Sunday, December 18, 2016

Bumrake in Prague

I don't have as many happy memories of EPTs as I do of, say, UKIPTs. I only started playing them when Stars introduced 3x satellites, a new format most regs dismissed as crapshoots. I quickly worked out that not only was this not true, it was way off, and massive edges were to be had in them. Not to blow my own horn but I think I was the first (or at least among the first) to work out optimal strategy from first principles. Certainly for a good 12-18 months, I enjoyed the highest ROI of anyone in the world in them, and my first massively profitable year on Stars was based almost entirely on them (I played almost nothing else on Stars at the time, preferring to grind softer Euro sites).

Winning several packages to every EPT and UKIPT stop meant I was in a sense freerolling the tournaments themselves, but that's not how I looked at it. I still wanted to do well, but didn't. It took me almost a dozen EPTs to notch up my first cash (in Berlin). My record since then is much better (cashing roughly half the time), but a truly deep run has eluded me.

Given that, and the fact that Prague would be the last ever EPT, I went there hoping to run deep. I have been in good form live the past few months, but sadly it wasn't meant to be. My tournament was a pretty miserable grind to hang in around starting stack for most of day one before a memorably ugly exit.



I grinded side events with more success, cashing over half those I played and notching up 7 cashes on the trip. Unfortunately most of these were min cashes, with the only half decent score a bink in the only EPT satellite I played (I really should have played more). Nevertheless, a profitable trip is always something to be grateful for.  I also managed to sneak in one mini Sunday grind, where a couple of satellite binks and my deepest run ever in the Milly made for a decent day.

Whine moan bitch

Before I go on, I should warn the reader that moans and complaints from pampered pros such as myself are not everybody's cup of tea. If you are one of those people then you should stop reading now.



However, I do think most players realise that these complaints come not from a place of self pity, but from a desire to raise legitimate concerns and issues with the quality of service and experience provided not just to myself but much more importantly to recreational players for whom an event like this represents a much bigger deal. A bad experience at a live event won't stop me from playing live (it's my job after all) but could very well turn away recreational players. And once that happens, the game is up for all of us. I was very grateful to all the players who personally expressed gratitude to myself (and Lappin) for the abolition of the refund min cash and the 10 am starts after we vigorously complained about them in our Barcelona blogs. I don't think we can claim all or even much of the credit for the reversals of policy, but it's always nice to be understood and appreciated.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let's look at what was bad in Prague.

Clock chaos

I have literally never seen anything like some of the clock problems I saw in Prague. One flight of the Cup was marred by a clock that seemed to have a mind of its own. Random stops and starts, level jumps, unscheduled breaks, inability to display prize pools or number of remaining players, the clock software seemed to be designed by Murphy as everything that possibly could go wrong seemed to.

The next turbo side event I played was even worse. By now I was starting to wonder if having won the election for Trump, Putin had now instructed his hackers to turn their efforts to bringing down Stars. We were sent on a break near the bubble as the excellent and overworked tournament staff tried to sort it out. We came back to find they'd just given up: thereafter they were reduced to walking around like town criers shouting blind levels and number of players left while we all looked at a frozen clock. In this medieval environment I missed a pay jump narrowly not realising I should be tightening my ranges slightly because of inaccurate information from the town criers.

When I finally bust I stood up waiting to be collected and brought to the payout (standard operating procedure). After an awkward delay I realised nobody was coming so I attracted the attention of the nearest town crier. He derisively tossed his head in the direction of a faraway payout table. I don't blame him as he was run off his feet at this point due to the clock chaos, but I also don't see how I was supposed to magically divine where the payout table was.

By day 2 of the cup, the most common floor announcement was "please ignore the clock in the cup". I was told by Stars staff that the problem was eventually identified as a bug that couldn't have been tested for before as it only arose when two people were editing the clock simultaneously. As someone who worked for almost two decades in software, I strongly disagree with that assessment. That's not "impossible to test for", that's pretty basic stress testing.

