With Mike OOO galavanting in Las Vegas, the pair still take time out of their busy schedule to bring you all the latest from the world of online poker: The latest in online poker tournaments from PokerStars, partypoker and GG Network, with some on-air breaking news; getting a handle on the first quarter financial results from The Stars Group; and the latest wave of bot account closures from partypoker and the issues with banning hand histories and HUDs.


Full Transcript

Mike: Hello, and welcome everybody to the Pokerfuse podcast. This is episode 15 coming at you on May 17th. I am your host Mike Gentile along with my co-host, Nick Jones. Nick, what’s going on in the Pokerfuse studios these days?

Nick: Hi, guys. It’s all busy in the Pokerfuse studios as always. Just about managing to hold down the fort without your good presence this week.

Mike: Yes, I have been away actually just reemerging into civilization, it feels like. Spent the past few days down in the Grand Canyon, currently in sunny Las Vegas. That’s exciting times on this end. Hopefully, there’s some exciting times on that end as well.

Nick: How is your all consuming rage regarding resorts fees? Has it subsided into just a general irritation?

Mike: It has not. There’s resorts fees. There’s parking fees that you got to pay to park on the Strip now. Wi-Fi, they only allow two devices to be connected before they start charging you extra, which is included in the resort fees. Vegas is taking a turn, for sure.

Nick: What hotel are you staying?

Mike: We are currently at the Flamingo. It’s about mid-range for those that have not been out and had the Vegas experience. It’s centrally located. So far, we have a really, really nice room. We can see the Bellagio fountain from our room. Yes, very nice, very nice.

Nick: Having prepared the show notes for this week, we’ve got a fair few topics to talk about. Mike, having looked at the show notes, which are you least looking forward to talking about?

Mike: The least I would say probably the disappointing results by PokerStars for Q1.

Nick: I will have all the questions lined up for you for that one.

Mike: [laughs] All right.

Nick: Let’s dive in.

SCOOP, KO Series and Good Games Series

Mike: Last week was the unofficial start, I guess, of the big spring online poker tournament series season. We have in full force going right now, we have SCOOP by PokerStars. We also have PartyPoker with their KO Series. We have 888 kicked off something. XL Inferno, I believe.

Nick: Yes.

Mike: Is this the first time that we’re seeing GGNetwork jump into the fray as well?

Nick: Yes, GGNetwork is a good game series. We would have talked about this a bit on previous podcasts. We’ve seen in some respects what I’ve tried to call in on Twitter the spring birth occasion, although the term hasn’t really caught on yet.

Mike: [laughs]

Nick: We’re seeing a separation of— We saw quite a lot of tournament series running last month as well. We’re seeing a little less organization and overlapping schedules, with PokerStars organizing their SCOOP later and later. PokerStars did schedule their SCOOP, and then most operators managed to find a reason also to run a tournament series on at the same time. On Sunday, we had PokerStars SCOOP kickoff. It’s absolutely massive, $75 million guaranteed. That may be growing. 200 and something tournaments.

PartyPoker announced their KO Series with $30 million guaranteed, which is the same size as their POWERFEST that they had last month. The other big one definitely, GGNetwork, with only their third ever online tournament series slotted in to coincide with both of those $10 million guaranteed. It’s been a busy few days for online tournament players.

Mike: Yes, just those three operators alone. I’m looking at this handy-dandy chart that Anagh put up over on Poker Industry PRO. It shows that it’s nearly 600 tournaments just between those three.

Nick: Yes, 600 tournaments and $150 million guaranteed if we added this to the ones last month. We had last month Unibet and WPN. GGNetwork had another series. PartyPoker had another series. We’ll probably be at something like 200 million. Also, it’s worth mentioning that 888 XL Inferno kicked off— Just looking at this last night, so I think that was Wednesday. The only reason you’re not talking about it so much is it’s a lot smaller these days than the competition. They do not punch their weight really in their tournament series. There’s only $1.4 million guaranteed in that series. They used be a lot larger. They are definitely the big three that are running at the moment.

