Mike and Nick interview Alex Scott, President WPT Global.

Ecology Management is a vital component of managing an online poker room and Alex Scott takes listeners behind the curtain of the most technologically advanced online poker platform to understand what Ecology Management is, why it’s important, and how it benefits both high volume and recreational poker players.

Full Transcript

Mike: Welcome, Alex. For those that maybe, I don’t know, are not familiar with who you are or your history in online poker, why don’t you tell the audience a little bit about your roots and how you came to ascend to this position at WPT Global?

Alex Scott: Hi, Mike. Hi, Nick. Thank you very much for having me on the podcast again. For those who don’t know me, I’ve been working in the poker industry now for the best part of 18 years. My very first role was actually with the World Poker Tour promoting online poker to students in the city where I was studying at the time. My first full-time role, first full-time job at all, was at PokerStars, where I worked in the customer support team and spent a couple of years working my way up. I then moved to Full Tilt Poker just before Black Friday, where I worked on the product, developing new software features, that kind of thing. Then I was involved in the relaunch of the site over the following 18 months.

After that, I worked at Microgaming for seven years, where I worked my way up to become the managing director of the poker network there. Then after that, I took a couple of years out, never really thought I would return to poker, unfortunately. Then WPT Global came along with this incredibly ambitious new product with some really interesting USBs, and that’s what I’m here to talk about today.

Mike: In that regard, tell us a little bit about WPT Global, maybe from its history and its origins, to what it is today.

Alex: Obviously a lot of poker players will know the World Poker Tour. Certainly, it’s something that I grew up with in poker. I’ve always been a big World Poker Tour fan, used to watch the TV show, used to dream of going to the events and playing, making the final table against Gus Hansen and stuff like that. It was always a dream. We are part of that WPT family. We are the real money online poker business of WPT. The aspiration, if you like, of the WPT group of businesses is that wherever you are in the world and whatever poker you’re interested in playing, we’ve got something for you.

If you are in the US and you want to play online poker, we’ve got ClubWPT, which is subscription-based online poker specifically for the US. Outside of the US, if you’re in a market like Canada, for example, an unregulated market, that’s what WPT Global is for. We’re giving you the opportunity to play real money online poker in those markets.

Mike: You doing this interview sets you apart from leaders of other online poker rooms. You’re a public-facing president. That’s not something we see a lot of. I was talking with the team about it and I thought you were the only one. Then somebody chimed up and said, “Well, no, there are people that invite bots on their network.” Assuming that you’re not in the same vein as some of those, tell us a little bit about how you hope being a public figure and leading an online poker company, how you hope that will be received by players and what advantages are you looking to gain by being out there and talking to the public?

Alex: The first thing I would say there is it’s not always been the case that I was the only one doing this. if I think back only a couple of years ago, Rob Young was doing this on PartyPoker’s behalf. Lee Jones did it on PokerStars’ behalf in the past. Mike Sexton did it for PartyPoker, also PartyPoker, years and years ago. A lot of online poker sites have had public representatives over the years. It does seem a bit strange that I’m the only one doing this now, really, with the one exception I think you just noted. I think that’s wrong. I think every online poker site should have a public face, someone you can come to if you have an issue, an idea, a suggestion, if you need help with something.

People should be out there making themselves known, making themselves part of the community, I believe. We see this as an opportunity for me to be much more engaged with the poker community, really understand what poker players are looking for, and deliver on what they need. We think, while that probably shouldn’t be a unique selling point in the business, we think that it is at the moment.

Nick: To give a bit more credit where it’s due there, I think when you were at MPN, you tried to fill that role a bit as well. I remember the blogs that you used to write on MPN blog which stood out for, I don’t know, having numbers and tables and charts in, like just having some, I don’t know, insight and clarity into your opinions and what you’re trying to achieve. I don’t know if you found doing that helped MPN and what you were trying to do, whether anything from there you’ve carried through to this new role?

Alex: Yes, so there will be a blog coming as it happens at WPT Global. I’ve written the first one already and I’m writing a couple more before we launch it. There’s a little scoop for you. Nobody knows that yet. [chuckles]

Mike: The first of many scoops to come in this podcast, right?

Alex: Yes, absolutely. I’m sure. [laughs] The blog at MPN was designed for a particular purpose, which was, Microgaming was a business-to-business company and it didn’t directly communicate with players because its customers weren’t the players. Its customers were the online poker sites themselves, people like Betsson Group, Unibet, Ladbrokes in the early days, Red Star Poker, things like that. They were like an intermediary that everything had to go through. What we found was that reduced the trust that players had in us.

