Saturday, August 27, 2016

A tale of two tours

I grew up on the outskirts of Enniscorthy. The nearest shop was about half a mile away, a small grocery store very typical of its time and place. In the US it would have been called a Mom and Pop store, but we just called it "the shop". Or maybe just a Pop store: the proprietor was an elderly widower who knew all his customers by name and in broad strokes the things that interested them. I remember chatting with him about the type of maths we'd be doing in fourth class, while he complimented my mother on her hair. We went shopping in the supermarket in town once a week to buy most of what we needed, but went to "the shop" for everything else.

His prices were a fair bit higher than the supermarket in town, but not so high you felt it was worth the trek to town for a few items, or that you were getting gouged. And he was a lot friendlier and more knowledgeable on hard sums and feminine hairstyles than any of the bored checkout girls that worked in the supermarket. So even though money was always tight, he got his fair share of our business, and I always thought that if my mother's wealth plan ever came in (it involved getting 6 numbers right in the shop, apparently, a deceptively simple task I always thought, but one she never successfully pulled off) he might scoop all of our business, given that my mother would have more expensive hairstyles she wanted complimented and I'd have harder sums to brag about my ability to solve faster than any other boy who had ever set foot in the shop.

I guess Pop (as we never called him) eventually got too old to keep abreast of everything he needed to know about to charm people into his shop, or he had enough money to get out of the grocery game altogether, because he accepted an offer from a minor league chain to have the shop transformed into a more efficient Mace mini supermarket. This meant a wider selection of items to purchase, lower prices, and bored checkout girls not quite good enough for the major league chain in town, who wasted no time asking you about hard sums or telling you your blonde highlights really suited you. I tried to impress them with my ability to calculate the total quicker than the cash register, but learned the hard way that girls just weren't impressed by that sort of thing.

Not long after the changeover, we stopped going there, and my parents bit the bullet and moved to a two shops a week schedule in the big supermarket in town. Not long after that, the Mace shut. At the time I had no idea why, but looking back it's pretty obvious they just didn't know their market and basically fell between two stools. They were cheaper than the shop but still too expensive to compete on price with the real supermarket, and the fact that the overall shopping experience was just a slightly crapper version of the one you got in town really brought that into sharp focus.

I thought of the shop for the first time in decades on my most recent poker trip. I went directly from an MPN tour stop in Tallinn to the Pokerstars events in Barcelona. The contrast between the two tours is not so much chalk and cheese as shop and Mace. The MPN tour is cheap and very cheerful, with tour honcha Clodagh, her sidekick Mark, and skin reps like 32Red's Nick Diaz working flat out to provide as much cheer as a presumably quite limited budget allows. Whether it's instantly materialising at reception to sort out some confusion over my hotel booking, arranging to change my dates to come a day later and stay a day longer at no added cost to me, allowing all the players stay in a really high quality hotel for way cheaper than some of the crap hotels Stars puts us in, or entertaining at the players party and exposing herself to getting the face bitten off her, Clodagh works herself so ragged that by the time I saw her on the last day, she was telling me the same two anecdotes over and over in an overwork induced state of Grampa Simpsonmania. Players may come for the poker, but they stay and keep coming back to stop after stop for the experience.

Stars used to be very good at this. In the early days they treated live events as marketing, and budgeted accordingly. Over time they decided they didn't want to spend money on this any more, and the goody bags got meaner, the parties less impressive, the hotels simultaneously worse and more expensive, the tournaments simultaneously faster and more raked. In Barcelona I was told that Amaya no longer want to break even from live events: they want to make as much money as they can from them. And boy does it show.

The 10 am starts means they can churn more bums thru seats every day. The 20-25% payouts mean more people get their money back to go and register another event. I was told in Prague last year by a TD that every seat in the large room was occupied on average 5.5 times a day by a reg paying customer. With more hypers and bigger antes now, that number may be even higher. Before we know it, we may be playing 8 Win The Button hypers a day with 10% reg and a 1.02 buyin min cash sipping water at the table from the sucky cup flask that are the Stars goody bag.

The 10 am starts also make for a lot of tired grumpy players and dealers. One of the features of the EPT and Stars events in general used to be that you had the best and friendliest dealers in the world. Some of the same faces remain and are as friendly and professional as ever, but many have left, and most of their replacements are sullen and unsure of the latest rule changes. It seems clear that customer satisfaction is no longer a priority, and may not even be included as part of the training.

I don't mean to pick on the new dealers. I know it's a tough and often unpleasant job, all the more so when you're dealing to tired grumpy players who haven't had their morning coffee yet. I had a eureka moment about ten years ago when I was dragging myself to the morning commuter train in Clonsilla as part of a human ant trail, and realised I was seeing the same ants every day. I decided I didn't want to go on living like this and started looking for escape routes from the ant trail, which eventually led to poker.

I flashed back to that moment on Sunday (Sunday!) as I filtered into the casino just before 10 am on a Sunday (Sunday!), part of a human ant trail of grinders heading to play a satellite. An hour later, I'm wishing I had more coffee inside me when it all kicks off at the table behind me.

