Getting a Fair Game in Online Poker

The other day, myself, Kim Lund, and Taylor Caby on Twitter talking about Bodog’s Patrick Selin’s remarks in a recent interview where he referred to winning players as “sharp players.”

Slowly the conversation started to devolve a bit and we all decided that it was best handled via a medium other than Twitter so I think we all semi-pledged to write a blog post about it if we had the time.

So let me start off.

Wikipedia defines the term, “sharp” as:

A card sharp (informally cardsharp, card shark, card snark or cardshark) is a person who uses skill and deception to win at poker or other card games. Sharp, Snark, or Shark appears to be interchangeable based on region and local dialect.

The label is not always intended as pejorative, and is sometimes used to refer to practitioners of card tricks for entertainment purposes. In general usage, principally in American English and more commonly with the “shark” spelling and much less frequently with “snark”, the term has also taken on the meaning of “expert card gambler who takes advantage of less-skilled players”, without implication of actual cheating at cards, in much the same way that “pool shark” or “pool hustler” can (especially when used by non-players) be intended to mean “skilled player” rather than “swindler”

Although, I think within the poker community calling someone a “sharp” would probably convey more of a negative connotation. So either Selin used the term intentionally meaning for it to be interpreted negatively or he’s demonstrating a lack of understanding of the poker community. At the very least, it’s a very uncommon phrase (shark being more common) which, again, makes one question whether or not someone using a term that hearkens back to riverboat gambling days really is in touch with today’s poker climate.

Where the conversation went astray was regarding the whole concept of handicapping the game in favor of the fish. Obviously, Bodog thinks that handicapping games is their duty as a poker room. However, it’s a very self-serving role as it is easy to argue that Bodog profits more from this policy more than the players. If they eliminate the players who win and withdraw their winnings they can’t win the money back from them in the, far more profitable, casino and sports book.

I’m of the mindset that the poker room’s job is to provide liquidity and a fair game. By fair, I mean, they’ve done everything possible to prevent cheating, the deals are fair, and that people get paid out when they win. Call me a purist if you will.

One of the questions Kim posed was:

@taylorcaby @billrini Scenario 1: Lose all my money to someone using tools I don’t know of. Scenario: I lose it to rake. Which is better?

Tools are part of the game and they’re accessible to everyone. Anybody can go out and buy PokerTracker or Hold’em Manager. You not hearing about them is like saying that because you’ve never heard of David Sklansky and I have that I should be barred from playing with you because I have an unfair advantage.

As long as a tool does not recommend a particular play you are playing with the same information as everyone else at the table. If I happen to remember that you always limp with pocket aces from EP or I look it up in PokerTracker, how is that any different?

I know that an argument can be made that most people don’t have a photographic memory so the tools do provide an unfair advantage. I get it. I just don’t agree with it. Reading a poker book can make you a better player. So, should we segregate players based on which poker books they’ve read? Or how about how long they’ve been playing? Should a player who has been on the site 5 years be segregated away from players who have been on the site a year because the guy who has played for 5 years has far more experience?

And what about information available in live play that is not available online? I might not remember how poker9845948 plays but I definitely remember how that older guy with the blue Commerce hat plays. Or what about the advantage I have seeing a player who was getting a massage all of a sudden perk up and throw a raise into a pot? Or how about that other player who is on his fifth beer and is texting between hands?

And what do these stats tell us exactly? Does it really help me to know that this guy playing the micro-limit games has a VP$IP of 40%? Don’t they all? And who’s to say that these stats are accurate for that player? I play all over the place. I play limit, NL, Omaha, Hold’em, Razz, HORSE, micro-limits, middle-stakes, higher-stakes SnG’s, etc. I’m not a grinder. I don’t play for a living. Sometimes I’m tight as a rock because I’m reading emails and can’t be bothered to get involved in anything less than a premium hand. Other times I might be playing on a micro-limit table and calling everything because I have an evil desire to tilt the hell out of someone with a monster suckout and the $10 I might drop doesn’t really impact me.

In reality, player stats are nice and they might give some fraction of an edge to someone but probably no more of an edge than being highly observant in a live poker room might make you. And the worse the opponent the less of an edge they give. Fish play unpredictably because they aren’t thinking about their VP$IP or whether or not they show the correct amount of pre or post flop aggression. They just play the way that feels right. And that can change day to day, hour to hour, or even hand to hand.

Where stats do make a bit more difference is when you have two fairly evenly matched, skilled opponents where the edge is so small that any advantage can turn the game in their favor. When Brian Hastings is playing against Isildur1 and has his hand histories from hands Brian didn’t play in, that is an edge.

