Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Bunny boilers


Most UK and Irish poker players have very fond memories of the PokerStars UKIPT tour. Myself included. What many may not remember, either because it was before their time or they have simply forgotten, is that the first season was a pretty dismal failure. Satellites didn't run, it struggled for numbers, and failed to appeal to both recreationals and pros alike with small prize pools and tiny side events.

I gave up on the tour a few stops in after a particularly grim stop in Coventry. When the highlight of your week is almost getting stabbed in an underpass, it seems like a good time to call time on following the tour. I shared a cab to the airport with a Stars employee who was in charge of the tour. He admitted frankly the tour was failing and grilled me for my thoughts on why and what could be done. I answered honestly and made some suggestions, specifically that bigger side events were needed to encourage more serious players to travel, and if they allowed multiple seat and packages to be won players like me would grind satellites and provide more liquidity to ensure they ran.

Back then, players like me and Stars staff both felt like we were on the same team, so when I was asked for input, I didn't just say what was in my own interest but what I genuinely felt was best for everyone. Stars encouraged and fostered a relationship with high volume grinders. Myself and David Lappin were invited to a get together with other grinders and Stars staff in Galway where they plied us with food and booze, solicited our feedback and ideas, and wrote it all down. It was there I first met other grinders I played against every night for the first time like Timmy and Hefs. At the Isle of Man stop we were invited to meet live events staff looking for further feedback. I'm not saying the subsequent success of the tour was all down to this, but it surely didn't hurt. David suggested new formats for satellites that proved popular, and I put forward the idea of a leaderboard which encouraged people to grind satellites and side events with new vigour. UKIPTs were always a pleasure to attend because you ran into a wide range of recreational players only some of whom complained about bad beats at the hands of SlowDoke and PHISHINBOY, and Stars staff who were always friendly, solicitous and expressed admiration for our results and work ethic.

After the tour took off, it seemed our feedback was no longer needed or heeded. The first major mistake Stars made was moving the buyin up to over 1k. That proved a step too far, moving even the satellites out of the reach of recs. The satellites became less attractive for everyone, and there were some I played only because I was chasing the leaderboard. Stars staff starting joking that I was to blame for the overlays. As the satellites got smaller and smaller with more regs, many smart recs began to realise they were a heavily losing proposition for them. Internally in Stars, it seemed that people needed scapegoats, and instead of putting their hands up and saying "We messed up increasing the buyin", it was more prudent to blame the satellite grinders. "Those guys are stopping recs from qualifying" Never mind the fact that they were still heavily incentivising us to play the satellites with an expanded leaderboard prize pool and other perks.

This spin started to percolate out to recreationals. It was essentially a PR own goal: "No point playing satellites any more, they're full of sharks" This was even before the Stars brand started to turn toxic after the Amaya takeover. Cuts across the board made UKIPT stops less glamorous more miserable affairs. That exarcerbated the decline of the tour, sending it into a death spiral.

The Amaya strategy was quickly revealed to be to squeeze as much profit as possible from everywhere, accompanied by propaganda that this was in the best interest of recreationals (more rake is better) and that anything that was bad for pros was good for them. The vast majority of recreationals are far smarter than the spin merchants gave them credit for and saw through this nonsense, and the cancer that had killed the smaller Stars regional tours spread to their flagship EPT brand. Contempt for the customers and their experience plumbed new depths in Barcelona last year, and continued into Prague.

After Prague I (and most of my friends) just gave up on AmayaStars live events. I haven't played a Stars satellite this year and don't intend to. This made the recent oddly worded PR statement from Stars on their reasons for restricting multiple seat and package winners all the more bizarre.



To be fair to the Amaya propaganda machine, they have managed to ram the idea in that grinders like me were killing their satellites so effectively that immediately after releasing this latest propaganda piece, a number of players tweeted to the effect that it meant I was scouring Situations Vacant for a new profession. The reality of course is that I had already found one, at the start of this year, when I announced that because I would no longer be playing many satellites (nor any on Stars), I was finally willing to share the secrets of my success in a course* I was developing. I simply shifted my volume to other sites and normal mtts, and at time of writing I am having my best year online since 2013. in truth I wish I'd stopped grinding Stars satellites years ago.

After Barcelona last year I compared what was going on in Stars to my local shop when I was a child which went into terminal decline under new management. Right now, it seems like Stars response to dwindling numbers and increased customer dissatisfaction is to simply change the name of the shop, and when sales still continue to decline, to blame it on ex clients who had already moved our business elsewhere.

Let's clear something up though. I understand that Amaya is a business. I understand they have a fiduciary responsibility to make as much money as they can for their shareholders. I don't think we have a right to expect that "the good of poker" (whatever that might be) be their objective. If they came clean and said "look we paid too much for Stars and we need to increase profits to get our money back" I'd say good luck to them. What irks me is that instead of saying that when they increase rake, reduce benefits and make the customer experience worse for everyone, they lie and they misdirect and they try to distract us with chests and they insult their customers. They insult those of us who paid them millions in rake down the years and provided much needed liquidity by suggesting we did something underhand profiting at the expense of recreational players. They insult the intelligence of recreationals peddling this nonsense.

I totally accept that they have the right to change their satellite policy without regard to how it affects me and my kind (which it doesn't since we moved our business elsewhere already). I even accept that it might work as a long term strategy to encourage more recreationals back to the pool. But I have my doubts. I wonder where the liquidity will come from. It's not just me and my kind who have dropped out of the satellites: now any recreational is forced out of the pool after they lock up their first seat. And let's make something else clear: it wasn't just pros who benefited from being able to win multiples. Many good recreational players enjoyed the chance to make money in satellites, and cleaned up in them too. As a direct comparison, the first stop after Stars announced their policy change (London) really struggled for satellite liquidity and they ended up qualifying LESS unique players than last year. You can't blame me and David Docherty for that overlay, guys.

Talal Shakerchi pointed out in a recent Thinking Poker podcast interview just how much the general view on Stars has shifted in the last five years. Five years ago they were the good guys. If you went on 2+2 and started a thread complaining about Stars, almost all the feedback would be pro Stars. Now they are your psycho ex, blaming all their current woes on a former lover long since departed. A lover they courted vigorously and seductively, and then turned bunny boiler on us when we wouldn't just lie down and agree that more rake is better.

Stars may have changed the shop name (and rumours suggest they are about to change it back to EPT), but until they stop blaming ex customers and start focusing on providing better service to existing ones, the decline will continue, and we can expect it to get ugly.

* I naively assumed when I announced I was developing this satellite course that it would take a few weeks for me to develop. It ended up taking 6 months and as announced here I recently delivered it as a webinar. The reaction has been overwhelming, I sold out 4 sessions and could go on doing more but endlessly repeating the same material isn't appealing to me, so instead I recorded the last webinar and it is available to buy at $75. Send me the money (Stars (SlowDoke), Party (okearney), ACR (Doked), Paypal, Skrill, Neteller or bank transfer (details on request)) and an email confirming you've done so at dokepokercoaching@gmail.com and it's yours.

6 comments:

If it wasn't for Pokerstars I wouldn't be a professional, that much is for certain. For the first Isle of Man UKIPT they were extremely generous to upgrade my package to a double hotel room at no extra charge. It is sad to watch the sites decline.

As for the UKIPT, the first Dublin one I played they put package winners in the Conrad hotel, still the nicest hotel I've stayed in. This year, for the PSF, it's the Regency. Bit of a contrast.

The current antics of Stars are indeed all the sadder by virtue of the fact that they used to be so good, and lots of great people still work there. Wd in HR at weekend David

Another good blog Dara, both accurate and interesting.

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