Schedule

Last year we were told by tournament staff that every seat in the big tournament room was "turned over" on average 5.5 times a day, meaning that five and a half rake paying bums occupied each seat each day. That's testament both to the organisational skill and efficiency of the organisers, and the "bums in seats" mentality that has taken over since the Amaya takeover.

I don't know what this year's bumrake number was, but I'm guessing it was even more than 5.5. Stars crammed over 100 tournaments into the schedule, mostly turbos and hypers. That's grand for pros like me who are there to grind, but really not much fun for recreational players. Many of the other issues that added up to a very unpleasant experience (ten handed tables, tired tilted dealers, large alternate lists, tables in noisy draughty corridors, lack of sociability) flowed inevitably from this decision to cram the schedule. The WSOP spreads fewer events out over 6 weeks: cramming 100 into one week is just a recipe for disaster. When the pros are all rushing from one event to another and the recreationals are in a long alternate list waiting to be seated and everyone is tilted from ten handed poker dealt by tired snippy dealers, nobody has either the time or inclination to socialise away from the table, or at it. A rather dark hostile atmosphere loomed over most of the tables I found myself at.

Dealers

EPT used to be known for having the best dealers in the world. No more. Why have so many great dealers disappeared from the scene in the last year or so? Why do they seem to insist on replacing half the dealers with total newbs every single stop? I've been told the answers to both these questions is "to keep established dealers on their toes" and "to reduce costs". Whatever the reason, EPT can no longer claim to have the highest standard of dealing, and the whole culture has changed from one where the dealers knew their job and more importantly how to handle inexperienced players to one where they don't necessarily and they snip at inexperienced players who are slow to ante.

I don't like hating on dealers or floor staff. I have at least as many friends on that side of the business as on the playing side. I recognise its a tough largely thankless job, all the more so when you are dealing to tired grumpy players tilted by lack of personal space and the slow nature of ten handed poker. I felt guilty complaining about dealers to the point I started tweeting  pictures of the good ones I encountered every day as "Doke's dealer of the day".



I have nothing but admiration for floor staff like Kate and Dena and Glenn and Nick as they whizzed around breaking tables and dealing with bubbles in the most trying conditions imaginable, all the time maintaining the professionalism and friendliness that distinguished them as great dealers in the past. The point is they should not have to be exceptional just to be adequate. The finger of blame points squarely at their corporate masters who exploit their work ethic by overworking them.

Ten handed misery

The stock excuse for ten handed play is always numbers. Too many players too few tables not enough dealers. This was exarcerbated by the packed schedule. If the night club is too full, you don't respond by adding attractions and letting more people in, but this is basically what they did when they decided to increase the number of tournaments dramatically this year.  Worse, it was exposed as a damn dirty lie on my last full day in Prague, as I sat in a room where 75% of the tables lay empty (these events start to die slowly a few days from the end as more and more people leave town), and yet the tables that were occupied were still ten handed! The reason for this was reportedly that most of the dealers had been sent home the previous day, leaving just enough to cope with remaining demand, so long as the tables remained ten handed. So basically, more cost cutting.

Structures and rake

As I mentioned, most of the schedule was turbos (15 minute blinds) and hypers, designed presumably to maximise bumrake. Add in the fact that almost every event regardless of structure was apparently raked at 13% plus and you started to smell the ripoff. I say "apparently" because it seems to be the new policy to hide the rake, advertising only the buyin. I think the 550 hyper buyin broke down to 500 plus 50 in rake with another 3% taken out for staff costs. If a Stars employee knows differently, please advise me. More importantly advise your employer to start advertising the rake again.

I boycotted all the hypers due to rake concerns. As much as I love a good easy Hendon mob cash, 13% rake on a ten minute crapshoot is a ripoff too far.

Moving from the general to the specific, the worst single example of a ripoff came in the turbo I played on my last full day in Prague. By then I'll admit I was somewhat on autopilot and looking to getting home, so I didn't notice anything until uproar erupted at the table behind me. Recreational players were demanding an explanation from floor staff as to why the clock had been changed from 30 minutes (as advertised) to 15 without anyone being told. They were told initially that it just was. Then that it was a typo or a mistake. Several protested they wouldn't have registered had they known it was a 15 minute clock, only to be told there was nothing that could be done about it now.