But then again, Bodog’s policy is not intended to prevent that kind of edge. They’re not trying to keep sharks from feeding on sharks. They’re trying to keep sharks from eating the fish but the sharks already have such a huge edge over the fish that stats programs only play a marginal role.

Poker, by the very nature of being a skill game, dictates that people will often be outclassed by their opponents. Removing that aspect of the game turns it into a completely different game. Or, as I said in one of my tweets, it bastardizes the game. You’re not playing poker anymore. You’re playing Bodog Poker. It’s like calling Omaha, Hold’em with four hole cards. There are similarities but it’s a different game.

And if Bodog wants to rename the card game they offer to Bodoker or something, that’s totally cool. Just don’t call it poker. Poker is not meant to be handicapped.

I have a real problem with this line of thinking. Most networks want to change the game of poker to patch the fundamental flaws in the poker network model (Bodog has been claiming they are launching a network for several years now).

The underlying flaw in the poker network model is that poker networks act like a franchise system without any of the franchise system benefits. Usually if you buy a franchise you buy exclusivity. If I buy the McDonald’s franchise for Southern California I expect that McDonald’s isn’t going to sell 10 other people the rights to open McDonald’s stores in Southern California.

But that’s exactly what poker networks did. They were greedy and pretty much sold a skin to anybody who had the money. They sold 5, 10, 20 skins all aimed at the same exact market. So not only did your McDonald’s franchise have to compete against Burger King, In and Out, Tommy’s, Carl’s Jr, Wendy’s, and a dozen other burger shops, but some asshat just opened up a McDonald’s right across the street from you.

At least with Burger King and the rest you can compete on quality, selection, etc but you have nothing unique to compete with against the McDonald’s right across the street because you’re basically mirror images of each other.

And what did we all learn in Business 101 or Economics 101? When there is no differentiation in product the only thing left to compete on is price. Thus rakeback, under the table deals, player poaching, etc.

As the poker market has matured and become more competitive the chickens are coming home to roost. And rather than fix the model they’re trying to change the game of poker with their contrived models.

Like I said, the poker room’s job is to provide liquidity and a fair game. Nowhere in there is a mandate to handicap players based on skill or win rate. Nowhere in there is there a mandate to penalize players for being too good.

The problem is providing ample liquidity and, in many cases, competing business interests. Providing a liquid player pool is tough and expensive and has only become more and more so as the industry has matured. Player values are dropping while the cost to acquire those players is increasing. This is one reason why poker networks are so focused on protecting their fish. They’ve paid a lot of money to acquire them and they don’t want sharks coming in and gobbling them up before they can make their money back.

But that’s part of the business and the game. It’s a business where 90% of the players are net losers. You have to keep feeding the beast to keep everything going. It’s not okay to lower your attrition rate by modifying the rules of the game or tinkering with the poker ecosystem. That’s not part of the poker room’s mandate. Sure, it serves their business interests but it’s not necessarily to the player’s advantage.

Bill Rini
Bill Rini is currently the Head of Online Poker for WSOP. He has been working in the online poker industry since 2004 and has held management roles at Full Tilt Poker and PartyPoker.

20 thoughts on “Getting a Fair Game in Online Poker”

  1. Nice thread … as an aside on protecting players from winning players… in the 90’s pre boom NL and PL games were almost non existent we lobbied hard for a PL game at an midwest cardroom and the manager’s reply was NL and PL provided too much of an edge for winning players and would soon bust the player pool. (seeing rooms slow down since the boom there may be some anecdotal evidence that this is true that plus the enormous rake)

  2. Nice to see you’re still writing, Bill!
    But pleeaaaaase give us more insights into your predictions regarding the poker market. Ayre and the other big guys seem to be crazy about the Asian market and we affiliates are also more then interested which markets to target… especially since the liberalisation of most European markets doesn’t seem to be in our favour :/


  3. Great Post Bill!

    However I disagree, as a business Bodog does have the right to do whatever they see fit to achieve their company’s goals. But the real debate seems to be over Bodog’s use of the word poker for their games.

    I agree with the majority of posts here, in that Bodog should not call their new handicapped version of the game “poker”. That is clearly mis-representing their games.

    Unless Bodog goes off the deep end with this handicapping, I doubt it will have too much of an effect on the game anyways. A lot of fish that start playing poker, watch Daniel Negreanu or Tom Dwan make a killer call on the river on the World Series of Poker without seeing the 100 hands that led up to that call. Bodog might be able to tilt their games in favor of the fish slightly, but there is no way they can account for that players unpredictable, uneducated play.