Mike: What I’m also seeing here is the last row of the table that Anagh put together has total overlays, and the row before that shows the number of overlays per operator. Usually, overlays are double-edged sword because it costs the operator money, but it also serves as a marketing opportunity as well. I’m seeing there’s quite a large number of overlays in the PartyPoker column.

Nick: Yes. PokerStars kind of pretty much doing what they always do. They have a few here and there. We have five overlays in total. They’ve had 60 or so tournaments so far. Five of them overlaid only fractionally. They always do have that a little bit some of their super high roller ones. We’re honestly talking about missing one or two entries, and we’re seeing an overlay. GGNetwork is basically right on the money there. They’ve had two overlays out of 52 tournaments, like $3,000 or something out of a total payout over $4 million in prize money.

I think those two operators, that’s what they’re aiming for. If they’re not on the line and they’re not getting just scratching out overlays they could have gone for higher guarantees, but it shows obviously they got their satellite scheduled all right, and they’ve judged it right. PartyPoker, on the other hand, have outwardly said in the past that they see overlays as a marketing expense and as a way to get people to the tables. There’s going to be a limit to how much they want to be overlaying. They might be on that. They might be reaching that.

At the moment, we calculated that they have paid out over half a million dollars in the 76 tournaments so far, including their opening day they had I think two of their six championship events. They have I think two every Sunday for three Sundays. They will have $1 million guaranteed except the last has $2 million guaranteed. The opening to both overlaid pretty substantially. I think if it continues that trend, we would see over a million dollars in total overlaid that might be exceeding their expectations of what they want.

Mike: Yes, it’s hard to tell where their expectations lie, but I can say it seems to me that as far as overlays go, you want them early on in the series so that you can use those as a marketing tool for that particular series as it rolls on. It seems like at least from the early days that’s what’s happening. If they can use that half-a-million-dollar number to attract more players, that could shore up the rest of the series and make it quite successful for them overall.

Nick: Breaking news, this is extremely exciting. I didn’t want to do this segment first because I’ve been sitting here waiting to see if we got a PR through from PokerStars that I felt that we were going to get—

Mike: Anticipated?

Nick: Yes, anticipated they’re coming through. It’s just likely now, so we can literally do it to the second. Obviously, this won’t be out for a few hours, but it will be closer to the mark as possible that they are officially upping SCOOP guarantees to $80 million now.

Mike: Wow.

Nick: We knew, and we were just about to talk about before this PR came across to us that we knew that they had added three— They’re only saying two here. I’m pretty sure it’s 3, 6, Sis Plus Hold’em MGT events. Now initially, they added them as side events, not officially numbered part of the thing. Then we spied 24 hours ago that they had now become new officially numbered SCOOP events. It’s a Six Plus Hold’em tournament. There are three of them because it’s across the three tiers so $55, a $530 and a $5,200 buy-in tournament.

They’ve got the guarantees TBD, which again I’m pretty sure we saw in the client that the guarantees are set. They total about $400,000, the three of them. That’s the first-ever MTTs that PokerStars has ever done in Six Plus Hold’em. They also have for the very first time have sit and gos. They have sit and go satellites to this event. They’ve been in the client for a few days now. It’s the very first time the operators had those two. I’m just seeing what else they’ve injected into the schedule here, some more PKOs, some eight max turbos. Yes, total guarantees now 80 million.

Mike: 80 million, that is double the next to highest, which is PartyPoker at 30 and GGNetwork at 10. Good job.

Nick: Yes. No doubt PokerStars, they know how to run these absolutely huge tournament series, and they do it extremely well. The last SCOOP it was I believe 70 million. They basically increment needs by $5 million every time. For the last few years they’ve always exceeded it by 30%. Last year, they paid out 90 million. We expect them easily to cover this. The question is whether they can hit the 100 million mark in total prize money paid out. It definitely seems possible, and with these extra tournaments on the schedule, that makes it even more plausible that they will manage it. I’m not quite sure if it actually extends the schedules, like the dates. The last event is on May 24, so I’m not sure if that makes a couple of days longer if they’ve just been put alongside, but yes SCOOP 2019.

