Friday, June 5, 2015

Brain surgeons, bus conductors and footballers

When I first entered the corporate workforce almost 30 years ago, Ireland was a pretty depressed place economically. I was therefore happy that my starting salary was well above the national average, and even happier when it more than trebled in the following 2 years. At the time I attributed my "success" to hard work and being good at my job, but looking back I realise it was largely luck, mostly a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Not only was I lucky that my employer experienced explosive growth due to the success of their flagship banking software product, but the relatively small department I found myself in had a shrewd product of the tough streets of the Liberties at the helm. At a time when most bosses worried only about the people over them and not the people under them, my boss realised that the most important people to keep happy are your underlings. Make them your most loyal allies and they will put in the long hours and go the extra mile when needed, all the time singing your praises. So at a time when other managers went to the board with a "I'll get the job done as cheaply at possible and pay my people the minimum", his message was "My people are the best. They're the reason we are the most successful department in the company, and it's vital we retain these superstars, so I need to pay them appropriately to prevent headhunting".

I had a very high opinion of my boss, and it was no surprise to me that he ended up running the company, and later a large multinational. He was also shrewd to get out and retire to the golf course before the Celtic Tiger went tits up. Because of my high overall opinion of how savvy he was, I was surprised to find that at the end of one year where he had uncharacteristically tight trousered and denied his underlings some training and conference trips we requested, he went and blew a whole lot of money on a private corporate gig with the late great comedian Dermot Morgan. When I asked him about it in the New Year, he had a very good answer. He explained that for much of the year the board was telling his tier of management to tighten their belts as they wanted to keep costs down to impress some venture capitalists they hoped to attract. So he felt it was prudent to deny us requested trips abroad. In late November a deal was signed with the venture capitalists that changed the game from "how much can I save from the allocated budget?" To "how can I quickly spend the rest of this year's allocation to allow me to argue I need even more for my department next year?" Packing us all off on whatever management courses he could find at that stage wasn't going to do it (and in any case we were busy with real work) so he decided to blow it on the Christmas party. He admitted that when Dermot said how much he wanted for the gig, his response was "Double it. I have a budget to blow". He also admitted that part of his motivation was he wanted to have his picture taken with Dermot, have a few anecdotes to tell friends, and be the guy who got Dermot Morgan for the Xmas party. For him personally, a picture with Dermot Morgan to hang on his wall was worth a thousand management courses.

When I talk to people I know on the industry side of the poker industry these days, it seems the thing they most want to talk about is how the industry has lost a generation. It seems that after the initial bloom of online poker which saw 15 year olds take to the virtual felt and play more hands by age 16 than Doyle Brunson has in a lifetime, the generation that followed, the so called milennials born around the start of the millennium, have not taken to poker. Instead they have gone elsewhere for their online gaming urges, like Defence Of The Ancients and its spinoffs, and they invented Twitch as their version of TV so they could watch their heroes and friends play those games.

The poker industry is trying to respond to this in a number of ways. First, they are trying to get in on this Twitch thing. All well and good, but there are a couple of problems with poker on Twitch.  Unless you are one of the 0.0 whatever 1 per cent of the population who already finds online poker fascinating to watch, online poker is very very boring to watch, even in comparison to other stuff on Twitch. And the other problem, I'm told by millennials I've heard from in online gaming, is that Twitch itself is seen as a bit passé in their world. In an area of online gaming that is difficult to make a living from, elite gamers initially flocked to it as a way to potentially do that. But a few years on the reality of that dream is its not the goldmine they hoped for.

The other thing the poker industry seems to be doing is instead of hiring poker pros to represent their brands like they used to, they are increasingly signing footballers and other sports stars with no real link to poker. As much as I was tickled by Stars recent signings of Neymar Junior and Cristiano Ronaldo (it was clear for some time they needed to strengthen their squad with someone who could provide a bit of width on the wing, and upfront: now they just need to sort out the defence) I struggle to see how the money spent on this couldn't have been better spent on something else. Maybe I'm wrong and the money it costs to get a photo from Neymar Junior and be a minor footnote on his Wikipedia page* will attract more new players than using it to run new player freerolls or reward your most loyal customers and encourage to go on providing liquidity, but I'm remain to be convinced. I remain to be convinced that at least part of the reason is the same reason I got to see Dermot Morgan in an intimate gig almost 30 years ago: that the people who have the authority to make these kind of decisions would much rather have a selfie with Neymar Junior to tweet or Facebook than some pimply faced kid who played 50,000 tournaments on their site last year. I really struggle to see how a few photo ops and press releases with Neymar Junior is going to translate into hordes of starry eyed millenials signed up to online poker.