  4. I have always been against huds, yes they are availble to every one if you have the money to blow.
    Most player are recreational and play for fun.

    Ban all huds.

  5. Great post – I agree with it totally and I would go further…

    By implementing anonymous tables Bodog has effectively neglected their duty to provide fair games. They leave their site open to abuse by bots which are now the greatest threat to the online poker industry.

    In a recent list of sites ranked by security Bodog came second from the bottom!

  6. @Daniel:

    My point was that the way you put it and the way I interpreted it, was that a poker company has no right in “handicapping” good players.

    They don’t if they’re still going to call the game poker. If they want to call it Boker or some other name, fine. But to change the game and then market it under the same name as poker is not accurate.

  7. @ Bill: “I agree with you that the comparison is apples and oranges but my point wasn’t to distinguish apples and oranges. It was to point out both are fruit.”.

    True, but you wouldn’t use tomatoes in a fruit salad ;)

    “And it’s not about PokerTracker. It’s about Selin’s repeated demonizing of good players and Bodog’s belief that they need to handicap the games in favor of the fish.”

    To some extent it’s handicapping all players (as no one can use the specific software) and to some extent it’s making sure there are no unfair advantages. In my humble opinion, I think PokerTracker is an unfair advantage that doesn’t really replicate what online poker is, or should, be about.

    “And I have as much of a right to speak about this as anybody. If you think McDonald’s should sell hot dogs are you supposed to shut up and keep that opinion to yourself or do you say something hoping that McDonald’s hears you and acts upon your suggestion?”

    I didn’t mean that you have no right to speak about this – you have the right to speak about whatever you may want to and I love your opinions. My point was that the way you put it and the way I interpreted it, was that a poker company has no right in “handicapping” good players.

  8. “Sharp” is a term used for advantage sports bettors; maybe he is innocently transplanting that term.

  9. @Robert: I think that’s the point. What they did, in reality, has no major impact on whether the better players can win. However, it is part of an overall pattern of poor decisions regarding maintaining the poker ecosystem.

    And when Selin starts using words like “sharp” to describe better players it gives the impression that he views winning players as cheating players.

    BTW, Bodog is not a network but they have aspirations to become a network. They’ve announced that they are becoming a network. How that’ll happen in today’s current environment is yet to be seen but they have claimed it is in their plans.

  10. @Robert: I think you are understating what they did when you say

    “Did Bodog do anything substantial other than institute anonymous tables?”

    That is a very big deal in that it changes the entire game. Granted you are right that I can figure out who is good and who is bad in 40 hands. On the other hand, when multi tabling are you going to notice every single coming and going on every table? I doubt it. So basically, you are starting over every single time you sit down and start a sesh. That is a problem. It simply is not something I want to do. I miss the games there and I miss my friends. Some of them are showing up at other sites slowly but surely. If Bbodog (or whatever they call themselves now) sent me an email for 200 free, no strings bucks to come back and play I would say no thanks, I’ll pass.

  11. Did Bodog do anything substantial other than institute anonymous tables? If not, then these games are still beatable by the winning players. It won’t take more than 30-40 hands of careful observation to determine who the fish are at your table.

    And Bodog has never been a network. I agree that the network model is a failure, as clearly shown by the slow decline of the iPoker and Ongame networks relative to Stars.

    In my opinion, if you don’t want grinders, limit players to 3 tables and 3 tournaments at a time. The grinders will all go away and the recreational players will win more often.

  12. @Brian: I agree with your thoughts about where their feelings are. There are many other ways that they could have achieved a similar result which didn’t result in as much of an upside for them. The way they’ve structured their assault on good players has me questioning their motives.

  13. Let me start this with the premiss. I was a huge fan of Bodog and got many of my friends to sign up there. I play mostly low limit PLOH8. I am a winning player, but not any great amount. I play holdem sparingly, mostly because I am horrible. When Bodog removed the full tables and waitlist I was angry, but i played on. Then I log on and that monstrosity of an “update” is there. The OH8 community is a pretty small, we all know each other from many sites and many years. I played exactly 3 hands and decided that I could not play. Now contrary to what some have stated, I think that bodog never had their heart in the right place. This was a very aggressive move to eliminate the winners and get a larger chunk of the fish money. I withdrew my money and am mostly sitting on it, because I have not found a decent place to play since then.

    The fact is bad players are bad for a reason generally. I have not met any bad players who work at it. It took me about 5 years to become a consistant winner. I paid my dues. I do not use tracking software as the player pool is small enough that it is not needed. I find what Bodog did a bit troubling if only for the fact that other sites may copy it. Bodog seems to me to be taking poker and trying to make it into a Casino game that they know their take before the game starts. I find what they did somewhat sinister….It is amazing what people can get used to. They do have the right to make whatever rules they want, however I think the players should make a choice as well and send a message and withdraw their money.