"You just shut up. SHUT THE FUCK UP!"
"You shut up"
"No, you shut up. You've been talking in Polish to your buddy there for the past hour. Were you born in a barn?"
"Maybe we take this outside"
"Let's do that. But just you. Not your buddies too"
"Go back to your barn in Poland and milk your cows"

I'm not sure how readers are visualising the protagonists as they read this, but I'm pretty sure your mental image of the American involved is well off. He looked like the kind of respectful well educated gentlemanly American abroad who can talk to anyone lucky enough to cross his path intelligently about a wide range of subjects. And apparently he is, normally: my friend and roommate for the week Willie Eliot told me that he's a recreational player who works in finance in San Antonio, and is normally one of the nicest people you could ever meet at a poker table. Is this what Amaya is doing to poker: tilting recreational players who have flown thousands of miles for a poker vacation to the point that they are ill advisedly soliciting car park fights with Poles twice their size?

Before you mumble "sample size" let me point out that this was by no means an isolated incident. Me and almost everyone I know was barged and shoulder bumped more often in the ten days in the casino in Barcelona than we are in most calendar years, and most of the tournaments I played would rank in my personal top ten of most Ill Tempered MTTs I've ever played. Stars seem to be trying to weed out the pros and other winning players, while making no effort to make things better for recreational players. None of the recreational players I know have much good to say about the way things seem to be going. Many have already voted with their feet. The pros will always follow the recreationals (and bitch loudly about every new "innovation" that gets rolled out), so hopefully when the recreationals reach the point they are too pissed off with Stars to go on attending, they will at least have a look around at other tours rather than just give up on poker forever. Tours like WSOP, MPN, Party, Winamax, GUKPT, GPPT and Unibet who are all making a much bigger effort to make their events fun and profitable rather than merely profitable.

It might seem odd that I'm writing all this negative Nelly stuff a few days after the biggest ever (and last ever) EPT, but poker is littered with the bodies of players, events and sites that were thought to have become too big to fail. And Amaya in particular have shown an amazing ability to think they can squeeze an extra buck profit by slaughtering the golden goose to sell the meat. I remember a time when OnGame was the fourth biggest site. Then Amaya took over, and killed them. I remember when Full Tilt came straight back in at number two when they finally got up and running again post Black Friday. Enter Amaya and another death spiral began. I remember marvelling at how the UKIPT had grown from very unpromising beginnings to 1000 runner fields in a warehouse in an industrial estate outside Nottingham. And marvelling again at how Amaya had ticked people off to the point that they could barely persuade a few hundred runners into the very sumptuous and centrally located Hippodrome in London back in April. Compare the number of, overall numbers and buzz created by UKIPT events a few years ago with this year's withered tour, and then tell me again how events like Barcelona are too big to ever fail. It's not just UKIPTs, almost every other regional Stars tour is going the same way since Amaya decided they wanted to make as much money as they can from them. And if you look past the banner events of Barcelona and Prague that are successful right now for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with Amaya or the current direction of Stars, their flagship tour starts to look a lot less impressive.

In all of these Amaya debacles, there was a tipping point where the short term greed for profit strangled the golden goose. As I listened to many pros say they'd be skipping Malta as the latest changes have sucked all the fun and profit out of such trips for them, and I heard recreationals complaining about a min cash that didn't even cover their expenses and I saw ultimate poker tourist Aseefo depart Barcelona early saying it just wasn't much fun any more I couldn't help but wonder if this might be a tipping point we will look back on in a few years. When you put in the earphones to block out the Zimmer music and closed your eyes to avoid seeing the confetti cannons and epilepsy inducing TV commercial imagery accompanying the announcement of the live branding changes we were "treated" to at start of play one day, you realised that all that was really happening was an attempt to parlay the success of one European brand (the EPT) into something more global without European in the title, and the merger of a number of dying brands (all the regional tours) into a composite (Pokerstars festivals). And you suddenly had the feeling the WSOP brand is not exactly shaking in their boots, and has no reason to.

After a week largely spent railing on social media at the latest "innovations" from Amaya  which are to the good of nobody other than maybe the Amaya shareholders, Ludo Geilich posted a joke. I say maybe, because even the Amaya shareholders may end up paying a high price for the sheer stupidity and short sighted greed of the people making and defending these decisions, which I'm guessing was Ludo's point in this joke about a protagonist who understands that the decision which makes you the most money in the short term may not be in your long term best interests.

A young boy enters a barber shop and the barber whispers to his customer. “This is the dumbest kid in the world. Watch while I prove it you.” The barber puts a dollar bill in one hand and two quarters in the other, then calls the boy over and asks, “Which do you want, son?” The boy takes the quarters and leaves. “What did I tell you?” said the barber. “That kid never learns!” Later, when the customer leaves, he sees the same young boy coming out of the ice cream store. “Hey, son! May I ask you a question? Why did you take the quarters instead of the dollar bill?” The boy licked his cone and replied, “Because the day I take the dollar, the game is over!”


Great article doke, travelling to play at big events for recreational, and pro players is more than just the money.
The Irish open many years ago run by Paddy Power was my intro to poker , never played the game just railed the wife,
But the craic , PP party, friendly folk and new friends , soon had me hooked like so many fish !
I seldom play on PP now as the " community " feel has gone, as well as the poor live event feeders.
Players qualify ,or buying into events should be treated with more respect, and at least made to feel welcome,
or we may just go to the corner shop, few beers , play on line.

A good read Doke, As I consider a debut trip to Malta your article makes for good reading. As a recreational visitor I may just reconsider now. There is always the Fitz monthly.

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Telling it as it is, as usual - good article. For anyone else, the poor attendance at UKIPT Birmingham should cause them to have emergency meetings and ask people what is wrong,but Amaya don't do much of that. I used to get too many Stars surveys, but they seem to have stopped wondering what customers want. The most insane of all their recent decisions was to kill off the EPT brand - one of the best success stories in poker.

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