In our second special edition on the pokerfuse podcast, your hosts Mike Gentile and Nick Jones sit down with Tom Waters, Head of Poker at partypoker, and Rob Yong, partypoker partner, to discuss the latest ecology changes at the online poker room.
Topics discussed in this wide-reaching interview include:
- The end of HUDs at partypoker.
- The reasons for ending hand histories saved to the hard drive.
- Rob’s new #fairplay concept.
- How the operator will police the game in a post-hand history world.
- The planned use of moving to real names instead of screen names.
- Other ecology changes coming up at partypoker.
- Plans for its live poker tour and the synergy with online.
Mike: Hello and welcome everybody to the Pokerfuse Podcast this is special edition two coming at you on June 20th, 2019. I’m your host Mike Gentile along with my co-host Nick Jones. Nick, how’s it going this fine day?
Nick: It’s going very well, I’m glad I was invited to this special edition as I was cut out of the first one.
Mike: You were not on holiday, so yes, you were here for our pretty in-depth interview I’d say with both Rob Yong and Tom Waters from partypoker.
Nick: Yes, to discuss all the ecology changes, fair play changes that they’ve been making. We had a pretty in-depth hour-long interview for you guys which I think we touched on some really interesting points.
Mike: Yes, so without any further ado, let’s dive right in and pick up our interview that we did and we’ll catch you on the back end.
Mike: You know, one of the very first questions that I had was going to be to you Tom to ask what is Rob’s role. Maybe we start off with that.
Tom: I think to answer this question as well, we should go back a little bit and maybe even to the start of the journey where this partypoker project started a couple of years ago. We had very little poker expertise in the team. There were guys in there that have been working for Party for a little while, didn’t really know much about poker. They weren’t really engaged with the industry, they weren’t talking to the players and they were managing an old product and a product into decline.
We realized quite quickly that that needed to change and then once we started working with Rob, in the library and we’re getting closer to players and building that bridge between us and the community, it became evident that we needed more expertise in the team and we’ve started not just with Rob and his life team but throughout the partypoker team itself, where the poker room is now predominantly made of ex-poker players, our VIP team has ex-poker players in there. Our forward team which we’ll talk about in a minute is led by an ex-poker player, so there’s poker through and through.
Rob specifically has a massive amount of expertise, not just around catch games but around poker and has been involved in the industry for a long time. He gives us that extra little bit of valuable advice where we need it and where we need to go into specifics and make sure that we’re actually dealing with the players and giving them what they need. That’s where Rob can add a lot of value to us.
Mike: One question that I have Tom is regarding the poker expertise on the team. It seems that you have a pretty strong stable of highly knowledgeable poker ambassadors and it’s been said in the past that there more than just ambassadors, they are working for the team. I would think personally that they would add a lot of expertise to your team. Is that the case here?
Tom: They do, they add a massive amount of value and if we— I don’t want to single out any of them but Patrick Leonard, for example, is highly involved in our business day to day. We consult anyone a lot of matters, it’s not just to Patrick though he reaches out to the community through us. We get the feedback through a wide variety of sources and players and what that means is when we’re making a decision, we’re not making the decision, we’re consulting on a decision. It ensures we get it right but Patrick and Ike and Jason and all the other guys add a massive amount of value to us with knowledge and experience.
These guys are closer to the ground than we are, they get to hear what the players are saying, what they’re talking about. If we’ve messed up we get to hear about it quickly but these guys do add a lot of value. They also complement, I think it’s important we don’t just go to the pros and the ambassadors. The guys in the team are poker players and one decision we made was in terms of recruitment that people had to either have poker experience or have played poker in order to join the team so that they can leave and breath it. You can’t really have with these projects, you can’t really have somebody that’s not engaged with poker, it just won’t work.
Mike: Well, why don’t we dive into the topics, the current events, the topics at hand which have been largely revolving around the role of HUDs and tracking tools. What can you tell us about the changes that are being implemented?
Tom: Maybe if I start with the basics and then Rob can add on top. HUDs in it’s— A basic HUD in itself, I wouldn’t have a problem with if it was just somebody using this tool to learn and develop their game. The problem, unfortunately, is the hand histories that feed these HUDs are used not just by basic tools and basic software, they feed bots, they feed more sophisticated tools and charts, and they also feed databases where organizations effectively pull data on the poker community.
Ultimately, what that means is I could be receiving data on a player that I’ve never played against and I’m making decisions based on what my HUD is telling me, not on my experience. This gives a massive edge to certain players. People that can afford more sophisticated tools obviously get a greater edge, a new guy joining the site has no chance. The average lifespan of a new player on partypoker and other sites is abysmal, I think most players are gone in a day. These guys come in, they get eaten alive and they leave because they had a poor experience.