Players knew that they were playing on a poker network and they knew that Microgaming was responsible for making lots of decisions about how that network was run, but they had no idea how those decisions were being made or who was making them, or any of the motivation behind it. It hurt trust in the network. It was designed to solve that trust problem, “Let’s get out there.” Admittedly, this is only a one-way form of communication. We’re broadcasting to the world what we think about these subjects and how we approach these problems.

We felt that that was better than nothing and it was a way for us to engage with the community and get some feedback and so on and solve this problem. I certainly feel like it helped. It got us a lot of positive press coverage. It made us part of the conversation on some important topics. It actually won us business as well. On more than one occasion, people would refer to those blogs when we were doing sales pitches to new customers. Yes, it was a really positive thing and I’m glad we did it.

Mike: Shifting ft gears a bit here. One of the main things I want to talk about today is one of the features that I have seen of WPT Global that I think differentiates it from the competition. That is its ecology management program. I was hoping you could tell us a little bit about what it is and how it works.

Alex: Yes. The ecology management system, which by the way, we don’t have a cool name for yet. If you think of a cool name, let us know.

Mike: All right.

Alex: We’ve been thinking about this problem recently. The problem that we’re trying to solve here is that over the years, online poker has become increasingly difficult for new players and the learning curve has got steeper and steeper and steeper. If you’re the typical new player now and you play online poker for the first time, you get absolutely destroyed by a table that’s full of very experienced players, very skillful pros, whatever it might be. You have a bad experience and you probably don’t come back. That’s a really common experience. That was something we heard over and over again at Microgaming, because it was the main reason that people didn’t want poker.

If I think about some of the big online gaming businesses out there, they were very resistant to the idea of adding poker because they knew that new players would have this really negative experience in a lot of cases. Not exclusively, but it was frequent, it was commonplace. Well, that’s one of the problems that we’re trying to solve. The other problem is, even if you’re a skillful player, these days, because there are a lot of other very skillful players around, it’s become difficult to beat the rake without getting rakeback rewards, loyalty programs, things like that. The games aren’t as sustainable as they used to be.

We’ve looked at this in the same way that the host of a private game might look at how they manage their ecology. Imagine you’re somebody like Molly Bloom, [chuckles] who is trying to run a private poker game, trying to keep that game running so that you can monetize it, and trying to have the best balance of players in the game to make the game last as long as possible, basically. How would you achieve that? First of all, you definitely would not populate the game with eight or nine pros, because they’re not going to play against each other. There’s nothing there for them.

You need pros to keep the game running and to sustain the game over a long time. You need a core group of experienced players who will keep coming back, but you also need a good balance of non-professional players, recreational players, amateurs, businessmen, whatever you might want to call them. You need a good balance of both of those things, otherwise the game will not be as successful as it could be. If you’re running a private game, you have a core group of pros, but you certainly don’t have the whole table comprised of pros. You limit the number in the game and you populate the game with a reasonable number of recreational players, amateur players.

You also manage things like how the game is conducted so that the game remains fun for everybody. Because, ultimately, recreational players, amateur players are playing poker mainly for entertainment, mainly for fun. If the game is no fun because you’ve populated the game with opponents who are going to belittle them and make them feel small and make them feel stupid, then the game will not continue to run and you’ve not done a good job managing that game as the host. That’s the problem that we’re trying to solve. The way that we solve it is actually similar to the way that a private host might solve the problem.

We’ll get into how we do this later, but we essentially categorize players into groups and we limit the number of highly skilled professional players that can sit at each table. In most cases, it’s to two. We don’t, and then I want to be really clear about this, this is not a segregation of players from one another. As a pro, you can always find a table to sit at. We are not like closing off access to certain tables. Some of the listeners of the podcast might remember, a few years ago, Party Poker tried an experiment where they essentially hid entire groups of tables from more skillful players. Players found out about this. Party was not very transparent about it, to be fair.

Players discovered what was going on because they could see that some tables were visible to their friends, but not to them and things like that. It was very controversial and Party ended up rolling back the decision. That was a segregation. There were entire groups of tables that you couldn’t sit at if you were a skillful player. We don’t do that. The same tables are available to you. It’s just that we limit the number of seats of those tables that can be occupied. Now that’s actually better for everybody. The first thing it achieves is if you’re a recreational player, you’re playing mainly against recreational opponents, which is better for you for obvious reasons.

If you’re a pro, you’re also mainly playing against recreational opponents, which is also better for you. It’s really better for everybody. What we see as a result of this is that, when I spoke earlier about the win rates that people achieve on Stars and GG, for example, where players are just breaking even, or maybe winning 1 or 2 big blinds per 100 hands, we see much higher, much higher win rates on WPT Global in our cash games. 5, 10 times higher.