The Stars Group Q1 2019 and New Ambassadors

Mike: For as successful as the SCOOP is turning out to be for PokerStars, it seems that perhaps the Q1 for 2019 has not been a successful, Nick?

Nick: Yes, it was reported this week. The Stars Group reported their first quarter results for 2019. Certainly disappointing for a few reasons. If we focus on the online poker business, it was further declines year over year in the double digits for online poker. Now, a large proportion of that they attribute to currency fluctuations which I think we spend much too long explaining last time we talked about PokerStars quarterly results or another operater’s quarterly results, so I won’t repeat that there.

Mike: I don’t know about you, but I’m comfortable going with— What’s the term that they use?

Nick: Constant currency.

Mike: Constant currency, correct. I’m comfortable going with that term.

Nick: The decline was 4.5%, which is pretty much I think in line with the quarter before. I think it was on constant currency low single digit declines. There were other disappointing numbers there as well I think on the casino front and sports book front as well for different reasons, but if we just focus on the poker numbers I think that the primary reason these numbers are declining are what they’re now terming disrupted markets. Ultimately growth—

Mike: Is Russia still considered one of those markets?

Nick: Yes, they really did not go into detail at all in this investor’s call. Barely mentioned the markets let alone any specific mitigation strategies that they might have, but reading between the lines I think a huge— I think they listed four countries, but the big one by far is going to be Russia. Again, we would have talked about this two and a half months ago in that last quarterly. They’ve launched another poker client specifically targeting the Russian market to try and mitigate what financial processing difficulties that they’re having serving that market.

Previously, they talked about how they were confident that they had good mitigation strategies, and they expected this market to grow. Can only assume that this did not bear out in Q1 and the problems extended into this quarter, and honestly probably will extend into the second quarter as well. This is impacting the revenue they’re making. It’s impacted the customer deposits that they have in account, impacted quarterly net yield. The numbers across the board I think were largely impacted by this.

Mike: On the plus side though, I’m looking currently at their financial performance, the stock price. I see there is a spike here in the first week of May, and if I remember correctly, that was because perhaps some decline was already baked into the stock price, and analysts were thinking it may not be as bad as they had first thought.

Nick: I assume the uptick is the FOX Bet announcement which we talked about last week.

Mike: Yes, correct. Right.

Nick: A lot of the investor’s call this week was talking about that we had short term- quite sure the best term and not financial -short term operational difficulties, individual markets, et cetera, impacting comparatives. The long term outlook is very, very good. Fox BET being a good example of how they see themselves preparing for the larger opportunity in the US market. We talked about that at length last week, and I don’t disagree with them. I’m not going to comment on the value that it brings to the business, but obviously, they are preparing and they have a lot of good brand and good expertise in trying to take advantage of the market opportunity.

Mike: Part of that preparation has been the signing of some new ambassadors?

Nick: Yes, it was interesting. They announced less than 24 hours before the conference call, and we have an article by Samantha Bevington that we published today or yesterday on PRO diving into this in detail that they have appointed a new ambassador to specifically the PokerStars Sochi brand. That’s the name of their real money poker client. PokerStars Sochi, if you’re in Russia, that’s I believe the default that you download there.

This guy whose name is Dimitri Guberniev is my shot at pronouncing his surname. Obviously not a name that I imagine many listeners will be familiar with, but doing some digging around about him, he seems like a pretty big deal in sports. I think he’s a sports commentator and general— I was going to say busybody. What I understand is his name is quite synonymous with televised sports. Going around even further, he also does have political ties. He has backed Putin at his last election bid, and the mayor of Moscow as well, he politically backed him, and he’s considered a confidant of both. I actually thought PokerStars announced this a day before so that they had something to point to to say this is some of the things that we’re doing in the Russian market to—

Mike: Mitigate the problems there.