HUDs are just the parts of that. It’s seating scripts, HUDs, bots, charting tools, all of these things are negative and they’re a drain on the poker ecosystem and it’s leveling the playing field here. We’ve had to remove downloadable hand histories from the client in order to stop these tools working. I think the one point we should make absolutely clear is we are not removing hand histories, we are making hand history available to our players that they can review back up to 90 days of gameplay. So they can learn, they can go back, use the hand replayer and learn. They cannot download the hand histories because that is the evil that feeds these other tools. That’s what we were looking to prevent.
We are working in other areas to help these guys learn. MyGame is a tool that we’ve just launched recently on cash games and tournaments, it’s coming very soon, is in the early stages of development and we acknowledge that it’s not perfect, but we’ve got some really great plans for MyGame. It’s going to get a lot better. One point in terms of consultation with players and listening to these guys is that we’ve already had feedback on MyGame as to what players feel is missing. so, the players that cannot download hand histories anymore and import them into a HUD and use that to review the gameplay, they’re saying they need certain things in order to be able to improve.
We’re looking at that, we’re looking to see what we can add into MyGame quickly so that that bridges the gap. Long term though, I think MyGame will do the job as a learning tool, we’re very early stages of development. We didn’t know what was going to happen really with this release. It was a massive gamble to take away these hand histories. Lots of scaremongering was going on, lots of players were telling us that they had to stop, they weren’t confident in their ability to learn, to police bots and police the system, which we’ll talk about I guess later when we move on to that area.
We expected a little bit of a dip and we’ve been really, really pleased with the response so far. Publicly the response from players has been good, numbers have been good, we’ve been happy with what we’ve seen so far. It’s early days, but it looks like it’s the bright decision for us.
Rob: It’s interesting Tom, looking at this morning’s report, we’re 10% higher than last week, aren’t we?
Tom: We are. We are up week on week.
Nick: If I can just dive into that a bit deeper. When you say you’re 10% up, what’s the primary metrics that you’re looking at to see how successful these changes been? Have you set kind of red lines somewhere, like if numbers drop below this amount then you would consider reversing some of your decisions?
Rob: By 10% of it means, that means unique real money players on the system. That’s the measure which is a fair measure, that’s not free money players, it’s people that are raking a dollar or more on the sites. We expected it to be down. Yesterday when we had no promotions, no areas rates or anything, it’s 10% talk. I was actually just looking at the figures this morning, 'cause I just woke up. I mean there’s no massive alarm bell at the moment. Just an interesting question you say. Do you guys like soccer?
Rob: Well, you can play like Pep Guardiola and just push on, do what you believe in. Y ou can chop and change like some managers and not be sure of your convictions. There’s nothing more sure for me that the downloadable hand histories and HUDs won’t be around in poker in three to four years time. So, what would be the point of us rolling them back? PokerStars have been itching to make this change for a few years, but they’re scared of making the change or people go to partypoker. Now that partypoker have made this change, Stars can make it and they won’t lose any players because there’s no difference between the sides on this policy.
I couldn’t ever see a situation where we would roll back the clock back into the dark ages, and I think it’s the dark ages of poker. You see the image of the guy with the hoodie, you don’t know who he is with the chips on the table. The one that I think the Poker Tracker /Hold’em Manager guys use that image on this website they set up against us and I just think that’s not attractive to today’s world. Today’s world is a social media world, it’s phone, Candy Crush , people are playing on their phones, it’s quick. It’s a social world now and I think online poker, unfortunately, has been left in the doldrums with this kind of idea, it’s mysterious and people don’t quite know what’s going. So no, certainly, it won’t be reversed.
Mike: To follow up a bit on the downloadable HUDs, part of the reaction from the community has been that eliminating downloadable HUDs does not eliminate-
Nick: Downloadable hand histories you mean?
Mike: I’m sorry. Hand histories, yes. I’m mixing up those two terms, that that does not prevent some tools from communicating with the software directly to get the network feed or to scrape the screen in order to get this data that it will eventually make its way back out into the market. How would you respond to something like that?
Tom: We have done an extensive exercise researching tools and having a look at what’s available and what people are saying is available and we’ve had similar rumors also to you that people are able to screen scrape effectively the technology, but every single tool that we have seen working has run off the hand history and we have not seen a single tool working that uses screen scraping technology.
Now, that’s not to say in the future somebody might be able to create something that does work by scraping the screen. If they do that, then we just need to combat it in our own way and we’ll make sure that we’re ready so that we block these guys. There are ways to do it but we’re still waiting for evidence of somebody actually being able to screen scrape to get the same level of data, but I think it’ll be incredibly difficult for them to do that effectively and there’s limited data that they can also take from the screen.
But it some of the other changes that we’ve made alongside here and are also helping with it, so you can’t rail for example, cash games anymore, which means that you can’t look at other tables and scrape data that way. Even if you were doing something highly sophisticated that was pulling data out you would only be able to do it on your own table.
