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On Sunday, PokerStars announced sweeping changes to the player experience. Among those changes, PokerStars announced they are moving forward with eliminating most HUDs and third-party software applications. They also announced a major change to their rewards program that focuses more on the recreational player and makes significant cuts to pro players.

There’s been little backlash towards the company regarding their announcement on third-party software. However, there’s been significant backlash from pros that play on the site with Dani Stern being the most vocal. Is PokerStars indeed screwing over their players or are they merely making a business move that high volume pros should just learn to live with?

VIP Rewards Restructuring Viewed as Money Grab by Pros

When I first glanced over the new VIP and rewards structure for PokerStars, I started cooking some popcorn as the drama was coming. In case you haven’t looked at the new structure or just prefer the cliff notes, here’s some of the highlights of the new VIP and rewards structure:

  • FPP’s will be converted to StarCoin staring January 1. StarCoins are worth .01.
  • PlatinumStar players will see an average rewards decrease of 10%
  • Supernova players will see up to a 27% average decrease in rewards
  • Supernova Elite players will see up to a 60% decrease in rewards
  • Players will not be able to earn VPP’s for PL or NL games of $5-$10 and higher, 8-Game at limits of $10-$20 or higher, limit games $10-$15 or higher, or for fixed limit Hold’em games of $15-$30 or higher.
  • Capped rewards at 30% for players earning more than 200k VPP’s, those that earn Supernova Elite in 2015 will be capped at 45%
  • Supernova Elite to be discontinued as of January 1, 2017
  • Concierge services for Supernova and Supernova Elite will be discontinued

To say that some pros are pissed is beyond an understatement. WSOP Player of the Year Mike Gorodinsky tweeted that “Cloaking a blatant money-grab in the guise of “good for the game” is insulting.”

Justin Bonomo declared that November 1, 2015 is the day that “PokerStars formally announced they no longer care about their customers.”

Dani Stern took to 2+2 forums with an extensive post about the matter and claimed that the only players that would benefit from the change were ChromeStar players and that the average player would see an increase of approximately 30 cents per month.

Phil Galfond tweeted that PokerStars was using a “take from the rich, give to the poor approach” but was skipping the give part.

One player that has remained conspicuously quiet so far is Daniel Negreanu. The PokerStars Team Pro claims he will post on the matter later in the week but some wonder if he will merely tow the corporate line.

PokerStars Leveling the Playing Field is Appropriate

Part of the announcement focused on third-party software restrictions. While PokerStars didn’t detail their plans in the announcement, they made their intentions clear. As stated in the release, “we are on a path to eliminate many of these technological advantages that are used by a minority of players.”

Continuing that though, they also stated, “Today, we want to make clear that the line will be drawn to preserve poker as a battle of wits and a test of heart. This will only have a direct effect on a small proportion of players and builds upon our responsibility to provide a level playing field for all players.”

This is one area where I wholeheartedly agree with PokerStars. It indeed is the company’s responsibility to provide a level playing field for both amateur and pro players in terms of technology. The average poker player should not have to worry about what their stats reflect or whether their table is full of “bumhunters.”

Some will argue that the technology is available to all players and that it should be a player’s right to decide whether to use HUDs. My problem with this thinking is that it forces players to incur extra expense along with extra time and effort that most amateur players either cannot afford nor have no interest in investing.

In a way, you can argue that HUDs constitute collusion. The program is telling you which plays you should make on data that it has collected or been fed. You’re not really making the decisions. Instead, you are taking instruction. What would happen in a live game if a person got caught taking instruction from another party during a hand?

With the elimination of HUDs and other third-party data mining tools, PokerStars returns the game to the basic elements. A player with their chips and their wits with the ability to manually take notes.

Some “Pros” Will Have to Learn How to Play Online Poker All Over Again 

I have mixed feelings about the rakeback / incentive changes that PokerStars is proposing. First, I’m not a fan of the massive reductions in rewards that they are instituting on high stake and high-volume players. This move penalizes players for improving their game and getting to the high stakes levels. They put in the work and the effort to reach these high stake games and they are rewarded with reduced rewards of up to 60%.

Dani Stern wrote an extensive post on 2+2 forums outlining the new changes and how it will impact his bottom line and how he believes it will impact others. He believes that he will take a hit of at least $50,000 a year. While some poker pros will laugh at this amount, there are other players on PokerStars that would lose the majority of their annual profit if they lost this much in incentives.

Of course, I am referring to the group of players that are rakeback grinders. While most pros could be classified in this category, I am referring to those players whose annual profits are based primarily or even entirely on rewards money. These high volume players are, at best, break-even players with most only experiencing a win after they receive their bonus funds.

Some of these players will have to learn how to play online poker all over again; or rather, they will actually have to improve their skill set in order to recoup the money they will lose from the reduction in incentives. The same also applies to those who overly rely on HUDs to make their decisions during a game and cannot play online poker without one.

Do I believe that PokerStars should have made massive cuts to their incentives for top players? No, but I do think smaller cuts could have been beneficial to the company and would not have created as much backlash.

Reducing percentages or capping rewards, I can see as a potential concession that players could have lived with if it did not come with a complete elimination of VPP’s at high stake games, completely eliminating Supernova Elite and making significant cuts to Supernova players in the meantime.

If I were considering cuts, I would make cuts from 5% to 25% depending on whether you’re PlatinumStar, Supernova or Supernova Elite. The 25% cut being for Supernova Elite. I’d allow high stake players the chance to still earn VPP’s at the higher games or find another way to reward their play at those limits. I would not eliminate it altogether.

PokerStars Doesn’t Exist to Employ Poker Pros

Finally, regardless of our feelings on the recent changes, we have to remember that PokerStars does not exist to provide us with a means to make a living. They are a business whose primary goal is to make money. Those of us that play on the site are not employees of PokerStars; we are customers of the site.

Rewards are supposed to be bonuses for frequenting a site, not a source of income that players should rely on. Poker rooms are not obligated to fund our online poker career. They’re obligated to provide software and the means to play the game. Anything else is gravy.

Some of you are playing at PokerStars simply because of the rewards and I don’t fault you there. If I were a high volume player online, I’d be doing the same. I would also be annoyed with the changes that PokerStars is instituting.

Players are going to have to make some choices in the coming months. Do they change their limits to continue earning rewards? Will they stick at higher limits but forego the rewards? Maybe some will take their action and go to another site that’s giving more rewards than PokerStars. (Does such a beast exist?) Or will they sit back and continue to complain about the changes and how they’re screwing them and other players over? You can probably guess what will happen.

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James Guill

James Guill began his poker career in 2006, spending two years traveling the US tournament circuit. Since 2008, he has covered the game extensively for some of the biggest names in the industry. When not writing about the latest poker news, he can be found hunting for antique treasures in Central Virginia.