Let’s Work Together to Bring Recreational Players Back to Online Poker

November 18, 2014

It’s impossible to ignore the shift in focus at online poker rooms over the past year. Sites are moving more towards a “Recreational Model” and away from rewarding their high-volume players. Whether it’s the addition of casino games and Jackpot-style poker tournaments, or changes to the rake structure in certain games, the writing is on the wall.

These changes have led to a lot of chatter centered around recreational players and professional players, and what each contingent brings to the table. The players that are going to be the most impacted have started to speak out, as have the proponents of a “Recreational Model.”

Both groups of players (Regs and Recs) possess a certain value to an online poker room, but over the past five or so years the online poker industry saw a mass exodus of recreational players caused by a combination of factors:

  • Governmental crackdowns that have made payment processing extremely complicated
  • Bad publicity from cheating scandals and DOJ indictments
  • Poker no longer being the flavor of the month
  • The realization that poker is a game of skill

These lost recreational players were never replaced, and unfortunately there is always a new crop of high-volume players working their way up through the online poker ranks. I say unfortunately because this has led to an abundance of predators and not enough prey.

The balance is out of whack, and recreational players aren’t happy with what the product they are being offered, and now prefer to spend their entertainment dollars elsewhere. The question is, can we bring them back? Can the poker sites implement policies that will attract recreational players?

What a Rec wants, what a Rec needs

Based on my experience and talks with casual players (read as: strong anecdotal evidence), I’m of the opinion that appealing to recreational players requires three key things:

  1. Convenience
  2. Simplicity
  3. Fairness

Recreational players do not want to be inconvenienced. They want to move their funds on and off the site and not have their money tied up for weeks at a time. They want to be able to create an account in minutes and log in to find the games they want.

Recreational players also want things to be simple. They want clear, easy to understand promotions and rewards – no fine print. They don’t want to be met with 40 different Sit & Go options and have to Google what a 2x cubed or hyper-knockout tournament means.

They also want the sites to be fair. They don’t want to be put into situations where they feel they are at an unfair disadvantage to other players who are “in the know.” And they don’t want to be treated as second-class citizens by the site.

Somewhere along this way this has been lost, as casual poker players are faced with complicated procedures and policies (some, like payment processing being unavoidable), and at the same time they are for lack of a better term being preyed upon, hunted to near extinction by grinders using software and forming cartels.

Convenience, simplicity, and fairness has turned into hassles, fine print, and inequity, and pretty much everyone (sites, regulations, uninformed laws, and players) can bear some of the blame.

Where we went wrong

The poker community has for far too long looked at their current bottom line as the measure of success, and like buffalo (bison) hunters on the Great Plains they are overlooking what their current actions mean for their future. Sure, some of the early adopter cashed in, but as time wore on, hunting bison became harder and far less lucrative – sound familiar?

When times became lean, it led to the adoption of strategies that boosted players’ bottom lines in the short-term, but at the same time decimated the long-term health of the industry, leaving a trail of destruction in its path.

Players wanted to part recreational players from their money before the other hunters came along, which brought about the use of HUD’s, tracking software, seating scripts, fish finders, bum-hunting, and any other tactic/tool that would help increase their daily haul – you can argue the ethics and/or legality of these things but every casual player I know finds their use very off-putting.

Making matters worse, the poker sites fostered this environment.

Players who expected the site to offer an equal battle field found themselves basically at the mercy of the site’s high-volume players who were being wooed by the sites by increasing rewards, and allowed to use any tool they could find.

This environment allowed a new species of poker players to thrive, a species that isn’t interested in beating the game so much as gaming the system (see my mini-rant on overhunting above), rakeback grinders.

These players are also among the most despised by recreational players who are trying to have fun and gamble it up. The high-volume grinders (especially in lower stakes games) are the antithesis of everything casual players want the game to be when they sit down to play.

They play boring, they take few chances, and they have a propensity to criticize poor play.

By making the game beatable in this manner (not through skill at the table but by playing more tables), poker sites have increased the number of species with no natural predators. So instead of money only flowing out of the poker economy via the top 1-2% of winning players, perhaps as many as 10% of players were able to make frequent cashouts, some never playing higher than $25 or $50 buy-in games.

Instead of rewarding the prey by offering them a reason to swim into shark infested waters, the poker sites rewarded the sharks which led them into games that used to be off limits.

What poker sites can do to right the ship

One major problem is the sheer volume of game types. In the early days it was 6-max and full ring with a handful of different tournament options (going back to my simplicity argument). While correlation doesn’t equal causation, we should at the very least explore the possibility that the surge in options may have been part of the problem.

Like a restaurant with 200 menu options, an online poker lobby is simply too confusing and overwhelming, and it also spreads the player base out.

First solution: Trim down the number of formats and games offered

Another misstep was the reliance on affiliates, which essentially subcontracted marketing efforts out to people and companies whose interests were not aligned with the interests of the sites.

Affiliates killed the biggest lure for new players, the juicy deposit bonus. Too many people were suddenly double dipping on rakeback and deposit bonuses that the sites had to turn their deposit bonuses (which used to clear relatively quickly) into what was more or less a slow payment.

During the Poker Boom a deposit bonus was like winning a $100 on a scratch card, nowadays it’s like winning $100 and receiving $1 day for 200 days.

Second solution: End rakeback and offer more immediate rewards

Finally, the VIP programs need a major overhaul. We need to stop rewarding players solely based on volume and start rewarding players who are net positives for the poker ecology. Frequent depositors, game starters, and loose players should all be taken care of, instead of players clogging up 24 tables while playing 10/8 (VPIP/PFR).

Third solution: Switch to a flatter VIP program and reward players who are good for your games with exclusive promotions tailored to their play history

What poker pros can do

The biggest change poker pros could make (live and online) is to simply lighten up. A slightly better attitude is good for poker in the long run as well as your own sanity.

Whether it’s ridiculing them, ignoring them, looking down on them, or simply talking shop in their presence, recreational players are treated as outsiders both live and online, and it’s making them uncomfortable and driving them away in droves. The people you ignore live are the ones you should be promoting online poker to.

Neil Channing summed this up perfectly in his blog post during the 2013 WSOP. You can also read my 5 Lessons Column, where I discuss what players can do to make the game friendlier and more inviting for casual players.

I will admit that this disdain and off-putting behavior isn’t necessarily a new thing, but it seems to have gotten worse during my 15 years in the game, especially since the use of hoodies, hats, and sunglasses, as well as headphones and phones has increased.

It’s not everyone, but it’s behavior that is widespread enough to be problematic and one that I’ve heard recreational players complain about.

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