Two-time European Poker Tour (EPT) champion Victoria Coren made headlines last week when she terminated her sponsorship contract with PokerStars. Coren made the decision in the wake of the announcement by the company that it would begin offering casino pit games as well as sports betting natively to its .com and shared liquidity client.
In explaining her unwillingness to continue wearing the Red Spade Patch, she made a distinction between the “essentially fair nature of poker” and the “unfavorable odds” of pit games played against the house.
It is understandable that this comment has garnered the lion’s share of commentary since her statement was released. The debate over whether or not making pit games available in the PokerStars client will encourage more problem gambling amongst susceptible populations is a legitimate concern.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with Coren’s conclusions, the bottom line is that the decision to leave money on the table due to principle is without question an extraordinarily admirable one.
However, now that we have all had some time to digest exactly what was said, I want to throw something else into the marketplace of ideas that struck a chord with me as I read Coren’s words and which has received little, if any, attention so far in the community and iGaming industry up to this point:
Coren’s statement shows why the decision by Amaya Gaming to introduce casino games to PokerStars is the beginning of the end of what has been the world’s largest online poker site for almost a decade.
Reports of the Death of Online Poker Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
Amaya paid nearly five billion dollars to acquire PokerStars this summer, and only after a handful of very financially savvy people loaned them the lion’s share of the cash to do it.
I’m not a finance guy, but that hardly seems like the mark of a dying industry.
I continue to find it impossible to wrap my head around the reality that not a single day goes by in the poker media sphere without an article on how online poker is dead or dying. Yes, the Moneymaker Boom is over; yes, the vast majority of the United States online poker market remains on the sidelines for the time-being; yes, the games are getting tougher every year.
Despite all of this, however, PokerStars – with its poker only client – was shown in Amaya’s recent public corporate filings to still be a profitable company – by a very wide margin – over three years after “Black Friday” shut the company out of what would undoubtedly be its most lucrative market.
It’s true that things could be better; it’s also true that they could be worse.
Coren’s words put a human face to what the numbers already told us – that poker is a very special, very unique, gambling game. It attracts math geniuses, chess wizards, and generally intelligent, competitive, people in a way that watching a ball bounce around a spinning wheel-well with colors painted onto it simply never will.
I don’t blame Amaya for wanting to market an online casino to the world’s largest list of poker players. There are a number of ways they could have done this – cross-platform marketing/promotions being the most obvious.
Distorting the core message of the PokerStars brand, however, is not the way to go about it.
The End Of The “We Are Poker” Business Model
I have no doubt that Coren comes from a place of sincerity when she writes:
This is no criticism of PokerStars itself: business is business, they are providing a new service that people want, and I know they intend to abide by some key principles of responsible gaming.”
Coren meant this statement to be taken in the context of responsible gaming; it is not my intention to quote her out of context. However, the way it’s structured got me to wondering if offering online casino games can really be characterized as a “new service” – and consequently, what exactly the market for them looks like within the context of an online poker site.
Coren’s statement struck me in that way because – whether she intended it to or not – her decision to sever her association with the PokerStars brand is the largest indictment yet of how the Amaya Gaming corporation is performing in its new role as steward of the world’s largest online poker site.
At its core, what she is saying is, ‘hey, the PokerStars brand has been fundamentally altered away from poker and towards that of a casino, and I’m not OK with that.’
While the departure of one sponsored pro is nothing more than a blip on Amaya’s radar, these sentiments are – to varying degrees – increasingly prevalent within the online poker community as a whole.
However, the departure of such a well-known, mainstream, personality shows just how deep the perception that the PokerStars brand is increasingly interchangeable with any other online casino, runs.
It is also one that Amaya ignores at its own peril.
Barriers to entry are high right now across a fractured, de-centralized, regulatory landscape in Europe and the rest of the world. The same cannot be said, however, for future interstate regulation in the world’s most lucrative market – where long established gaming companies are chomping at the bit to get involved.
Lighting ten years of goodwill on fire to make a quick buck for investors may be a great decision for a company with a monopoly position facing the exigencies of now, but for a company hoping to enter into an already competitive environment it’s nothing short of self-immolation of its most valuable asset.
Coren’s principled stance in defense of the vulnerable and desperate is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly cynical world. Hearing such an eloquent, thoughtful statement coming from one of the true ambassadors for the game should give Amaya pause about the direction it is taking PokerStars.
If Amaya really listens to her words, they will notice the soft crescendo of what in America we affectionately refer to as “the footsteps” – those of the competition gaining ground, ready to vie for the title of “We Are Poker.”