When you also go back to the hand history office in the client to review our hands up to 90 days prior, the other players are anonymized also, so you can see your own play the other players are not. There’s various steps in place to make incredibly difficult for anybody that wants to go out and do it. I’m sure somebody will rise to the challenge and try and get there but I think at the moment we’re pretty comfortable that the tools are running off the hand history service and if we block that then we block the tools.
Nick: One question I had was that I think trying to prevent HUDs and certainly stopping saving a hand history kind of live as a hand is being played has a lot of support and we’ve seen a lot of other sites , definitely partypoker is the largest so far, that have tried to prevent HUDs, but I think a lot of people feel that the next step which is not saving the hand history to the hard drive at all, let’s say 24 hours later or one week later to allow them to track their own profit and loss using a third-party tool, is a step beyond that.
Obviously, if you just saved a hand history one week later or people could request from customer support their hand histories for one week later, you still won’t be able to have HUDs but people could still track their results in Hold’em M anager and PokerTracker . Could you just explain a bit more your motivations for not supporting that kind of after -the -fact hand history support?
Tom: Because I think we can do it ourselves. I think we can provide that data ourselves to guys, and this is part of the MyGame development. What you’re talking about there in terms of being able to give a player a summary of his gameplay, we’re looking to be able to do that. Therefore, why do these people need these tools? That’s the question in our minds and also as soon as players can download hand histories, it gives rise to the possibility of that hand history being shared who knows what can happen, what level of detail these databases need in order to incorporate this in there?
People could sell it, they could give it- it could be misappropriated in some other way and I think it’s just a risk and it’s a risk that I feel that we don’t need to be taking at the moment.
Rob: I think I’d like to make one point as well about this idea that we want the recreational players to learn how to play poker and that’s why you must give hand histories. Let me just read a conversation, I won’t say names, that I had last night; “Rob, are you not going to reverse this hand history decision? I can’t analyze my game.” This is from one of the worlds best online pros. “No, it will not be reversed. I can’t see possibly reversing it for at least two to three years unless the site—” PA Sports, “Casual players they like to see their hands and want to improve their game. You’re taking that away from them.”
“Don’t get me wrong, obviously, the reason I’m asking for this hand issues is for me to work on my game.” And then, “You have the 90 days in the client. What’s the problem? What are you doing with these hand histories? Are you reading from some tool?” “Yes, I’m using a tool.” “What tool are you using?” “I’m using ATM, PT, H2N, C2C, and HRC.” “No, you’re not having hand histories?” One guy has come on and put, “I can’t believe you’re even asking Rob these questions when you’re listing all those tools.”
These pros that are saying to us, “Guys, we want the recreational and casual players to get better at poker, give us our hand histories.” It’s bullshit. These guys are running hands through algorithms, solvers, bots, the highest levels of intelligence and coming up with solutions on how to play against opponents.
Nick: Would you say one advantage then of not storing these hand histories is to make it harder for people to study their own game?
Rob: No. They’re not studying their own game, they’re studying their opponents and looking for leaks in their opponents game with higher level solvers, so when they play against their opponents they know exactly when their opponent could be a little bit weak and they could push the EV against them. They’re not studying their own games. It’s not true. These guys that I deal with are the best players in the world, but you’re not so they want to study your game.
Mike: Couldn’t that be combated by just anonymizing usernames, aliases?
Rob: Do you mean anonymizing usernames on the client or anonymizing had histories?
Tom: We tried that before and unfortunately, people build what’s called converters. They run a program which effectively un-anonymizes the hand histories. We tried it and unfortunately, that failed. I would never want to run an anonymous site. This is something Rob’s talked about in his podcast. We want people to know who they’re playing against. Anonymization is not something that we would like to do. Other networks have done it and tried it. Maybe it works for them but we want to be open and transparent. A site where you know who you’re playing against. It’s not something that we would consider doing.
Rob: Just picking up on that anonymization you’re talking about, my dad plays poker, he plays seven days a week. My dad goes into my casino, sits down with seven players, knows who they are. He’s not got much chance, he’s 82 years old, but at least he knows who’s aggressive, whose not aggressive, knows their background. Knows a little beet about them, he knows who they are. He has some sort of feel to the game. Would I ever say to my dad, “Dad, log on to partypoker or PokerStars and play against six people you don’t even know with all sorts of strange names?”
We’re just tuned into this whole ethos and we’re so backward in terms of poker than the online industry is that we’re just tuned into—We should, this is an online poker risk, and if you look at the stats of live poker versus online poker, live poker is booming. Online poker is dying. People blame regulation, they blame all of America, but the truth of the matter is the product’s not interesting.
Tom: Also, guys, if you think you can flip it the other way. Imagine going to a live casino and sitting down at a table, eight guys are all wearing balaclavas. They’ve all got video cameras pointing at you and they’re recording what you’re doing in your gameplay and then every hand they’re looking and seeing what their computer is saying before you act next time. You would get up and walk away from the table, right? It’s the same thing online but the players just don’t realize and it’s a really tender exercise also this. We don’t want to scaremonger new and recreational players from playing poker. Loads of players don’t even know about HUDs and other tools.
