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The Skillfulness of Online Poker Is Leading to its Downfall

UIGEA and Black Friday are the most often cited reasons for poker’s decline since it reached its apex in 2006. But these are just the most oft-cited among a myriad of potential culprits.

But what if the major reason poker’s popularity has waned has nothing to do with the availability of the game or its legality, and everything to do with the game itself?

Since the rise of Internet poker allowed players to put in a lifetime’s worth of practice in the space of a year or two, the game has become a very skillful pursuit, and like chess it’s possible that this skillfulness is what is keeping new and casual players from participating.

Correlation does not equal causation

UIGEA is often cited as the jumping off point for poker’s decline. The logistical issues the law brought about pushed casual players away from the online poker tables in many people’s minds.

For instance, the protagonists of the book Ship It Holla Ballas (some of the best poker players in the world) gripe about the increasing difficulty of the game beginning around this time, and the authors (Storms Reback and Jonathan Grotenstein) rightly point to UIGEA’s impact, as the law caused general confusion over the legality of online poker, eroded online poker marketing on TV which made poker shows less appealing to the networks, and made moving money on and off the remaining sites increasingly difficult.

However, I would argue that UIGEA was just one facet of poker’s decline in late 2006. The other facet, which may have been even more impactful, was already in motion when UIGEA was signed into law: The constantly increasing skill gap between brand new players and the best of the best.

UIGEA may have been picked out of the lineup as the culprit, but data is starting to suggest poker has a bigger, structural problem lying under the surface.

Data backs it up

A recent report by GamblingCompliance indicates the increasing skill of top players is leading to high attrition rates amongst casual players. And the revenue data suggesting attrition is holding U.S. online poker back is apparently backed up by evidence from operators:

Operators have told GamblingCompliance Research Services that retaining casual players — many of which were quickly beaten by skillful players and have yet to return — has proven to be difficult, or costly, or both.”

This is an extremely troubling finding for poker’s long-term sustainability.

The ceiling rises

Poker pros have always enjoyed a massive edge over the fish, but prior to the Poker Boom pros were few and far between, and the game’s strategies were still being ironed out and far less nuanced than they are today.

To put this in some perspective: On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being a total fish and 10 being perfect play, the pros of 2003 had a ceiling of around 7, and most were probably in the 5-6 range. The fish at the time were swimming around in the 1-3 range.

Also figure that my extremely unscientific scale operates in much the same way as the Richter scale, with each number stronger than the previous by a factor of 10.

By 2007 the ceiling for the best players had pushed well past 8 and most pros were now playing at a level of at least a 7.

Think about that for a moment: The average winning player in 2007 was playing at a higher level than the best players of 2003. And most of the winning players from 2003 would now be losing players unless they improved.

In 2014 the top players are likely above a 9 on my hypothetical scale, and to win a player must be close to an 8.

The floor remains the same

The bigger problem is the casual players didn’t improve at the same rate, so the gap between the floor and ceiling of poker skill has widened significantly. New players and very casual players are still somewhere between a 1-3 on the scale – although there are probably fewer 1’s at this point thanks to the basic instruction players received from televised poker.

The situation you had in 2003 was one of fish squaring off against players that were significantly better than they were, but these were still players with plenty of flaws in their own game. Like a magnitude 6 earthquake, the pros would certainly cause some damage, but the players they came into contact with would by and large survive and live to fight another day.

Continuing on with my earthquake metaphor, a decade later the pros are an incredible force of nature that leaves a trail of utter destruction in its wake. The skill gap is now at a point where casual players feel hopeless, as the GamblingCompliance report suggests.

Software and training sites add to the destructive power

On top of having more advanced strategies, and the capability of playing more hands, the Poker Boom also brought about software and training sites that allowed players to increase their skills at an almost alarming rate, and further widen the skill gap between the players who were unaware such tools existed.

Casual players and new players basically stood no chance against this ever growing army of skilled players, many of whom, despite their skill are unable to beat the game themselves. Where once they would worry about having two or three skilled players (5’s and 6’s on my scale) mixed in at their table, by 2007 the online tables were almost exclusively populated by players who would have been winners in 2003, and in 2015 even the penny limit games online are tough to beat.

What can be done?

This is the question the poker industry will have to sort out in the coming years.

Low-limit heads-up and short-handed games (where mistakes are magnified) might have to go.

Structural changes to the games may be needed to decrease the skillfulness of the game – obviously mindful to make sure the game is still skillful and beatable.

Sites may have to adopt policies that protect losing players from the sharks, whether it be segregated tables, cracking down on third-party software, or limiting multi-tabling to force players to move up to higher stakes games to maintain their win rate.

Sites might also switch to a regressive rewards system with loss-back programs.



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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+.