Nick: I guess my first question there is, I think the prevailing assumption has been whatever conditions you set, it’s going to find an equilibrium that would bring down win rates. This goes back to basically the more rake is better argument. That stemmed from, I think, Daniel Negreanu saying like, “Well, you could actually increase rake and the games get better because the pros don’t want to play them. They’ll leave, then it’s just casual players. The few that remain, it’s actually your win rates will be higher despite the rate being higher.” I think that was basically the argument.

Do you think that your model that you have, you can— on a podcast like this and some of the other outreach you’ve been doing, you’re probably going to be attracting more serious professional players, that those win rates can be maintained, that it’s not going to just be a race to the rate back grinder, very low win rates because of these policies that you’ve got in place?

Alex: Yes Essentially, we’re in a position where we don’t have to do what other online poker sites might have to do, which is to dramatically cut rewards or charge higher rake or limit winning players completely, like some sites out there have just closed the accounts of winning players. We don’t have to do those things because of our ecology management system. The ecology management system handles everything. We can take a significant increase in pro players, winning players, and it doesn’t harm our games in the same way that it might harm games on another online poker site.

For all of a sudden, 1,000 players who’ve heard this podcast come and play on WPT Global every day, that’s great for us because our ecology management system can handle that and ensure that it doesn’t have such a negative impact. Those players will have a better experience playing on WPT Global than they would anywhere else, I think.

Mike: It’s better for the highly skilled players, their win rates will go up. Better for the recreational players, their win rates will go up. How does that work? Does that mean WPT Global makes less in rake?

Alex: No. Our rake is higher than Stars, that’s for sure. We work on a high-rake, high-rewards model. The important thing— Actually the amount of rake matters most in the context of how it affects win rates of players. If you as a player can win 20 BB per 100 on WPT Global, even though we’re charging a higher rate than Stars, but on Stars, you can only win two big blinds per 100 hands, where would you rather play?

I think the thing that you might find is that if you think about a site that allows very exploitative types of pro play, it’s possible that pros following a very exploitative strategy, bomb hunting opposition and things like that, those players can achieve very high win rates in terms of big blinds per 100 because of the tactics that they employ that most people would see as unethical. Those players can achieve those incredibly high win rates elsewhere, but those players would not be able to achieve that high win rate on WPT Global. Actually what we do is also a defense against some of these unethical tactics.

Mike: What’s the difference between a highly-skilled player and a recreational player? What differentiates those two groups?

Alex: This is one of the really interesting things about WPT Global, actually. Because we’re a relatively new entry to the market, we’ve been able to build our platform on some really modern technologies. You hear a lot of talk about AI, artificial intelligence right now. It’s incredibly topical. There’s some really, really interesting things going on in AI. The truth is AI has been around for a lot longer than the last 6 to 12 months. Our platform has been built with AI in mind from the very beginning.

Now, when I say AI, I’m not talking about generative AI like you might see with the Jenni or ChatGPT or anything like that. I’m not talking about large language models. I’m talking about machine learning mainly. What our machine learning model does is, first of all, it has access to a huge amount of data. We’ve built the platform with big data in mind from day one, whereas the other poker businesses that I’ve worked with have always had to make this transition to big data over time, which is a very difficult transition to make, actually.

From a technology perspective, it’s very challenging. Also, you can’t create data that wasn’t there in the first place. You can’t infer, in a lot of cases anyway, you can’t just pull data out of thin air. You have to be recording that information in the first place. What you find with a lot of legacy online poker platforms is that they had performance considerations or they had a lack of storage space or whatever, and so they didn’t record everything they could possibly record.

Our platform records an incredible amount of data, which is a really big advantage when it comes to machine learning. The more data points you have, the more there is to learn from basically, the more you can train. Anyway, I digress a little bit there. [chuckles] It’s important to understand that that machine learning model enables some of the really special features about WPT Global. The way that we manage ecology is our machine-learning model can predict the win rate of every player, with very high accuracy and a surprisingly small amount of hands.

Mike: Wow.

Alex: Within a couple of 100 hands, we can know very confidently what your win rate is going to be, and that’s how we categorize players, based on their likely future win rate. It’s not based on win/loss, which is a common misconception when we talk about this, people assume, “I’m a winning player—” Sorry, “I’ve won in my first couple of 100 hands, therefore I’m going to be considered a pro forever.” That’s not the case. First of all, the model is constantly updating itself, and second of all, it’s based on how skillful you are actually. It’s not based on what your short-term results have been.