When I started playing poker casually, however long ago it was, I’d had no idea that bots existed, that people were using HUDs and other tools. I had no idea for ages. The majority of players don’t even know. We need to be really careful with communication that we don’t scare people off from playing. There’s already a bad reputation regarding online poker and cheating, and from one really basic levels of corruption to accusations right at the other end. We need to improve the image of online poker. It’s a really tough exercise, but we’re determined to get there.
Mike: It sounds like you were embarking upon taking this conversation down the road of discussing aliases and screen names. That is definitely a topic we want to cover, but before we move on from the hand histories, one other major issue that has been raised in the community is removing the downloadable hand histories. It inhibits players’ ability to try and supplement the sites’ efforts to catch cheaters.
Tom: Yes, we touched on this a little bit already. I think if we were sitting here nine months ago talking about this, I would probably agree with the players that we weren’t in the right place to be able to make these changes, but we now have in place an excellent security team. Now we call them our poker police and it’s led by a former poker player called Juha, a Finish guy that was an online grinder for a long time. Now he’s running this team from London, and they have excellent sophisticated processes and technology in place to start to detect all sorts of cheating. Not just bots, collusion, chip dumping, ghosting, et cetera. There’s all sorts that these guys are coming up with.
They are actually catching these guys very quickly now, so it’s getting quicker and quicker and quicker. Prior to this team being formed, we used to rely on players a lot to report bots and cheating to us. Now, quite often, I would say 90, 95% of the time, when a player reports to us that they suspect somebody of cheating, we’ve already got these accounts flagged. This is also what players don’t see sometimes and we’re going to try and improve transparency here so that players understand what’s going on. Often, we have accounts that are monitored for a period of time so that we can watch them.
They’re blocked from cashout so they can’t get money out of the system whilst we gather more information and also potentially link these accounts to others. When you have a bot ring, for example, you may identify one or two accounts that you want to monitor, and it may give more information about others. You don’t want to alert them necessarily immediately. Sometimes players perceive themselves as detecting accounts, whereas we’ve already got them, and they’re already looking at them.
These guys are also using a state-of-the-art tool that GVC has developed called E-protector which is affecting the bot detection system which takes rules that these guys input and methods that looks for bots and runs it through the database. This tool is relatively new but is being developed and in-house all the time by this team. They’re also working with a small team of external poker experts that, for example, look at players that are playing perfect GTO, and run algorithms and crack clusters on these groups of players to make sure that they’re covering all aspects.
These guys are picking up very, very quickly, any kind of cheating or immoral activity. If you look at our PR and the numbers, you’ll see that the actual value of bots, and the number of bots that we’re catching each month is going down because they’re giving up. I think one big bot ring that we found, we detected towards the end of last year, their guys have stopped trying now. Those accounts initially tried to come back again and they’ve just given up. They’re picked up too quickly. They’re looking at other sites.
If you were to do a bit of digging, there’s various forums out there where players are saying, “Guy’s Party are picking us up very quickly now, and it’s not a safe place to run your bot, where should we go?” They’re talking about going to other rooms. We never used to see that.
I’m not saying we’re perfect at the moment. We’re looking to increase transparency with players as well and explaining exactly what we’re doing. We will start communicating to groups of players explaining the processes we go through. When an account is reported to us, what we do about it and how thorough we are. Whether or not we’ll drop that guy at the end of that process is down to the data we find. I’m confident that we have a very, very strong team in place, and these guys are doing a very good job in terms of policing the network. It’s going to get better. We will beef up this team, and the E-protector will become more advanced. This area is just going to become stronger and stronger for us.
Mike: Even in the area of third-party tools, Rob, I’ve heard you say in previous interviews that it’s not just the execution of what happens, it’s the image. With HUDs, for example, it’s not how much of an advantage it gives players, it’s the impression that it gives recreational players. I would ask the same thing about trying to detect cheating is, while you guys may have everything under control, the impression out in the community is that you’re asking them for a lot of trust. How can you give them more comfort or what— You had mentioned additional transparency, Tom, what kind of things do you have in place for our players to further- [crosstalk]
Rob: I think the first thing is Tom’s being a lot more open than I would about this. For me, we shouldn’t say anything about security because why tell the people we’re trying to catch what we’re doing? I’m a street fighter, I don’t want to give these guys any edge over us. I have people that I pay to be in all these bulk groups and these cheating groups, just sitting there, feeding me information. I’m out there in the community knowing exactly what’s going on. I’ve offered rewards for software that can crack partypoker’s hand histories.
There’s various things that we’re doing to make sure that the place is a safer place and I don’t really ever want to be discussing too much, but as Tom says, we have an internal official partypoker department and we have an external risk department which is an agency of elite poker players who are working for us undercover and analyzing what’s going on on the site. We have two, internal and external, and they work together. How they’re doing it and what they’re doing I think is our business and I don’t want to give any edge, not 1% edge to these cheats.