  14. Good point, considering they probably aren’t going to be real players in the majority of large, regulated markets. I like Bodog and respect a lot of people there. But they’ve also clearly chosen their direction as an outlaw.

    Something else I was talking about in the 2+2 thread….the fact that it seems the best way to bring people in is by giving them the idea they can be big winners. Doesn’t seem like consistency of philosophy to promote winning to bring people in but to then punish or handicap people who actually do win.

  15. @Adam: I agree with your 200 lb vs. 2000 lb analogy.

    My biggest problem is that, to be completely honest, Bodog doesn’t seem like the right company to be leading this charge.

  16. @Daniel, I agree with you that the comparison is apples and oranges but my point wasn’t to distinguish apples and oranges. It was to point out both are fruit.

    My point was that advantages and disadvantages exist in both online and live games.

    And it’s not about PokerTracker. It’s about Selin’s repeated demonizing of good players and Bodog’s belief that they need to handicap the games in favor of the fish.

    Lastly, part of my objection is to the ridiculousness of their quest. When I first started playing I used to keep a starting hand chart and poker odds cheat sheet taped to my monitor. Is that an unfair advantage? If I read a book that you haven’t read, isn’t that an unfair advantage? Where does it end?

    And I have as much of a right to speak about this as anybody. If you think McDonald’s should sell hot dogs are you supposed to shut up and keep that opinion to yourself or do you say something hoping that McDonald’s hears you and acts upon your suggestion?

  17. Very good post, and I think it makes a lot of important points and is really good for discussion. We as an industry are certainly moving, albeit gradually, in the direction of a much better understanding of how to nurture a player base.

    I think Bodog’s heart is in the right place with all this. They’re doing their best to keep a class of players they view as parasites (short stackers, 20-tabling HUD grinders, etc.) from sucking money out of their poker economy. But I’ve always had a somewhat uneasy feel about their tactics for accomplishing this. There’s a delicate balance to maintaining a healthy ecosystem on these sites/networks. If the balance were a seesaw, rakeback placed a giant weight on one end of the seesaw that shifted a lot of the power toward “grinders” and affiliates. The problem with what Bodog is doing now is that instead of trying to figure out how to get back to the point where they have even weight on each side of the seesaw, they’re countering the 200 pound weight on one side with a 2,000 pound weight on the other side (if that makes any sense). They’re trying to shift all the power back toward the losing players. The problems with this are many, but the main one from my perspective is that if even the biggest losing players start to get the idea that they’re somehow being protected or favored, they are going to be unhappy and probably defect to a site where they feel the game doesn’t provide advantages to any of the players.

    Bodog’s walking a dangerous route here by taking sides with some of their customers over others. Unfortunately most of the industry has walked a similarly dangerous route by for years taking sides (often through 3rd party affiliates) with winning players. The latter definitely seems worse than the former. But IMO they need to be looking for a solution that simply doesn’t take sides with anyone and lets people play and enjoy the game

  18. Good post though I can’t agree with you on several points. For one, I don’t see how you can compare sitting at a live event, learning the opponents tells, with using PokerTracker. Apples and oranges. Experience is one thing. Buying experience is another one.

    Also, I don’t think it’s up to you to decide what a poker room should offer – it’s up to them. If they’re not offering what the customers want, they either have to adapt to customer needs or go bankrupt. Not allowing Poker Tracker doesn’t change the game of poker, it’s still the same game. Not allowing steroids in the Olympics doesn’t change the sport, it keeps it purer.

    As much as you and I can have an opinion on what McDonalds should offer, it’s still up to them to decide what they want to offer and how they want to offer it. I also can’t see how you can compare poker to a franchise. Wouldn’t an airline company then also be a franchise considering they all are offering the same core product – transporting a customer from A to B?

    Airline companies can compete on price, “cashback” programmes but also a unique customer experience. If I travel with Ryan Air, I know for sure I will have a shitty experience. If I travel with Cathay Pacific, I would have to pay more but have a more pleasant trip, perhaps even free wifi.

    If a poker room wants to create a unique experience for the casual poker player or the new poker player, then it’s in their right to do so. They don’t have to treat the sharks well if they don’t want to as long as it’s not illegal. Is it a wise thing, do? Maybe. Maybe not. All I know is that if Bodog wants to offer the fish a better experience, I’m not the one to tell them that it’s against the unofficial laws of running a poker room.

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