It fell to Lappin and myself to take to the social media to highlight the change. This apparently annoyed Stars to the point where Lappin was pulled aside at the next break for a discussion with Stars staff. I wasn't present for those discussions so I'll leave it to David to reveal what was discussed.

And now, the end is near, and so I face, the final curtain

Some people who follow me on social media were concerned I was a bit life tilted by the whole experience in Prague. Nothing could be further from the truth. Prague is a beautiful city and a wonderful place to be in winter. I was lucky enough to be sharing accommodation with a great bunch of guys, and enjoyed many great meals, walks, runs and coffees in their company. I thank my lucky stars every morning that I get to play cards for a living, and to have a wonderful wife and lots of great friends who support me in this.

I don't want to be the guy who just complains about Stars all the time. I will do so until I reach the point where I think there's no longer any hope of change. After that I'll vote with my feet. There's a decent chance this will be my last blog moaning about Stars. As a result of the loyalty programme changes, my Supernova status there will expire at the end of January. After that I expect to reduce my volume on Stars dramatically, concentrating even more on better value sites. There's a decent chance this will be my last ever complaint blog if for no other reason Prague might have been my last Stars live event. Again, it feels like the time to vote with my feet and favour other tours is at hand. Before finishing, I would like to acknowledge some of the things Stars got right in Prague. In growing the numbers attending the festival year on year they are doing something right. The registration and payout procedures flowed relatively smoothly, thanks in no small part to being staffed by several top notch long term Stars staff. The security queue chaos was less than in previous years, thanks mainly (as far as I could see) to a Stars security man whose name I don't know but have seen at other events who supervised the local security staff excellently (edit: I'm reliably informed by my good friend Willie Elliot that the gentleman in question is a Scottish guy living in Ireland called Tony (according to Barny Boatman): his accent is indeed a marriage. In the words of Willie he is "conspicuously good"). The floor staff were for the most part excellent, and even if overall dealing standards have fallen, a lot of great dealers remain. The damage done to the Stars live events brand in the past year or so is (in my view at least) both irrefutable and reparable. They clearly haven't as yet lost the masses and there is still time for them to avert crisis. However, it is sad that the last memories most people will take away from the successful EPT brand will be for the most part miserable.

While the work experience and atmosphere at the tables in Prague was as unpleasant as I've ever encountered, I'm perfectly capable of sucking it up when it's my job. I worked in unpleasant environments long before poker. The reason I moan whinge and complain as much as I do about these things is the same reason I would complain about bad service in a restaurant. I'm hoping my complaints will result in better service for myself and other clients in the future, or if not, help persuade customers to look elsewhere for better service. I feel that players like myself and David who have a louder voice than your average recreational player have a responsibility to air the concerns of recreational players after they've been told to like it or lump it. It would be far easier for us to just keep our heads down and wait for things to reach a tipping point before we vote with our feet, but as long as there's any prospect, no matter how remote, that we can annoy the powers that be to the point that we can at least help improve things for the better for players of all levels, then we have a responsibility to continue as thorns in their side.

I started this blog with a declaration that I didn't have many happy memories of EPTs. But judging from a personal message I received from one young aspirant in the industry, there must have been some. I won't reveal his name for fear of hampering his future career prospects, because if there's one industry that needs insiders that care about the customer experience, it's the poker industry.



I get a sense that Stars have come to see vocal critics like myself and David as an annoyance they would like to get rid of. But they should perhaps remember that it was the genuine praises and plaudits we heaped on them in the past (and that we continue to heap on operators like Unibet Party and Microgaming who do still care about customer experience and deliver a positive one) that helped romanticise and build their brands in the first place. They may accuse us of what the Aussies call tall poppy syndrome, but if you cut off the heads of all the poppies, you are left with a field of stems that nobody wants to look at.

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