One of the things that I will talk about is this week, I’ll be announcing that myself personally is setting up a new agency called #Fairplay and I’m going to invite all the live casinos, all large tours, all online poker places to join and become members of this organization, and we will agree to share our risk data. For example, partypoker will add to a database any players they ban and what they’ve been banned for, so the rest of the members can see that and take action accordingly. I’m looking to try and get the industry to stand up and have some balls and actually run these cheats and bot rings out of town.
Now obviously, the first two members that will join, my casino Dusk Till Dawn and partypoker. I’ll be inviting PokerStars, 888 or the online companies to share their risk information and we could all work together. Let’s, for example, say that Tom is caught cheating on GGPoker, GGPoker catch him colluding, they ban him. GGPoker shares or enters that information into a database, and we blacklist that player, then all the other sites can already know this player might be trying to join them or he’s an existing player who is a cheat.
For me, we have something big in our industry called KYC, know your customer. I think it’s pathetic that our industry doesn’t have a database of people who have been caught cheating. We check people’s bank details, what car they drive, whether they can afford to gamble, we don’t check whether they’ve been cheating before. That’s one of the big things that me, personally is to bring the industry together.
I have to be— For me, if someone cheats at the WSOP, I’ll know there has been some accusations over there at this time. We don’t want them on partypoker, we would bar them, they would be on the blacklist. That’s a big initiative that I’m going to kick off in the next week personally. Set that up, hopefully, get everyone to join and then hand it over to someone independent that could run it. I think that’s a very powerful tool particularly for some of the smaller poker sites who necessarily can’t afford big risk departments. I’d like to help them.
If we catch 20 people on partypoker, a bot ring, I would like some of the smaller sites to know about that so they’re not targeted. Now, I don’t know whether everyone’s going to join, I’m going to invite PokerStars, I don’t know whether they will, they might think that they’re good enough on their own, but I think if all the online and live poker operators in the world come together and we just— we can just ruin these guys out of town.
Mike: Just back to my question a bit. From a PR perspective, do you guys have any plans to try and add more comfort to the community because now, the tools that they had to police themselves with downloadable hand histories are going to be gone. Regardless of the effective rate, there’s still that impression out there that they’re more at risk now than they were before.
Tom: Michael, can I just make a comment here as well which is related to- Patrick Leonard actually raised this on Twitter in a debate about this, and he actually made the point that it’s not downloadable hand histories that often catch bots and other forms of cheating, it is a gut feel and something that’s happened at the table. You may have experienced somebody at the table in a way of players playing certain hands or has done something, then that that gives rise to the suspicion. He’s saying, and you know, this is just one guy’s opinion, but I think a few people have agreed with him, that it is very rare that you will go back and use downloadable hand histories to find bot rings.
I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, and sometimes people will be able to maybe link accounts here to do that, but our systems already doing that. We have to have confidence and we have to give players the confidence that our system is working, and it’s delivering that level of protection to players.
Nick: Just to dive into that a bit more. You publish, and I think it’s very commendable that you’ve been doing this the last six months, a report on the number of accounts that you have closed for running bots, or collusion, or other forms of cheating. You also publish a percentage of how many of them came from player reports initially. Over the last six months, I think you closed just over 400 accounts, and it was had about 25% of them have come from player reports, about 100.
Very early on, when we started this conversation, you said that your internal team is capturing 95% or 99% of accounts. With these accounts that you would have caught anyway without that reporting? Then a follow-up question is, do you feel that this percentage will still be the same now you got rid of hand histories? Does it say reports more come from gut feel and the data?
Tom: Well, to two things. One, if you look at the reports, you’ll see that the actual numbers reported by players has gone down each month, generally. I think the last report, the percentage reported by players was much, much lower than it was when we started this exercise. In those numbers reported by players, we have also included accounts that were already under suspicion by us, but not necessarily closed. Yes, I’m saying some of those accounts for sure would have been captured by our team, and I’d like to think, and I’m relatively confident that we would have got all of them.
Now, maybe it would have taken slightly longer, but maybe not now because our processes are better than they were two or three months ago. I’ve no concerns in this area, I don’t think we’re opening ourselves up to a risk by doing this. Players will still get that gut feel on the table. They will still report accounts, those players will still be reported and blocked. I don’t see this as an issue, and I don’t see that we’re opening ourselves up to any kind of risk here.
Player Aliases and Real Names
Mike: All right. Why don’t we move on to the topic of aliases? Rob, you had indicated previously that online poker is kind of in the dark ages when it comes to identity and that partypoker would eventually be moving towards using real names on the site. What more can you tell us about your plans in that area?
Rob: Well, I think this is a big culture shock for online players to make these changes. I think we’re looking to attract live players, new players to the site for the future of the site. We need to take it a little bit slowly. First of all, I think if you look at the benefits of playing under your real name, first of all, behavior is definitely going to improve. We have, for example, hidden rooms, etiquette, the type of things that aren’t necessarily we bar people for life for, but they do annoy players, hopping between tables, et cetera, when the fish leaves five of them sit out.