Nick: Does it ultimately come down to a subcategory of your players are put in the pro or highly skilled bracket, and it’s that group that ultimately have the seating restrictions where like only two seats a table are available to you? Does it ultimately boil down to that simple split, or are there more tiers and more rules in there?

Alex: There are more tiers and more rules, and it’s constantly evolving over time. In the two years that I’ve been with the company, this model has evolved. It’s become cleverer. It’s become a little bit more complex, but that is pretty much. What you just described there is pretty much what it achieves. I think of it more as we reserve seats at tables for recreational players rather than limiting the seats of pro players.

If you are a highly-skilled pros, one of the best thing you— Sorry. One of the best things you can do as a highly-skilled pro is to start a table, then you’re guaranteed one of those two seats and pretty much everyone else who sits down, possibly everybody that sits down is going to be a recreational player. That’s just one of the little incentives that our system creates.

Mike: I don’t know if I read this on your website or if I saw it in one of the other interviews that you did, but I had seen somewhere that WPT Global uses AI to detect players that are using real-time assistance. First, am I correct in that? If so, how does that work?

Alex: Yes. That is correct. Now, again, this is a transition that the entire industry has had to make for pretty much every game integrity problem. If I go back, I don’t know, 10, 15 years, it used to be relatively simple to detect the use of bots or real-time assistance back then. Generally, what you do is you would look at the player’s device. Most of the time people were accessing online poker via Windows. I’m going to simplify here, but basically what you do is you ask Windows, “What other pieces of software are running on this computer?” It will give you a full list of all those pieces of software.

If one of them is Winholdem, [chuckles] then I know this guy is running a bot. This is a really simplistic view of bot detection in the early days.

Nick: [crosstalk] Sorry. Simplistic, but probably quite accurate in the sense of what legacy size probably still today used as a principle for bot detection.

Alex That is definitely a tool that was used back then. It was actually a little bit more sophisticated than that. It wasn’t just get the process list. It was also like, “Look for applications that are disguised as other applications and things like that.” It was cleverer than I’m getting across there, but that was the level of opposition that we were up against as well.

Back then, the sophistication among bad actors was not anywhere near as great as it is today. It has been a constant arms race since then. Bad actors are getting better at hiding what they do. They’re also getting better at building good bots and good artificial intelligence assistance. It used to be real-time assistance, for example. It used to be the case.

Real-time assistance has been around for a very long time actually.

Go back 15 years and there were tools that told you when to fold and when to raise and things like that. They would sit alongside your online poker table, but they were terrible. They were based on really simple rule sets and usually, they were really weak, tight, and actually they would cause you to lose in many cases, I believe. It wasn’t really much of a problem if people use these tools, because generally it would make them play worse and they would not be taking money out of the poker ecosystem. GTO and particularly some of the advances in how quickly you can run GTO simulations has really changed that. Real-time assistance these days usually is based on GTO.

Sometimes it’s based on some sort of exploitative adaptation of GTO, taking into account [unintelligible 00:25:42] to mind hands or population tendencies or something like that. It is now far better. It’s a far more formidable opponent than it used to be. The way that we detect game integrity problems like bots and real-time assistance has also had to change really significantly over the years.

Now, the best way to detect a game integrity issue, particularly about use in RTA is through analysis of big data. This is actually when you’ve seen players on 2+2 proactively detect issues like this on other sites, it’s usually come through analyzing big data. They’ve gathered, I don’t know, hundreds of thousands of hands in poker tracker and they’ve spotted some anomalies.

This is what big data analysis is. Now obviously what we have access to is a far larger data set and more sophisticated tools than PorkerTracker or Holdem Manager, but it’s essentially the same principle, looking for outliers in a big data set. When we’ve got that big data set and we’ve got this machine learning foundation, essentially what we’ve been able to do is train the machine learning model to spot game integrity problems.

You train it on, we know that this guy’s a bot, and every time you find a bot, the machine learning model gets trained. Its training gets reinforced, it becomes better at spotting a bot in the future, becomes quicker at spotting a bot in the future. The more traffic we have and the more game integrity issues we face, the better our detection models get.

Mike: One of the other programs or features that your website talks about is the RIP program, rewarding integrity in poker. Tell us a little bit about that, because that seems to be the 2+2 part Holdem Manager, PokerTracker, data mining, getting players to identify potential breaches in security or integrity, I should say.

Alex: Yes. First of all, I would say we have really high confidence in our game integrity abilities. It is without a doubt the best technology I’ve seen in the industry in the 18 years or so that I’ve been working in the business. It’s head and shoulders above what I’ve seen elsewhere, and it finds issues more quickly as well. If anything about bot use, for example, usually when you’re looking for bots, you need quite a volume of hands to be able to spot the issue. It can be 1000s of hands sometimes before you can spot what’s going on. Obviously, the more hands bots play, the more damage they cause. You really have an incentive as an online poker operator to spot that issue as quickly as possible before the damage has been done.

