As many in the poker industry are keenly aware, the sustainability of online poker is extremely dependent upon recreational and casual players continuing to log on and play. Of course, its important to have grinders who are multi-tabling and generating loads of rake and revenue for poker sites. But, without casual players bringing an influx of new cash to the table, the grinders would have no one to play against.
Although many poker players are undoubtedly there to win money, there is a certain segment of players--the casual type--who are playing for the sheer fun and enjoyment of the game. If a few dollars happen to come there way by taking down a big pot or two, all the better, but its not necessarily the primary reason why they sit down at the virtual felt to play. One need look only as far as the popularity of Zynga Poker, and their over 30 million active monthly players worldwide, to realize that people will play poker without risking any money simply because its a fun game to play. And there are many of those fun-seeking players who deposit at real-money sites to increase their enjoyment by wagering a few dollars. But there are also a lot who still don't.
Poker rooms have begun to realize the importance of the recreational players to the game and are putting an emphasis on catering to casual players. 888 Poker is a good example of a poker site that is attracting players looking for fun and entertainment. In fact, one of their popular promotions consists of a genie appearing on PokerCam tables and challenging players to compete in various games not necessarily related to poker and giving away cash and prizes. This is an innovative and fun offshoot to the poker game that most likely would not appeal to multi-tabling grinders. The PokerCam tables are also a way for players to add to the game's enjoyment by being able to see your opponents on webcams while playing. Again, not something that the more serious online players would enjoy, but an offering geared to casual players who want to see each other and enjoy chatting and partaking in the social aspects of sitting at a table with mostly strangers.
Bodog has also attempted to attract casual players, but has taken a very different approach by making all their tables completely anonymous. While this does accomplish the goal of eliminating the use of poker-tracking software to take away the advantage that more savvy players can gain against the recreational players, it fails to address the social aspect of the game that casual players tend to enjoy in communicating and interacting with other players who actually can be labelled with a screen name while playing.
Other poker networks have also dabbled in tipping the scales back to benefit recreational players. The Everleaf Gaming Network went so far as to disallow winning players from sitting at certain tables populated by an abundance of losing players with poor ratings. Everleaf's goal was to establish a “healthy player and financial balance within the card room,” by prohibiting players who had weekly winnings over €750 from playing at particular tables. Upon attempting to join such a table, the winning players received a pop-up message on their computer monitors stating that they "are not allowed to play on this table because your player rating is too high.” Likewise, losing players trying to join a table dominated by winning players would receive a warning that said, “the rating of the table is higher than yours, do you really want to play on this table?” Player ratings were compiled on a weekly basis and began from scratch each Sunday at midnight.
Another attempt at favoring casual players has been undertaken by the Ongame Network and their Essence valuation model that adjusts the amount of points players receive in VIP loyalty programs of Ongame skins according to the ratings of opponents. Taking on less experienced or lower-rated players will earn slightly less points based on rake distribution and competing against better players earns more points. Ongame has branded their attempt to balance the playing field as a success, citing statistics that show an increase in recreational, net depositing players since the advent of the Essence concept. "Essence helps create an even healthier ecosystem, in a way that is unique for the entire poker industry,” said Fredrik Kjell, Head of Poker at the Ongame Network.
One question that comes to mind is what could be done to bring more recreational players to the game? One factor that may keep a good portion of the millions of players who play for free or play-money at sites like Zynga Poker is the fear that they will be eaten up by more experienced players at real-money sites. There are undoubtedly loads of casual players who wouldn't mind losing a few dollars for the opportunity to win as long as they could be assured of facing players with the same level of skills as their own. Perhaps some sort of player rating system that would enable players to play only against those with a similar rating or skill level.
Promotions such as PokerStars "Road To 100 Billion" in which cash and prizes are awarded to players for participating in certain hands leading up to a milestone hand are always very popular and tend to increase player traffic significantly. Although there are no numbers to back it up, I am quite sure that a lot of the additional player traffic comes from casual players who are hoping to cash in--as well as have some fun--in trying to be a participant in one of the bonanza milestone hands. What if poker sites ran promotions like this on a continuous basis? Recreational players are attracted to such freebies and promotions and find enjoyment in being involved.
Although often criticized by poker purists as being bad for the game and aligning the skill game of poker with the luck of a lottery, bad beat jackpots are also very popular among the recreational player crowd. Casual players relish the opportunity to bet a few dollars at the chance of hitting a big jackpot and seem to come out in droves when bad beat jackpots are in the million dollar range. Its surprising why poker rooms are not coming up with more such innovative ideas that are extremely profitable for the poker site and have a tremendous appeal for casual players.
Making the game of poker more fun and balancing the scales to allow casual players to be more on an even playing field with the more experienced players is certainly no longer a new concept. Many poker rooms have made significant strides in catering to recreational players. Some have succeeded more so than others. But there are still a lot of poker players out there who have not ventured into the world of real-money poker play. A lot of players who probably would bring their money to an online poker table if they had assurances of entertainment, as well as opponents with skill levels that match their own.