All the distasteful things that you’re able- that players do, they’re going to improve naturally. I’m not saying they’re going to go away but I think they’re going to improve when I know it’s Tom Waters buttoning me. I mean, actually got buttoned myself and I went and checked who the guy was, he was actually a friend of mine. We have buddies. First of all, people are doing things under disguise, and I think that to make online poker more attractive, nobody wants to be getting grimmed and being behaved badly towards. People are less likely to be abusive in the chat, people are more likely to basically behave themselves generally, so that’s an upside.
The second upside is security. I would feel much more confident when I’m sitting around the table when I can see Tom Waters and ID, Tom will have face verification technology soon, where they’ll verify that it is Tom Waters sitting on the table through his camera on his phone or his camera on his laptop. I just feel more comfortable that that’s the guy that I’m playing, and I know that I play on an app called Fun Ocean where we all know each other, and that has that camera facility and we all use our real names. It just gives you the comfort you’re playing a real person.
Third of all, I think in terms of aspiration, if you think about Facebook, imagine if Facebook was anonymous, would it have grown the way it’s grown? If you think about what’s happened to Two Plus Two forums, Blonde poker forums. In poker, every form of business in poker that uses an alias has gone south. The poker forums used to be able to charge for advertising, become big affiliates, they’re dust now. Effectively, they’ve been taken over by the Facebook groups and social groups where it’s real people talking together and knowing who each other is.
The fourth upside is community. Certainly, for me, we’re going to make the partypoker live satellites real names, so you can get used to playing the same guy each night. You know who he is, you might’ve played against him in your casino, you see him at a live event. Just to build that community and that fun and that endearment back into poker. Those are a few of the upsides. Obviously, I can go and list five or six more but I won’t continue. Now, the downsides.
Tom: Rob, just quickly, on your last point there, and I think something that makes it very relevant when you’re talking about live. When you go into a live tournament, you look at the screen and you see everybody’s names, what their seating position is, who they are. Why in terms of qualification for these or online day ones for these events, et cetera, why are players hiding under an alias? If you think about it, it’s absolute common sense for you to know who you’re playing in these live events and it just joins the two together.
Rob: I think with the live, it’s going to be more popular to have real names. It’s where you’re in the murky world of particularly cash games where people won’t want to expose who they are. If we look at the downsides, what’s the downside? The downside is that someone knows who you are. If you give them a bad day, they can find you on Facebook and send you a nasty message, but you’re on Facebook anyway.
The downside is that someone’s religious and it’s against their religion to be gambling and they’re gambling. Really, that’s their decision, isn’t it? They are doing something against their own principles. The third thing is that somebody is a really, really super high-profile person. For example, I remember when Guy Laliberté was playing on Stars, he stopped playing because people found out who he was. That’s one in five million people anyway. For example, we’ve got Michael Owen who was playing. You’ve got people who are playing and who are really high profile and don’t want people to know. That’s one in five million people, that’s not a big deal.
There’s not actually a lot of downside as compared to the upsides. I just think it’s so sensible to know who you’re playing in poker. I’d like you to try and come up with an argument against it.
Mike: I would personally welcome the change. I have heard some concerns. Privacy issues, for example, is one. I know especially because online poker is global, then you have to adhere to the privacy regulations or laws of several different jurisdictions. I’m not sure how that would play into it or if that would limit or in some way inhibit the rollout of a plan like that.
Tom: I don’t think there’s anything in the regulation that says we have to mask a player’s name. If we were giving out data about their win rates and loss rates, then that’s different, but we’re not. All of the data is kept private. The only thing that’s displayed is their name. I don’t believe, from a regulatory perspective, we’ve got any issues at all.
Rob: Can you think of a downside from a poker point of view rather than a regulatory point of view?
Mike: [crosstalk] Go ahead, Nick.
Nick: I was just going to say, I think, and we’ve already touched on it, but a huge concern I would think is just that it will be very unattractive to new players. Having to sit down with your real money and know that someone can look at you and see how much you’ve won or lost could be a big turn off.
Tom: How can they see that?
Nick: Even if I’m just sitting at the table and they see me go through a couple of buy-ins, I think a lot of people might enjoy the anonymity of being able to blow off a few stacks.
Tom: Maybe. Perhaps. I guess it’s the same live. If you’re a new poker player and you go down to play live, you’re playing under your real name. Surely, at least online, you’re hiding behind your computer. Turn the chat box off if you don’t want to see somebody saying you are a donk or whatever it is.
