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Online poker sites have been undergoing some serious changes recently. The industry seems to have put a renewed emphasis on attracting recreational players, in lieu of the longstanding model that almost exclusively appealed to and rewarded their highest volume players.

Some of the recent changes have resulted in harsh criticism and blowback from the poker community, as they feel they are always the ones being victimized whenever the online poker industry decides to tighten its purse strings.

What they are failing to realize is some of these seemingly harsh changes are for the greater good.

Personally, I’m excited about these changes, and quite certain this initial disappointment will eventually die down; so long as the new emphasis on “fun” players has the desired results, and the online poker tables are once again filled with an abundance of recreational players.

UIGEA necessitated a shift toward targeted marketing

The move towards what is usually called the “Recreational Model” isn’t a new development so much as it is a return to the marketing campaigns and rewards programs that were in place prior to UIGEA.

The good old days, when the online poker tables were full of fish and win-rates were through the roof occurred for the most part without tiered VIP Programs and when rakeback was still in its infancy.

From 2004-2006 recreational players were just showing up at online poker rooms and at affiliate sites – thanks to the Moneymaker Effect – and pretty much everybody was making money right up the ladder: winning poker players, poker affiliates, and the poker sites.

Following UIGEA passage and the U.S. exodus in late 2006/early 2007, this was no longer the case.

What we were left with was an increasingly skilled player base as the losers busted and never returned, and the new players that would normally replace them found it too difficult to move money on and off the sites and became disillusioned with online poker.

Because of this, every day the games grew tougher to beat, and winning players, affiliates, and the poker sites were slowly losing the war of attrition.

Players who were cleaning up at the $5/$10 and even $25/$50 No-limit tables in 2005 could suddenly be found playing in the $2/$4 and $3/$6 games in 2010. The players who were once beating those limits were displaced and either dropped down to micro-limit games or left the game.

And the affiliates who were once making money hand over fist off these players suffered just as much.

The fallout

What ended up occurring was a dramatic shift (by the sites and by many affiliates) toward targeted marketing, and focusing rewards on high-volume players in order to attract and retain them.

It’s easy to throw blame around, but for many affiliates and poker sites, their survival depended on these tactics.

After a few years of this we were left with affiliates focused mainly on landing (and in some cases poaching) the one or two high-volume players, and poker sites trying to retain their high-volume players by offering them more and more rewards – to the point that players could be down $100,000 at the tables over the course of a year but still make six-figures thanks to their VIP rewards.

The poker ecology was hurt while the sites and affiliates struggled to stay alive.

Fortunately, many sites are starting to see the error of their ways during these years, and are now recalibrating.

Bodog lead the way with the Recreational Model

The first site to really call for a return to the “Recreational Model” was Bodog, under Jonas Odman, and they have since taken it further than anyone else, going so far as instituting site-wide Anonymous Tables, and always prohibiting rakeback deals.

Always known for their extremely soft games with plenty of gamble, Bodog bucked the industry trend of rakeback and catering to their winning, high-volume players with lucrative VIP rewards. Bodog let their soft games do the talking, and even though they didn’t offer the rewards other sites did, soft games was a strong enough lure for a lot of grinders.

Considering their current dominance of the U.S. market, it’s hard to argue with their results, particularly when you consider poker is a secondary product for the sports betting giant.

It now appears other people are taking notice, as several high-level industry people have used the term “Recreational Model” (or some variation of it) in conversations with me recently regarding their products.

Not to mention that we are seeing it in practice, as several sites are starting to introduce their own recreational models, even if it means alienating their grinders and dealing with the forum backlash.

partypoker adopts a new strategy


Over the past few years, partypoker has jumped on the Recreational Model bandwagon, beginning with a software update in May of 2013, along with a six-step program to “optimise the poker ecology” launched a few months prior.

Since then, partypoker has increasingly shifted their focus toward recreational players. Among other changes, the site has:

done away with high-stakes games (some have since returned), and added “Casual” cash games;

implemented a “missions” and “achievements” based rewards program;

and eliminated the highest tier of their VIP program.

PokerStars recent moves

Recent moves by PokerStars seem to indicate they are also shifting toward their own version of the recreational model, and their high-volume players are none too happy with many of the changes.

Some of the recent changes implemented by PokerStars include:

The site recently introduced lottery style Spin & Go’s;

made changes to their bonus structure;

and severed ties with many sponsored pros and non-producing affiliates.

How will it all end?

It seems as if there is a concerted effort afoot, and the outcome for the near future is going to be a ticked off swath of poker pros, who see their VIP rewards and other longtime benefits start to dry up as the online poker sites send more of that money toward the recreational players.

On the other hand, the games have gotten so tough, there also appears to be a new zeitgeist afoot, as high-profile players like Daniel Negreanu have started sounding the alarm bell when it comes to precisely what it is that is hurting the poker ecology. An alarm some of us have been sounding for a number of years, and will continue to ring until the problem is solved.

Negreanu said, “You guys don’t even want to know what I would do to the VIP programs if I was in charge!” I know exactly what he would do, and I am 100% in favor of it: Good games beat good rewards all day every day.



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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+.