Nick: Maybe that was just said implicitly but yes. That was a key appointment, and it goes to show certainly that PokerStars isn’t giving up on this market at all. They are clearly doing what they can to continue to provide their products to Russian players, which we believe is 10%, 11% chunk of PokerStars business. That’s not a reported figure. That’s our own estimations. Another announcement was some UFC ambassadors as well, which was news that came out earlier this week.

Mike: Right. As we’ve discussed in the past, I don’t really follow UFC, but I did recognize Bruce Buffer, who is not new to poker fans. He I believe would do the shuffle up and deal for the World Series of Poker for quite some time. Does that ring a bell?

Nick: Yes, you could be right. He’s certainly a name that I recognize. I think you might have said that name and I wouldn’t have been able to say that he was basically the voice of UFC. Him, plus two- again, from what I can understand absolute top tier UFC fighters, Daniel Cormier-

Mike: [laughs] I’m glad you’ve got those names this week.

Nick: Yes, light heavyweight fighter champion and 12th ranked UFC fighter— Sorry, my apologies. Johnny Walker is the light heavyweight fighter, and he’s number 12.

Mike: Red or Black?

Nick: What does that even mean?

Mike: That’s scotch. Forget it.

Nick: Daniel Cormier is UFC Heavyweight Champion. So three big names who will be ambassadors of PokerStars. Primarily what we see as a marketing role I think?

Mike: I think this is in line with their initiative that we’re seeing play out this year with the UFC partnership where they are looking to expand their product exposure into new audiences. It’s quite interesting to see or will be quite interesting to see how they are going to execute on that marketing plan as far as in stadium ads and such and to see actually what kind of return they get on that investment.

UFC is, though not exclusive to the US, a large segment of their audience is in the US, and PokerStars has yet to be able to expand into the US market as much as they would like to though we expect that with that Fox deal that this will happen a little bit more rapidly than it would have if it were just online poker.

Nick: I just got your Johnnie Walker joke, by the way.

Mike: [laughs] Okay, at least you got it. There you go.

Bots, HUDs, Hand Histories and Table Limits

Nick: A month or two back, we would have talked on this podcast about PartyPoker and their efforts to ban bots on their online poker room. They announced over a four month period that they closed hundreds of bot accounts, confiscated and reimbursed hundreds of thousands of dollars to players. We said at the time that we wanted to make sure that this was not a one-time thing by them, that this is something that they did consistently, and to be fair to them, they’ve done exactly that. More details this week about the second wave of bot closures.

Mike: Yes. Being out of the office, I am relying here on the excellent resources over at Poker Industry PRO article by Samantha Bevington, details that PartyPoker announced 94 fraudulent accounts have been closed last month in the month of April totaling $180,000 in reimbursements going back to players.

Nick: The account closures span both their dot com network and .eu network, which is their French and Spanish online poker rooms. There’s about 40 to 50 accounts on each of the two networks, and you have total of about $180,000 seized confiscated across those two networks. It continues on from the prior four months they announced ultimately similar amounts of accounts seized. There’s about $180,000 a month, every month for the last five months now. Around 60 to 80 accounts per month is being closed.

Mike: The figure that really jumps out at me is the total which is nearly a million dollars that they’ve returned in that period of time back to players, which it’s substantial.

Nick: It’s a lot of money. With all these things, it’s one of those— It’s tricky for operators to completely understand that they publicize this information. On one hand, fantastic they’re doing this. Then, on the other hand, wow that this was happening before and you— Not saying that they weren’t doing this before. They didn’t publicize it before, but it certainly seems that they stepped up efforts, just how rampant this problem was over a million dollars. Obviously, that’s what they could confiscate from these accounts, and some money will have been withdrawn as profit to the operators of bots.

Mike: Right. They are saying that this recent success in bot detection is due to the poker fraud team.

Nick: This is where things get interesting. They talked about they have this poker fraud team. It’s made up of former professional poker players. They said they’ve got new algorithms, and they’re much better equipped. The quote here is, “We’re equipped with the necessary knowledge and expertise to investigate suspicious activity, and the team aid PartyPoker in ridding the site of unscrupulous accounts”. That was quote from last month when they announced the first wave of closures.