Personally, maybe it’s a valid point and it may put a few people off, but I can’t say the majority. Especially, if you think that the poker world is changing, and players don’t sign up and go down and sit down at cash game anymore, they go and sit at the spins table. They want to play these jackpot, sit and gos. These guys in those format, it’s widely accepted that you can be a bit looser; and when you’re gone, you’re gone from the table. I think it’s an argument that probably does apply to some people, but I certainly don’t think it would apply to the masses, or hopefully not anyway.
Nick: Is it fair to say this is very much a concrete plan on the partypoker roadmap to be rolling out real names across events?
Tom: Yes, but it will be phased. It’s not going to be an overnight change. It won’t be a dramatic hit for players and we will trial it first as Rob said, at a certain stakes, maybe at cash and also with partypoker live so that it ties those two together.
Rob: I think to be honest, the high-stakes players have requested it as part of the security. They’ve requested that people don’t play under aliases. At 10/25 plus, I have a high-stakes group with 99% of the players on the site in there who play 10/25 cash game plus. They actually came to me and said, “We think the high stakes and heads up should be no alias.” Even though something that I’ve always cared about, they actually asked for it from a security point of view.
Mike: I think that’s interesting. That would be one group that I would have thought would have pushed back against this a bit because, culturally, our society is such that we tend to try to keep financial transactions private. Especially in high stakes games, there could be a lot of money exchanging hands, and that’s one area I would have thought that they would have had concerns.
Rob: I think these guys are quite smart. Let’s, for example, say that me and Tom are playing in a 50/100 game and I know it says Tom Waters. These guys want to make sure 1,000% you’re not a bot or someone else is not playing on your account. Often, they know each other and they might message each other and say, “Hey.”
Mike: I could see how security concerns would be more important.
Rob: To be honest with you, at the high stakes, I’ve played in games where everybody has to effectively put their location to Google Maps to prove that they’re playing from where they’re playing from. High stakes guys are pretty savvy and they just want to know that they are definitely playing against the person that they’re playing against. Those guys actually came to me and said, “At high stakes, we don’t want to have aliases; and at heads up as well.”
Mike: Well, this is a future implementation. What other future plans do you expect to roll out as part of your ecology overhaul? I think, Rob, you had mentioned that in the past that there were some 50-odd changes that you guys had in the works. What more can you tell us?
Rob: I’m going to go by list here. We have a group. As I said, I’m the project manager for this ecology, so I’ve got the list and Tom’s in the group as well and few of the guys. I should read a few things that we’re going to bring into place. We’re going to bring in run it twice, which should happen in July time, is that?
Tom: No, I think it’ll be a bit later. It will come at some point this year. I think it’d be slightly later than July.
Rob: Obviously, run it twice, for me, actually is an advantage to the pros. It earns that variants for them. But saying that perception with the businessmen, it is the businessmen and recreational players that are asking for run it twice. We’re going to change heads up to kind of the hill. We’re going to stop one person sitting at 10 tables and waiting. You can sit at one table. If you playing, you’re allowed to open another table and you’ve effectively—
PokerStars used to have king of the hill. That’s going to be put into place, I believe, in the next four to five weeks. We’ve had consultation with all the heads up players and they’ve all agreed to that. We’re going to look at more security on the table. The idea, for me, is that we need to make this as close to a live-poker experience as possible if people need to feel safer. We go have face verification. Literally, you’re a table of six people, if someone’s verified, they have a tick next to their name.
To be verified, you will have had to pass all the various checks in the background that we do. Plus, on top of that, it would take a picture of you while you’re playing and match that to your ID to show it’s definitely you.
Obviously, if someone turns that camera off, they won’t be verified. Just like on Twitter. You get people who are verified. At the end of the day, player’s choice. If you’re sitting at a table and you’ve got five people who are not verified, maybe you have to ask yourself the question whether this is a good table to be at. Trying to give more protection for people. We’re going to replace dealer chat with real chat, so effectively someone would be able to just press the mic button on the table and say, “Hi, Tom. How are you getting on? Good to see you,” but also you can verify that that’s the person.
We’re also going to start to add some more variance , five-card PLO and 8- game to bring some of the non-nl type games in here. I think the one of the biggest change we’re going to be making is how people play on the table. This is taking us some time to do because of regulation but, effectively, we want to make it so Tom sits at the table, he can’t just sit there for one hand and leave.
Let’s say Tom sits at a 1/2 cash game. He is agreeing to basically play for, let’s say, five more bets. He can’t leave until he’s played those five more bets. If Tom wants to leave the table, he clicks, “I’m leaving,” and it puts an L next to his name so everyone knows he’s leaving the table. A bit like in a live game where someone says, “Hey, I’m going in 15 minutes guys.” Maybe Tom plays for another five minutes before he can leave.
The idea with this is that we’re reducing the amount of hit and runs, and particularly reducing the fact that when the fish or the mark or whoever leaves the table, we’re stopping the sit out. The third thing around table etiquette is we’re not going to have sit out. We’re going to have auto-post. So effectively during a session, an hour, let’s say you will have X amount of sit outs allowed. Once you go over that, you auto-post. You can’t just sit at the table and wait. These changes, for me, will make the flows of the cash gain much better and stop some of the bad behavior that’s going on.
