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“The online poker landscape has changed over the last few years. Unfortunately, for the most part, things have changed for the worse.”

It’s a simple statement. A statement a lot of us have said over the past few years. But it’s meaning is twice as strong as it ever was before. Poker is suffering, both live and online, and something needs to be done about it.

Fortunately, two different parties have come up with their methods to improve online poker. Are these the answers we are looking for? Can they co-exist? Are these plans from a bunch of degenerates just looking out for themselves, trying to make changes which suit them best? Let’s take a look.

The first article that came out was from the blog of Phil Galfond, one of the most influential players in the online poker world. As a player, he has won almost seven million dollars. He is also an online player very few opponents would want to play heads-up. As a commodity, he was the co-founder of one of the most highly-anticipated training sites to launch and has also managed to make the big leap from online player to the live television games, having been invited to join High Stakes Poker for three seasons. Respected by the online world, he is the unofficial ambassador for online poker.

In his blog, he looks at different methods to bring more action to the high-stakes games which, in his view, is suffering from the actions of the players who are trying to save money whenever they can.

One situation is when “that” one fish leaves the table, the whole reason why the rest of the table is playing. It’s nothing new in poker, in the live games a lot of the action is focused around one or two wealthy businessmen against a table of professionals looking for a nice payday. But there is a difference between the live and online game’s methods. I’ll take a quote from Daniel Negreanu’s recent article from Poker Player for live poker.

“You would see the old pros make the players feel comfortable. Online there is none of that, it’s cutthroat. They don’t learn the social skills. You don’t instantly sit out when a big fish leaves. At the Bellagio we would start a game with just four of us. Okay it’s maybe not a good spot, but if you don’t open the door you won’t get any customers.”

Take a similar quote from Phil Galfond about the online poker game:

“As soon as a “spot” leaves the game, zero to one hands are played. It literally instantly breaks. It’s worse when the player hasn’t even left the table, but has simply busted his stack, or clicked sit-out. Everyone sits out, and when he reloads, sits back in. How would you feel if you were playing poker for fun, just lost a $10k stack, and the 5 people at your table instantly sit-out?

The look of a -EV game to a live player, and an online player, is seen in two very different lights. For the live player, playing in that strong game might risk a few BB’s here and there, but if it entices a wealthy businessman to take a shot with the big boys, it’s a worthwhile investment.

For the online player, very different. They do not like to lose one BB if they can help it. The loss of a fish means they are on a table they cannot hope to gain an edge from and they quit right there and then. If they do it when the player hasn’t left the table, that player is going to feel pretty embarrassed to realise everyone sees him as easy money.

You’ve just lost a loyal customer.

It’s the same with button wars, with tables breaking up from the fear of having to place a blind down before the game breaks up. It stops the games which the fish could join, how do you get action then?

The simple question here is, would that loss of 1BB, which a regular might lose in 50 hands in a table with no edge, be worth it if the fish come back? I reckon it is, and so does Galfond.

Then there is the Heads-Up lobbies on many poker sites. This is what he is talking about.

All the heads-up games practically full of bumhunters. Nobody wanting to play unless they are up against a fish. You can’t stop the individual try to only play weak players, but how does this benefit the poker sites? They don’t make money.

It has come to a point now that the sites themselves have to do something about it. Galfond talks of two methods people have considered. Infinite Heads-Up tables (which could just mean more bum-hunting) and King-Of-The-Hill format (a limited number of tables, but this could mean two players who want to play each other cannot get a table unless they take on someone else.)

Galfond’s answer? To include a “challenge” feature that allows players to anonymously challenge other opponents on tables. When two players happen to challenge each other, a pop-up appears on their screens, and if they accept, they get a heads-up table.

There’s another benefit to all of this, the extra action it could produce could help to make more household names out of online poker players. I consider myself a big fan of poker and try to follow what happens. In the online world, I know of Tom Dwan, Phil Galfond, Viktor Blom, and that’s about it. I couldn’t tell you the difference between any other online player. The three above, just happen to be three players who will be happy to play anyone, for any stakes. That is the reason why they are as popular as they are. Every other player online still tends to be anonymous but for the odd mention on a magazine’s results page.

Having more action means more stories for poker media outlets to write about. That little bit of star-power could help to bring more big-money recreational players to sit down and play, with a look to beat the big boys of online poker.

This is all great for Galfond, but what about those who don’t play for six-figure sums each month? Changes are being made there also.

Recently, Pokerstars were attempting to make a change to their rake attribution system which a lot of players disagreed with. It led to “Occupy Pokerstars”, a mass sit-out protest on the site’s tables to disrupt the amount of rake they acquire and to tell others about the cause. At first, it seemed to have failed, with Pokerstars taking the strict route and banning a number of players.

Out of nowhere, Pokerstars took a different route, and asked a number of players to be representatives for the entire player pool and discuss at their headquarters a compromise. The compromise was shown to the rest of the online poker world on TwoPlusTwo, as the “Pokerstars Player Representatives Report”.

A lot of the solutions helped to benefit the micro-stakes games. 40% of all rake reductions on the site went to the micro-stakes. In fact, every micro-stakes game would have their rake reduced. While the rake was increased in higher-stakes games, it was still kept very low compared to the BB/100 winning players are currently making.

To compensate for the higher rake, Pokerstars have agreed to make it easier for high-volume players to acquire Supernova/Supernova Elite status. They can miss two of the monthly VPP retainers before they lose their status, instead of just one, they can keep their status for twelve months instead of just nine as long as they meet their retainers and the VPP’s needed to acquire Supernova is reduced.

Pokerstars have also placed two new levels at micro-stakes cash games, 8NL and 16NL. This should make it easier for micro-stake players to move up in levels, a feature of poker that a lot of micro-stakes players were cautious about doing before, particularly with the big jumps up from 10NL to 25NL.

A unique solution, is the ability for a player to have their table-cap increased or reduced depending on their playing style. If a player is on twenty-four tables for a large number of hours with no loss of speed, they can have their table-cap increased. If they are the kind of player that disrupts games and tends to time out too much, Pokerstars can lower your table-cap. It should mean smoother gameplay for all tables. This allows more hands per hour and more rake for the poker site while still giving incentive for the players to play more.

These are just a small number of changes that are to be due sometime in the future, but even this brings so much significance to what is happening. For the first time, something is getting done about the condition of online poker, and it has started by the force of the online players. They are now looking for, as Galfond puts it, what is “good for the game”

  • Making poker fun for professional and recreational players
  • Making sure there are no loopholes for players to gain unfair advantages over honest players.
  • Promote the play of more hands.

And as Occupy Pokerstars had shown, the sites have to listen to the masses.

There is so much more information from these two documents alone, that I would need another sixteen-hundred words, at least, to cover it all. Galfond discusses about what should happen to result-tracking websites and HUD’s, the players report goes into specifics about the changes in rake and the changes in Pokerstars’ communication. If you want to know more, follow these links:

Phil Galfond’s Blog

TwoPlusTwo – Pokerstars Players Report

I am a sceptical man, you might have noticed I keep talking about how poker is on the decline. Now, I see some light at the end of the tunnel.

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Perry Garland