But they did say in this second wave- I’m just trying to find the number -that pretty high percentage. I think it’s around 20% over the last five months, 20% of all account closures have come from player reports directly, not from their own team noticing the statistical anomalies to investigate the accounts.

Mike: Yes, I’m quite surprised that they actually even publicize that number because the fact that players are assisting in this bot detection is going to be difficult for them when it comes— As listeners may already know, they have plans to ban HUDs, and in doing so, that’s going to mean a restriction on at least a part of the hand histories as they come through. Hand histories are the vehicle by which players can discover or at least have some hardened proof beyond playing with them at the tables and just getting a hunch. That’s the way that they can look and analyze the play of these opponents that they’re having to determine if they are indeed bots.

Nick: We expected by now to have the specific details when PartyPoker will be rolling out these changes. In fact, yesterday, rather bizarre occurrence where on the official PartyPoker Instagram account, Patrick Leonard created an Instagram story which was a chain of short videos, which he recorded of himself talking about these changes. He confirmed that this May 28 day, which has already been leak out knocking around a bit, that will be where they would start these ecology changes. I did watch the videos, and to cut a long story short, they were taken down very soon afterwards by PartyPoker, who then said that some of the details were right; some of the details were wrong, and we’ll have more specifics soon.

I believe what was said was that he said the first on the 28th all players will be forced to do an alias change, and there’s going to be a new hand replay. I think they would stop hand history downloads, but then two weeks later is when they’d implement a complete ban on HUDs. Anyway, those factors might change again. It plays into an article, Mike, that you published this week on Pokerfuse, which touches very much on this topic.

Mike: Yes, we did an interview with Derek Charles, who’s the managing partner over at Max Value Software. They have under their umbrella both PokerTracker and Holdem Manager, which are the top two poker tracking software pieces. He came out with a pretty bold statement saying that hand histories are a fundamental online poker player’s right. With those under attack or at least threatened to be removed and pulled away, it’s even more interesting to see that this battle against the bot, if you want to call it, that is being fueled by at least a significant portion of player input that are a direct result of having these hand histories exist.

Nick: It very much depends on PartyPoker’s implementation. In theory, you absolutely need to allow players to download their hand histories. It can be done after the fact. It can be done 24 hours later, I believe so. Run It Once, for example, I think that’s what they’re planning, but it’s still not executed, which is that hand histories aren’t saved to the hard drive whilst you play hands, but they will be made available 24 hours later. They could then be imported into tracking tool. You can track your own results, track your profit and loss, and you can also analyze your opponents. Now, that allows you to get reads on your opponents if the screen names aren’t anonymous. It also—

Mike: That’s the big caveat.

Nick: With PartyPoker, if they’ll only allow one screen name change and not new names every time you sit at the table, which is the implementation of some sites, then you still will be able to overtime build up a profile and detect bots. I think what PartyPoker want to do is to stop you building up knowledge about players so that you can hunt them out, in which case they have to have fully anonymous names as in they change every time you sit at the table.

I’m not sure if that’s what PartyPoker is planning or not because they’ve also said things where they’re going to allow a very limited form of third-party tools without specifying what. The devil is was very much in the details and what it allows. I broadly speaking do side with Derek Charles there that I think— I don’t know. It’s tricky. It’s tricky. I can understand what sites are trying to do, and I think it’s a noble goal in the interest of the online poker site and the players as well. Clearly, when you rely on players to be your first indication of a player to investigate, then you’re going to have real trouble if you’re going to stop people tracking any statistical play.

Mike: It just seems that Derek and company are winning this argument big time because you have this implementation coming at a time where they’re also announcing a million dollars returned to players because of bots. It just shows how deep this problem is. By taking away what they have admittedly shown that 20% approximately had been identified as a direct result of player feedback which happens through these hand histories, that’s going to be a tough PR sell in my opinion.