Rewarding integrity in poker, RIP, what it’s supposed to achieve is, we know our tools are effective 99% of the time. What are we going to do about the 1%? What are we going to do about the highly organized cheating groups that could, in theory, cause a lot of damage that are very sophisticated, maybe we’ve not encountered their particular way of gaming the system before, something that’s new to us.

In a highly organized group like that, we can get a lot of value out of having a whistleblower in the group. If I’m part of a cheating ring and maybe I’m not happy, [chuckles] maybe I have ethical concerns about what I’m doing or maybe I just fall out with some of the other people in the group and I really want to get them back. Well, what our system does is gives you an incentive to whistleblow on the other members of that group. We have had some very high-impact cases that have come out of this program already. We have awarded over $100,000 in bounties, if you like, in whistleblowing awards to people who brought issues to the table.

Essentially, the criteria for giving a reward is, is it something we would have missed ordinarily, or is it something that would have taken us much longer to detect ordinarily? If you bring a case to us, and the information you provide helps us to spot something we wouldn’t have spotted or detect it more quickly than we would have, that’s the criteria for rewarding you under this program.

Nick: That’s fantastic. It’s like a formal snitching program, whilst also like the bounty hunting from the tech side of things combined. That’s a fantastic idea.

Alex: I want people who are part of these organized cheating groups to feel unsafe, to feel like any other member of that group could dob them into WPT Global and get a big reward. I don’t want them to feel secure. I want them to feel constantly at risk.

Mike: How do you balance this program with something like data mining?

Alex: You mean data mining like players who data mine?

Mike: Yes. That was one of the pros that the online poker community had always touted with regards in favor of data mining was being able to identify and detect cheaters.

Alex: Yes, data mining is a matter of pros and cons. Clearly, that’s the pro in data mining. If the public has access to a huge data set, they can use that data set to spot anomalies and to detect ame integrity issues and so on. Obviously, there are an enormous number of downsides to data-mined information being widely available.

One of the more recent ones, we know about all the commonplace ones, like I can find the weakest opponents and I can ensure that I only sit against those guys. That’s an obvious disadvantage of data-mined information being out there. One of the more recent disadvantages of it is that I can take that data-mined information and I can use it to train really good real-time advisors. Not just GTO, but GTO that has been trained on a real data set of hands and can adapt to the population that it’s playing against.

For those who are listening and maybe don’t have a deep knowledge of GTO, usually a GTO-based tool or real-time advisor will make the assumption that its opponents are playing GTO as well. The advice that it gives you may not be optimal if it’s playing against an opponent that is far from GTO. Like a recreational player who has no clue what they’re doing is clearly not playing GTO. If you assume that player is playing GTO, you’re not maximizing the advantage that you have over that opponent.

If you take a huge data-mined set of hands, a few million hands played at specific stakes or in particular online poker sites, and then you train a real-time advisory model based on that, it’s even more powerful than GTO-based RTA. That’s quite a scary thing really, because it means the damage that’s done is greater in a shorter space of time. That’s a clear disadvantage of data mining. My belief is that today we’re in a situation where the disadvantage of data mining vastly outweigh the advantages. I also believe that, as a business, we should not expect players to clean up our mess. We should not expect players to be finding game integrity problems.

That’s our job. If we’re not doing that job well, hold us to account for that, go play somewhere else. Take us to task over that. It should never be your job as a player to find these issues.

Nick: I think a lot of ways that sites have tried to combat the threats of data-mined hands and perhaps just the less or the more predatory behaviors of hunting players and that kind of thing, they’ve adopted approaches like automatic seating, blind lobby, and anonymous players, or you can change your screen name as frequently as possible. Am I right in saying that you don’t utilize any of those and you purely just work on the, I’m trying to use your term for it, the “reserved seating” as the only mechanism you have for controlling these behaviors?

Alex: That’s pretty much true at the moment. Yes. Now we will be introducing a group lobby. For those that want it, that kind of very convenient quick seating, that’ll be coming pretty soon. We know that has a lot of value for a lot of players, so that will be coming soon. There are lots of, again, pros and cons to the anonymous table model, for example. I’ve written about some of those in the past while I was at MPN, for example.

Nick: If I recall, I think the blog post of yours that sticks in my mind is the data you shared that showed that professional players’ win rates were actually higher at anonymous tables.

Alex: Yes, because they played against other professionals more often. Now we have other— sorry, [chuckles] that’s clearly not the case.

