players like to seek out high skill differentials, as the gap widens, the incentives needed to dissuade them from going after the weaker players need to increase.
The only way to bring balance back to online poker will be to fill in that missing middle somehow. In all likelihood, that means finding promotions and incentives structures that are useful to average players at medium stakes. Coddling newbies with free handouts while encouraging professionals to stay in a literal league of their own may stem the bleeding, but it’s not in my opinion a model that’s going to prove robust in the long term.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.