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3 Ways to Improve Online Poker for Pros and Recreational Players

Recently there has been a lot of talk about bringing recreational players back into the mix, and this has led to the implementation of policies that will cut into the margins (some of them already very thin) of the online grinders.

For an online poker site it’s a difficult balance act, as the poker ecosystem is a fragile one and can quickly get out of whack, and while recreational players have little in the way of a voice, the pros and grinders are more than willing to be vocal about any changes they don’t agree with.

Alex Weldon wrote a terrific article for where he created a model detailing the affect these policy changes actually have on the poker economy –Weldon believes that PokerStars is likely using even more advanced models to determine the proper balance of recreational players and grinders.

Weldon’s model helped explain why poker sites have started making changes that seem on their surface to be detrimental to grinders.

But what if we’re going about this all wrong? What if it’s not the “Grinding” players that are the problem after all? What if it’s the environment they live and work in that has caused them to be a life drain on the poker economy?

Doing what you have to do to survive

In pretty much any walk of life, whether its extreme couponers or athletes flopping, when someone games the system we often hear the refrain, “don’t hate the player, hate the game,” and this is precisely what analyst Kim Lund feels is happening in online poker, and I happen to agree.

Who enjoys the current online poker grind xp?” 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 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.

Fix #1: The price of poker has just gone up

The simplest way to accomplish this and make the games more “fun” with more action is to add a third blind/straddle or antes.

There is nothing groundbreaking about this, as everyone knows that the more money there is in the pot, the more people will fight over it. And the more you have to pay per hand for the privilege to sit at the table, the more money you need to win to offset this cost.

For example, in a typical 10-handed $1/$2 No Limit Holdem game, it costs a player $.30 per hand to play. In order to make a profit, this player needs to earn more than $3.00 every orbit, which is easy enough to accomplish playing snug as a bug in a rug.

On the other hand, if this game has a third blind, a mandatory $4 straddle, it now costs $.70 per hand. In this scenario, players cannot sit around and wait for a top 10% hand; the blinds will simply eat away their stacks.

In the first scenario, a player could open up 12 or more low-stakes NLHE tables, play a super conservative style, and grind out a tiny profit of maybe $2 per hour, relying on their rewards as their “real” income from poker. Since they are playing so many hands (perhaps as many as 1,000/hour) they could be earning $10/hour in rewards.

Not a substantial amount ($12/hour), but still better than working at McDonalds.

Now put this same player in scenario #2 and he is no longer making $2/hour in profit, he is losing $2/hour. Factor in his rewards and he is making just $8/hour.

This player has now been incentivized to:

1) Adopt a looser style of play to offset the increased price to play;

2) Improve as a player;

3) Potentially play fewer tables but at higher stakes where they can focus more on the action and play better.

But there is more that can be done to incentivize grinders to loosen up, the biggest being a revamping of rewards programs.

Fix #2: Flatten and cap VIP Rewards

I’d like to see online poker rooms set up a flat per hour comp rate for their tables, with a regressive rewards system for additional tables that doesn’t discourage multi-tabling, but does discourage mass “nitty” multi-tabling.

Here’s an example of the base rewards system I have in mind:

· $.50 per table per hour (up to four tables, $.25 for the next four tables, and $.10 for each table thereafter) for micro- and low-stakes tables

· $1 per table per hour (up to four tables, $.50 for the next four tables, and $.25 for each table thereafter) for mid- and high-stakes games

Additionally, instead of rewards based mainly on volume, which:

1) Push people towards games where more hands are dealt like heads-up and short-handed tables;

2) And rewards tight boring play;

Poker sites should also take a page out of land-based casinos’ pit games and factor in the amount a person wagers (not wins or loses), as well as the number of hands they play. This should accomplish three things:

1) Encourage looser play;

2) Make full ring games as rewarding as short-handed games;

3) Make moving up in stakes more appealing than adding more tables.

What I don’t want to continue to see is sites rewarding players who play extremely tight in order to play 20+ tables. Under the system I outlined above, full rewards would stop after four tables, and it makes jumping up to higher stakes games more appealing than staying in low stakes games and simply adding more volume.

Fix #3: Get creative

Another potential fix is to add a feature to the game that would make it incorrect to fold early on in a hand. A great example of this is “Pineapple.” Pineapple is a poker variant where each player is dealt an extra hole card, one of which is later discarded either pre-flop (as soon as you enter the pot) or on the flop.

Variations like Pineapple increase the strength of your starting hand, and if you discard post-flop the strength of hands is increased a second time.

The downside to this is the game becomes more complicated, and could be less appealing to new players.

Another creative initiative is to reward players who maintain a certain VPIP or start a new table.

Another option is for sites to implement a loss-back program for new players:

30% loss back during their first month on the site

20% loss back during their second month on the site

10% loss back during their third month on the site

Yet another possibility would be to move away from a singular deposit bonus and offer a series of deposit bonuses:

Initial deposit: 100% match up to $100

Second deposit: 150% match up to $150

Third deposit: 200% match up to $200

I’d also like to see sites increase the clearance rate of these deposit bonuses, so players actually clear their bonuses and do not feel like they were shortchanged.

Final thoughts

All of these options outlined above would appear to dissuade people from grinding.

If the games are looser, and have a bit more “play” to them, this should in turn help draw more recreational players to the online poker tables. And the winning players will go wherever recreational players can be found and adapt to the site’s reward policy, so even if they are at first aggravated by the changes, they will eventually return as they follow the trail of fish, and will probably be happy they can “play poker” and not have to “grind it out” day after day.

Finally, it’s not about any specific numbers I’ve listed. The numbers aren’t important, it’s the general idea. If a site feels regressive rewards shouldn’t occur until a player surpasses eight tables, or the hourly rate should be increased/decreased, or the deposit bonus numbers are out of whack, I’m fine with that. So long as the principle of discouraging grinding is maintained.


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Steve Ruddock

Steve is veteran of the the poker industry, first as a player and now as a writer focusing mainly on the regulated U.S. markets and the politics of poker. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveRuddock and at Google+.