Nick: Maybe I remember it. [unintelligible 00:35:53]

Alex: I think that was an argument for a hundred— Oh, I can’t remember.

Nick: Yes, we’re going back so many years.

Alex: At MPN we looked at group lobby and the impact of that. Certainly one of those experiments was pro players playing more against each other. I think it might have been the group lobby thing. [chuckles] Anyway, we have other ideas to address those problems that fit within this ecology management system that we have. We definitely want to encourage more pro versus pro play, for example, more starting of tables. We’ve got some interesting ideas around how we reward people for those kinds of positive behaviors.

Mike: That was the next topic on my list is, how do you use rewards and incentives to motivate the type of play that you want to see that you think is good for the ecology on the site?

Alex: Right now, a lot of our promotions are quite untargeted actually. We’re relatively new and our promotional capabilities are in their infancy. That’s something we’re working on all the time and they’re getting more and more sophisticated all the time. We throwing a lot of money at everything right now. WPT Global is one of the best value places to play right now. Forget about how much you can win for a second. Even if you just look at the promotions and the rewards on offer, there is really a lot going on on WPT Global and a lot of value out there.

That said, we have some really interesting ideas about how we use a loyalty program, for example, which we don’t have yet. How do we build a loyalty program that rewards behavior that contributes to good ecology? For example, we ran an experiment recently whereby we gave rake back to people who started tables. If you’re one of the first two or three people, I can’t remember the exact details of the experiment, but you’re one of the first players at a table, you got rake back for the entire duration of your gameplay at that table.

Actually, similar to something Ultimate Bet tried years and years and years ago, you used to have higher loyalty points for when you first started a table. Similar sort of principle. The experiment came out positively, had a really positive impact. It’s likely that we’ll build something like that into a loyalty program in the future to encourage people to start new tables. Similarly, we have ideas about rewarding more when pros are playing at tough tables.

Naturally, as a pro, you want to find the weakest opposition possible. You want to table select, you want to find games where you can be as successful as possible. That doesn’t always work to our favor as the online poker business, because we want games to sustain themselves as long as possible, and that behavior results in tables that break. We want to incentivize players to continue playing in tough games by giving them more rewards, basically. This is another idea that we have that we’re likely to build into the future loyalty system.

Mike: Could we expect to see a lobby with tables that have differentiating rake rates?

Alex: Unlikely to be different rake rates, but certainly likely to be higher reward rates at some tables. Yes. I could see some version of that in the future. Exactly how it’s going to work, we don’t even know yet, but we’re fleshing out ideas all the time, basically, and running experiments all the time too.

Mike: Rewards in online poker have been going back and forth, at least from my perspective, from generalized programs to individualized programs and back to generalized programs. When you guys get around to implementing your reward system, how do you envision that? Is it going to be more individual or is it going to be more flat in general?

Alex: I think it will certainly have individual elements to it. It’ll be personalized in a sense, if you like. Ultimately, the goal of rewards is to give most of those rewards back to players who add the most value. I’ve spoken in the past about how you judge the value of a poker player. It’s not just about the rake that they contribute. It’s also about the impact that they have on everybody else. Poker is one of those games where you can berate your opponents and you can make them leave. You can make the game really unpleasant for the people that you’re playing against. That reduces their value and that reduces the value of everyone around you.

As an online poker site, I don’t want to reward that. Just because you are generating a lot of rake, you’re having a negative impact on the people around you. Do I really want to give you high rewards if that’s the case? Of course I don’t. I want to give the most rewards to the people that are generating the most value, making the games fun for the people around them, generating action, making our site a fun place to play. That’s where I want to throw my rewards money. I don’t think it’s right really to give a completely flat reward system because it doesn’t incentivize the kind of behaviors that make online poker fun. I think it’s suboptimal to do it that way.

Mike: I’d like to switch gears a bit here. Unless there’s anything— is there anything more on ecology management that we want to touch on?

Nick: No, I was just going to ask maybe building on that, just talking WPT Global’s aspirations. Because I think when we talk about some of these topics, I think maybe listeners might have in their mind a fairly small and a niche operation trying these different things. The reality is WPT Global is already today, and I think you said this week, like a top-five online poker site. I think by many metrics, you have a lot of cash games, you have some big tournaments, and your aspirations are number one. You see this model that you have could be the largest online poker site in the world?

Alex: Yes, absolutely. When we say that we’re probably already a top-five online poker site, we mean that in the sense that people usually measure online poker businesses, which is by their seven-day average cash game traffic. Now, we’re having some issues getting tracked by PokerScout and Game Intel at the moment. It’s not their fault, it’s because of our ecology management system makes it difficult to see every single table, which is how they perform their measurements. We’ve done some work to give them all the information that they need, and it’s just a matter of time now before their tracking is more accurate. Yes, we think we’re already at that level.