Nick: Another story that we reported on this week which is tangentially related is a move that PokerStars is making regarding limiting the number of tables a player can play at one time. This is in the interest of improving the experience for a casual player who might be only playing one or two tables that if you’re up against somebody who’s playing 12 or 18 or even 24 tables at the same time, they can slow the games down and slow down the actions. Another thing PokerStars has been experimenting with for a long time is limiting the number of tables that people can play at one time at the cash game tables.

Mike: In addition to reducing the number of cash game tables that can be played, I see here in article you wrote Nick that they also are going to be implementing some changes to time banks.

Nick: They already have introduced. The time bank changes were a few weeks ago.

Mike: February?

Nick: Yes. It was relating that they made these time bank changes to speed up plays. Broadly speaking, it may reduce the time to act by about 40% across the board, across all sites, across all games. This is a further effort in what they’re doing there to try and I guess speed up the games for players. Again, it’s understandable. What they’ve done this is not on the dot com network at all ,and we don’t know whether it will come there. They’ve been trying this for I think over a year in Italy where the most cash game tables you can play is six at any one time. They have now rolled it out to the PokerStars Southern Europe network which is Spain, France, and Portugal. Again, implementing this six maximum. It’s only for cash game tables and ring game tables, not sit and goes, not MTTs.

Mike: I would imagine that PokerStars in their vast amount of data that they collect is implementing this because the numbers show that it will not have a huge adverse effect. I’m wondering have you seen the player community reaction. What are they saying? Do they think that this number is just too low?

Nick: I haven’t, honesty. Obviously, any chatter would be confined to the foreign language sites, which perhaps we don’t monitor as closely. I think they said in the past when they implemented it in Italy that not 0.7%. I’m going off memory here, but it was definitely a zero point something percentage of players would be impacted by this regularly playing more than six tables. They said that their data shows that when they implement this, then players can adapt what they’re doing. Now, that adaption might be that they play more tables on another site at the same time. Or it could be that they just switch to playing Zoom tables or add in some sit and goes or that kind of thing. On one hand, it’s quite a dramatic change. Their default is 24 tables. That’s the maximum you can play, so it’s a huge cut from that. There are rules at the moment are quite bizarre in that it’s 24 maximum, but on a per player basis after warnings you can have a personal limit set lower than 24 if you slow down games too frequently. That’s the policy they’ve had for a few years now, which doesn’t seem particularly manageable when you have an absolutely huge player base. Again, there’s not too many people that would be impacted by that, but this is six across the board.

I would be surprised that this isn’t rolled out wider, it doesn’t come to dot come market. PokerStars does take a very long time with these kinds of changes rolling them out. I think it’s been a year since it came to Italy.

Mike: I’m sure we’ll never know the internal expectations of PokerStars, but I would be curious to know what percentage of the current players that play more than six cash game tables at a time, what percent they expect to be channeled into Zoom, what percent they expect may pull up sit and go or MTTs to supplement some of their play and what percentage they expect that may go to another site to try and reach their maximum amount of tables that they’re trying to play.

Nick: We see other sites they also have maxes of this size. Run It Once has a six table max I think. Phil Galfond wanted a four but had a community vote, and the community settled on six. I think Unibet’s maximum is 8 going up to 10 at the higher stakes. I’m not even sure what PartyPoker and 888 says. This is not fresh ground that they’re breaking, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it roll out wide.


Mike, you arrived in Las Vegas today, or you’re on your second day?

Mike: No. Actually, we got in last night after a little bit of hiking and a lot of bit of driving, so didn’t actually get out to see Vegas much. We’ll be looking to today to get the full Vegas experience.

Nick: What’s on the shortlist? What’s on the must do if you’re 24 hours?

Mike: I’m actually traveling with my girlfriend, Janeen. This is her first time to Las Vegas, so we’re doing the tourist thing so definitely the Strip, downtown and perhaps a little bit of clubbing in the evening.

Nick: Okay. That’s your top three: strip, downtown and clubbing.

Mike: Yes.

Nick: Mike Gentile’s top tips for Las Vegas in 24 hours.

Mike: [chuckles] That is. Yes. All right. That wraps it up for this edition. Thanks everyone for tuning in, and we will catch you next time.