Nimbuzz, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

2012 was the year of cash game poker mobile revolution thanks to the spread of fast-fold poker.

While Rush Poker was introduced back in 2010, it wasn’t until two years later that it spread industry-wide. PokerStars launched Zoom in March 2012 and its overnight success lead to immediate adoption by other operators throughout the industry. Today, there isn’t a poker room in the global top 10 that doesn’t spread a fast-fold poker game.

Lottery-style sit and gos are positioned to have a similar impact on tournaments as fast-fold has had on cash games, and it has many of the key ingredients to be a success. But right now, the rake is too high for it to flourish.

Fast-Fold, Fast Action

What made fast-fold poker so successful? First, it was a big hit with recreational players, as it gave an immediacy lacking in ring games. No table selection, no waiting lists—just click and go; fold and move on. For high-volume players, it meant more hands per hour, with many happily trading their bigger edge at the tables (passing up the skills of table selection, seat selection, and immediate reads) in exchange for more hands per hour.

“Fast-fold poker was the solution to the problem—pick-up-and-play, stop-when-you-want, fast action on a single table.”But what appealed most to operators was its accessibility on mobile devices. With more and more customers using a smart phone or tablet for their primary internet access, online gambling operators scrambled to grow in this area, but poker posed a problem—traditional games aren’t that suitable to the format.

Mobile players want a different experience to desktop players: Sessions are shorter, impromptu affairs; single tabling is preferred; attention spans are fleeting and are in competition with other distractions. Cash game poker, with lobbies and seat selection, waiting between hands, players timing out—it feels slow and dull in comparison to other “social” games nagging for the mobile user’s attention.

Fast-fold poker was the solution to the problem—pick-up-and-play, stop-when-you-want, fast action on a single table. Full Tilt’s choice to launch a mobile app solely supporting Zoom was an inspired decision, and copycats have been quick to add fast-fold support on their mobile apps upon launch.

The Lottery Revolution

Just as fast-fold was the antidote to slow cash game poker in 2012, lottery sit and gos aim to provide the same relief for mobile tournament poker in 2014. The action is furious, games last just minutes, and the possible win can be huge—the perfect mobile sit and go tournament.

“A user simply selects the stake to play, the number of tables to open, and hits “go”—the software does the rest.”If you are not familiar with the format, a quick refresher: Players enter a hyper-turbo structure sit and go with two other players. The winner takes the whole prize pool. The twist is that the first-place prize is randomized, from just double the buy-in up to 1000 times, or even larger. (To read more, check out our collection of articles on the topic)

The format first launched on Winamax late last year, and already three major operators—PokerStars, Full Tilt and iPoker—have it live for real money. The adoption rate across the industry has been even faster than when PokerStars launched Zoom—expect others to follow soon—and mobile is unquestionably the focus. It is available on all Winamax’s mobile clients (including Windows Mobile), and when it launched in Spain on PokerStars, the mobile update came immediately.

The Promise of Lottery Sit and Gos

The similarities with fast-fold poker are numerous. The game selection experience is near identical: A user simply selects the stake to play, the number of tables to open, and hits “go”—the software does the rest. There is no table selection and the stakes are low—just like fast-fold, it is perfect for more casual, mobile play.

The possibility of a big win is another big draw to casual, mobile-first gamers. Hyper-turbo heads up sit and gos were probably the most suitable mobile SNG structure up until now, but winning less than double your buy-in is hardly something to write home about or, more to the point, post on Facebook or Twitter. Winning $100,000 in 15 minutes for spending just $50? That is a very different story.

“For ten minutes of fun—but high variance—poker on a dot-com site, 7% rake is just too high.”And just like fast-fold, marketing has been a key part of the story. Where we saw so many names for fast-fold poker the industry started running out of synonyms (“Zoom,” “Rush,” “FastForward,” “Zone,” “Snap”, “Strobe,” “Speed,” “Blaze” …) we’re going down the same path for lottery tournaments—“Expresso,” “Spin & Go,” “Twister” and “Jackpot.”

The Rake Trap

It seems that lottery sit and gos have everything going for them, but there is one big snag that may strangle its adoption before it even gets started—the rake.

When it first debuted on Winamax, the rake was just under 7%—high and quite possibly unbeatable for skilled players.

It is at least understandable given the tax environment for the French online poker market. The tax for online operators is the highest in the world; most online poker rooms operate at a loss despite a high rake across all games.

Unfortunately, when it came to international sites (first on iPoker) the rake was kept 7%. For ten minutes of fun—but high variance—poker on a dot-com site, that is just too high. It later launched on PokerStars in Italy and we saw the highest rake yet at 9%.

“Full Tilt debuted Jackpot’s with 5% rake—4% for their midstakes buy-ins—and this should be commended and encouraged.”Compounding the problem is that rake is much more opaque in lottery sit and gos than any other form of poker. In cash games, you see the rake taken off the table as the pot grows; In tournaments, the rake is clearly shown as part of the buy-in. With Lottery, you have to do the math to work it out: The rake is “baked in” to the frequency of pay-outs, just like with video poker games. From a player perspective, you pay $10 and you might win $20, $50, $100 or $1000—the only way of calculating the rake is to look at how often each of these prizes is paid out.

While operators have published these pay tables on their sites, it is not immediately obvious to the player. This opacity means less consumer comparison between sites, leading to weaker market forces in bringing down these prices—operators could get away with a higher rake for longer. But if the games aren’t beatable, that will ultimately hurt both operators and players—games will dry up as players win less frequently, and more money is ultimately removed from circulation.

Full Tilt debuted Jackpot’s with 5% rake—4% for their midstakes buy-ins—and this should be commended and encouraged. A sub-5% rake for such a format feels low enough to give players a chance at being long-term winners.

This in turn builds game liquidity, generates strategy discussion, builds buzz, and creates a new format of quick-play, casual-format gaming suitable for a new generation of mobile-first gamers which can sit proudly alongside fast-fold cash game poker. But keep the rake high and the format will shrivel before it even has a chance to grow—and can cannibalize the liquidity of neighboring games.

PokerStars is bringing Spin & Go to a global audience this fall—let’s see what they do.