Certainly we’re a lot bigger than MPN was when I worked there. We are growing very quickly. It’s so nice to work somewhere where the charts all go up from left to right. [laughs] It’s really nice to see.

Nick: You talked about Molly Bloom running private clubs and that kind of mentality, you’re carrying through to your games. Do you think that scales to a GG poker size online poker room? There’s no issues there getting that big with that kind of, I don’t know, hybrid, public, private or reserve seating methodology that you want to employ?

Alex: Yes, I think it does scale. Now, that’s not to say that we won’t have to make adjustments along the way, because I do expect the demographics of the player pool to change over time. The makeup, the ratio of pros to recreational players, that’s bound to change. Right now we have a lot of players from Asian markets and they have a very different approach to gambling to the rest of the world. That is one of the things that makes our player pool so soft and juicy and action-packed and winnable.

As we bring on board more Western players, that will change. We’ll probably have to adapt. I do think that the core principles hold, even when you scale to the size of the biggest online poker businesses in the world. The core principles about managing ecology and balancing the games so that the games are sustainable, I think that does scale, yes.

Nick: Something that, and I think when we talk about running the private clubs, it really springs to mind. I think there’s been a second world of online poker that really doesn’t get spoken about generally in the same conversations of real money online poker sites that we’re talking about here. We’re talking about WPT Global versus PokerStars versus GGPoker. I think when we say top five sites, we’re talking about these guys. There’s this whole other world of private club apps that operate.

Do you see, and I guess for listeners, they’re called apps mostly because they exist on mobile phones, although not entirely. You can run very large private clubs, sometimes for real money and they are very large in unregulated or black market operations. Is that something that WPT Global looks at? Do you see that as competition as much as the more established real money online poker sites? Is it something that you as a company follow and try to keep tabs on?

Alex: Yes. I would say, first of all, we’re not that outwardly focused in terms of— we don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about what our competition is doing. We spend more time thinking about what are the things that we can do better. We’re quite introspective in that sense. We all have a growth mindset and we’re always thinking about how we can improve. Not much of our time is spent poring over competitors’ lobbies to copy their features and think about how we can do them better, if you know what I mean.

That said, of course, we are aware of the app-based online poker economy. It’s almost an entire black market that exists out there. It’s very large. It’s very large. This is an unfortunate consequence of the way that online poker regulation has gone, I think. Because I don’t really see this whole app-based black market, I don’t see it existing if we had really positively regulated, widely accessible real money online poker. What would the need be for these app-based sites, if that was the case? They’ve thrived in markets like the US where online poker is not readily available in every state, regulated online poker, at least.

They’ve thrived in other markets which are either black markets or grey markets. Now, one of the things I’ve observed with these app-based sites is often their software is quite innovative and interesting and looks nice and that sort of thing. They do have some good ideas, and that’s in part because of the lack of regulation. They’ve been able to move pretty quickly. They’ve been able to innovate. They’ve been able to do that without a regulator looking over their shoulder.

When I was working with Microgaming, and we were in a number of regulated markets, regulation was one of the things that slowed us down the most. When we had a new feature that we wanted to release, it had to go through a certification process. That process could take weeks sometimes. It definitely slows you down. That’s one of the reasons why WPT Global, even though we’ve got aspirations to enter all of the regulated markets in the future, one of the reasons we haven’t done that as quickly as you might expect is because we’ve wanted to maintain that pace of innovation and that ability to experiment and try things.

That’s an important part of who we are. We’re a startup. We behave like a startup. We run lots of experiments. We try things. We throw away the stuff that doesn’t work. We double down on the stuff that does. As soon as we’re in a regulated market like the UK, and we’ve got to have every one of those experiments certified in a three-week process, it just doesn’t make sense anymore. That’s something we’ll have to adapt to.

Mike: Where does your crystal ball tell you that regulated— let’s take the UK, for example, how far down the road is that realistically for WPT Global?

Alex: I think we’re at least a year away from a market like the UK at the moment. The UK is one of the very toughest markets to get into. The other ones being, say, New Jersey. They have incredibly strict requirements. It’s a slow process. They expect a huge amount of disclosure from you. If we went into the UK market, the UK regulator would want to see literally any parking ticket that I’ve had over the last few years, and all of my bank statements and things like that. This is the kind of disclosure that you have to give.