The industry seems to be looking at the problem "Why have we not attracted this generation?" and deciding that the answer must be "Do something new". My generation of online players (and here I'm talking not about my physical age but the time when I started playing online poker) was attracted primarily by two things: free money, and the possibility to parlay that into a lucrative living. I never deposited a cent online and managed to run up a 6 figure bankroll from freerolls, signup and deposit bonuses, and a lot of grinding. The last few years have seen sites cut these incentives down to the bare bones. They've also cut back loyalty programmes and pro deals to the point where the promise of a decent living for online grinders that made us all want to be online grinders in the first place seems increasingly illusory. It seems that every year the Stars VIP programme gets a little more withered, and the Team Online deal a little less lucrative, to the point that it's barely worth chasing as a career goal any more.

It's not just the grinders who are being squeezed. The players bags that proved so popular with recreational players at live tournaments seem to get more withered with every passing year, to the point I expect to open one up in a hotel room somewhere and find myself looking at a brick, or a pair of socks. Thanks Auntie Stars, just what I wanted for Christmas.

The poker industry is a very immature one. It's the terrible threes of both the online and gambling industries. Lacking a proper press, it is shaped by a trade press that relies on advertising revenue from sites to the point that all it can do is hold up a mirror and when the operator asks who is the fairest of them all, the only sensible answer, the one that will keep the advertising revenue flowing in, is "You are. You are the fairest of them all". And on we go with this industry of ugly sisters, scrabbling for market position by virtue of being a little less ugly than their competitors, or having a handsomer paid gigolo to bring to the ball (or slap on their webpage).

Maybe the industry needs to wake up, grow up, and realise some things that other more mature industries long since realised. The way to broaden your market is not by maintaining a trade press whose only function is to act as your cheerleader. People can spot a shill when they see one. The reason why online poker stopped attracting new players is not because the previous generation were too pimply and not selfie friendly enough. The industry as a whole has not just shot itself in the foot too often, it's shot and hacked off other limbs with a frequency that makes ISIS look restrained. Does it think just because it managed to keep scandals like UltimateBet and Full Tilt and all the others out of the magazines and PokerNews for so long that people didn't notice? Do they really think this bury-the-only-appendage-you-haven't-shot-off, your head, in the sand approach is the way to reassure people that the industry can be trusted with their disposable income?

Poker needs to realise another thing. It is, almost by definition, a niche market. It cannot grow indefinitely. Having the false expectation that it can leads to ruin, fuelled by pumping money into increasingly desperate projects to increase a market that has simply reached saturation. When you are in a niche market, the first thing you need to do is accept and admit this. Undertakers don't stress about the fact that not enough people are dying any more for their industry to keep growing as a whole. They don't go around killing people to grow the market, and they certainly don't blow money on photos of Brazilian footballers for their coffins.

Rather than blame the previous generation of poker players for killing the appeal of the game by being too dull or too unphotogenic, the poker industry needs to look inwards. It needs to realise it has to spend more time and effort making sure that no depositor ever loses his money to theft or incompetence and less on keeping those stories out of the cheerleader press when they do happen, and less on distracting pictures of sports stars.

It needs to realise that when they cut VIP reward schemes and Team Online deals, they aren't just saving money that can be used to sign Neymar Junior or pay bigger dividends to investors. They are killing the dream, that central promise that made my generation commit to online poker. People flocked to it from other games such as chess, backgammon or Magic the Gathering because they saw poker as something they could make a very good living if they put in the time and effort to get good at it. Ben Jenkins once pointed out that the great thing about poker is that whether you are a brain surgeon or a bus conductor, you are equal at the table. The problem now is that having attracted my generation in by allowing us to make as much as a brain surgeon does, they are now looking to pay everyone bus conductor wages. "Come play online poker and maybe one day you too can make as much as a bus conductor does " is not how you attract the next crop of potential young players. Kids kick footballs around the streets of Rio de Janeiro because they know if they get as good as Neymar Junior at football, the rewards will be handsome. But they're not going to take up poker just because Stars paid to put Neymar Junior's photo on their website. Especially when they find out that average grinder makes less in a year than he does in a week.

The industry needs to stop seeing grinders as parasites taking a small part of their pie of recreational players money, parasites that need to be squeezed. They need to realise what my first boss knew: it's the people below you in the chain you need to keep happy. Reward them for their efforts, and they will not only be your most vocal champions, but the shining examples that makes other people want in. If you scorn and squeeze them, they will go elsewhere, and good luck getting new people to sign up once your reputation is in tatters and everyone knows you pay bus conductor wages.

*Turns out I actually overestimated what Stars got for their money. There is no mention of them on Neymar's Wikipedia page



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