Now, there’s nothing in there that they’re going to find. It’s going to be a very boring read for them as it happens. You can see how a process like that might be very time-consuming. Then, of course, that’s the organizational stuff that we have to do. There’s also the software development that we have to do. A market like France, for example, has something called [unintelligible 00:50:36] where you have to replicate all of your data into a particular data center specified by the regulator. A market like Italy has real-time integration where you have to request authorization for specific actions like registering for a form. The simple things that happen in online poker all the time.

You have to literally ask the regulator, “Can this player join this cash game? Can this player register for this tournament? You have to wait for a positive response. That’s a difficult integration. Every regulated market is different. There’s an enormous amount of work required to enter all of the regulated markets that are out there. We definitely aspire to be in as many of those regulated markets as we can, but we also know it’s going to be a very difficult challenge.

Nick: Just from the examples of markets that you gave there, are you considering, even the broadest levels of research, segregated markets to launch in?

Alex: Yes, but they probably will not be the first markets that we aim for. As a business, it makes the most sense to enter markets where we have shared liquidity. One of our advantages is our player pool. This is one of the things that makes us different. Our player pool, the softness of our games, the action-packed games, as soon as we enter a regulated market like France, some of that disappears and we’re starting from scratch. It will definitely be a factor in our decision-making and I wouldn’t expect to enter France as quickly as we would enter a market that’s got shared liquidity.

Nick: I was thinking more of the US markets.

Alex: Yes, the US is obviously very much on our radar. The US is a little bit different because the US is the home of poker. There is no market like the US when it comes to poker. People grow up playing it. It’s really part of the national culture. Really, if you want to maximize the value of anything poker, the US has to play a part in that. Yes, obviously, we want to be in the US in the future. I’m really disappointed with the way that regulation has taken shape in the US, really disappointed. It’s been so long now. [chuckles] Almost the entire time I’ve been in this industry, we’ve been waiting for positive regulation of online poker in the US and it’s just not arrived.

The best we have is a few of the smaller states sharing liquidity with each other and then a few segregated states. It’s a huge disappointment. I’m sure it’s a disappointment for you guys as much as it is for me.

Mike: Roadmap for the rest of 2024, what can you share? What scoops can you give us? What can we expect to see from WPT Global for the remainder of the year?

Alex: In terms of— I don’t want to give too much away, so I’m going to be somewhat vague in this answer, if you don’t mind. In terms of product and our software and the things that you’ll see there, I did talk about making it easier for people to get a seat in our games that’s not too much of a giveaway, really. We have a lot of ideas, and I would say that the common theme is that we’re really looking after the little guy. You can expect to see features that help our games to remain action-packed and fun and exciting and interesting, both in cash games and tournaments.

We’ve got some really interesting cash game features coming. Some of them are things that have been successful elsewhere, and some of them are completely new to online poker that nobody’s ever done before. Same with tournaments. It’ll be no surprise. One of the tournament features that we will release this year will be no surprise to anybody because it’s a very, very popular tournament format.

Mike: Mystery Bounty. Mystery Bounty.

Alex: It will remain a mystery. [chuckles] Then some of the other stuff we do in tournaments this year will take people by surprise, will be something that people haven’t experienced before. That’s the software development side. In terms of promotions, we will be the most generous online poker site this year. You won’t be able to get better value anywhere else than you can get WPT Global. We are throwing everything at it.

Whatever kind of player you are, if you’re interested in tournaments, if you’re interested in cash games, if you’re interested in Global Spins, which is our jackpot sit-and-go, if you want to qualify for WPT Live events, there will be something for you and we’ll be throwing value at you all throughout the year, no matter what kind of player you are. We will also be— we’ll still be the best place to qualify for WPT events.

There’ll be another World Poker Tour World Championship to win this year. It will have a very ambitious guarantee, just like it did the last two years, and we will be the best place to qualify for that event. That’s no scoop. Everyone knows it’s coming, by the way.

Mike: [laughs] Okay. That sounds like a great place to wrap this up. You’ve answered all our questions. I thank you very much for joining us, Alex. It’s a pleasure to always talk with you. I don’t know if you’re aware, but you are our most frequent podcast guest.

Alex: I am aware of that.


Alex: Third time’s the charm?

Mike: Yes, this is the third time. Yes. I, for one, am looking forward to product information, promotion, innovation, and all things to come in expansion of WPT Global for the remainder of the year and beyond.

Alex: Yes, I’m really excited as well. I think the scale of the ambition that we have in this company is really, really something. I get really excited about the things that are coming in the next few weeks and months. There’s some really cool stuff on the way. Can’t wait for players to see it.

Mike: All right. Let’s wrap up there then. Thanks, Alex. Appreciate the time, and we will look forward to talking with you again sometime in the near future.

Alex: Thank you.

Nick: Thanks very much.