There’s about 50 changes here. I just listed off randomly like five or six of them to give you an idea of what we’re trying to do to address, but security is super high on the agenda. We want customers to know who they’re playing and be playing against that person.
Nick: One other thing I think you mentioned that was coming maybe later this month was the switch to 100 big blind buy-ins across your no-limit games. It was either that or a minimum 100 big blinds?
Rob: At the minute, that’s a fixed buy-in of 100 bid blinds for all cash games. I think that the reason for that is well-documented. The pros don’t like it. The pros want Tom to get frustrated and step up to the high stakes and blow his money off. If they message each other and there’s a bad player at a table, the pros will want to step up and play perfect short stack against him.
From a site’s point of view, we realized if Tom has got $200, we would rather him sit at the 1/2 table than sit at the 2/5 table. I don’t really understand. Again, this is where, the pros, they kind of make me feel a bit sick again when they say, “Oh, you’re changing it to a 100 big blinds. That’s really bad for recreational and casual players because they like to take a shot.”
That’s very similar to what they were saying about the hand histories, “Oh, you’re taking away the hand histories. The recreational and casual players need them.” It kind of makes me puke a little bit when they’re using the recreational and casual players, who they’re trying to beat, as an excuse for our policies. I can’t think of a single reason why 100 big blind minimum would be bad.
Mike: Tom, some questions that we have for you involve the US market.
Tom: Sure, you guys love the US and you always ask about the US. Every topic, the US is tagged on the end. Sure, you can ask about the US. Maybe this is not the best way to put it but it’s not that interesting, the US. If you think about the US market now, it’s pretty much exactly the same as it was five years ago. Plus, in a way, it’s going backwards. You just start talking about a shared liquidity between Nevada, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania; and then all of a sudden this Wire Act happens and they say, “Actually, fuck you guys, you can’t do it because you can’t pass money across borders.”
It’s just a frustrating market and is a massive opportunity for GVC. US is a huge opportunity. The estimates of the market size for online gaming are phenomenal. I can’t remember the exact number but I was astonished. It’s going to be enormous for sports but for poker I think, yes, there is an opportunity there in that market. However, the opportunity only really materializes when the big states come in and they share liquidity.
You need California in there, you need New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, all of these states together, working together as a shared liquidity market. I guess a little bit like what they’re doing in Europe with France and Spain and Portugal. That’s the model that they have to adopt in order to be successful. The dream is the US legalizes everything as a whole, right? All states. I think there is slow movement, there is slow progress. It’s slower than I expected, actually, after the Wire Act changes previously. But we are looking at the market and, at the moment, we’re just waiting I think.
There’s no point in us trying to take our .com or .eu strategy into the US at the moment because the market size is relatively small. We have a Nevada license now so we will be looking to do something there at some point. I’m not sure what or when but there will be movement. As and when the other states open up, I think that’s when we start to get a bit more interested but we do have a dedicated US team that are set out in America. They may look to do some stuff in the short term then maybe we join them with a bit of expertise in the longer term, but slow burning.
Mike: You’ve got Pennsylvania launching in under 30 days, what are your plans specifically for that market?
Tom: I don’t know is the honest answer because I’m not involved on a day-to-day. I know that there’s a lot of activity happening. There’s a lot of focus from GBC with regards to the US but from a poker perspective, at the moment, it’s not sat with me. At some point, we will get excited about poker, but I don’t think now is the right time.
Mike: Let’s see, what direction do we want to go here?
Nick: If we were going to finish with just one more discussion, I’d like to talk a bit about what you guys have done in terms of live in the last year, and where you want to take it in the next year, and how you see it supporting what you’re doing online. Do you see live events as a conduit to introduce the brand and bring people online, or is it more the other direction where it’s a way for your online players to experience the live scene, or is it bi-directional?
Rob: Well, it’s bi-directional, of course. I think just to give you a statistic, we have 110,000 people that have played in live events, or partypoker live events, since partypoker live was launched; 27% of those people play on partypoker every 30 days. There is a reasonable crossover. There is people who play live who just would refuse to play online. It’s quite a healthy number, that 27% of 110,000 partypoker live customers do play live on partypoker once within 30 days.
Where live goes in the future is I think our partnerships are important with WSOP and WPT, where we can offer those events for our online customers and also market online at those events, but we don’t have to necessarily take our whole team, et cetera, because they’ve already got their own infrastructure. I think our main focus will be to have the millions event which I see as advertising more than acquisition, so keeping the partypoker brand across those six continents. I think the overriding strategy with live again is to make it more fun and try and make it more convenient and more easy.
If you look at the recent initiative we’ve done for main events where you can play the first 20 levels on partypoker and you win the money, I don’t know whether you guys saw that piece of news. It’s looking at, for me, initiatives where we can make poker more accessible to people and we don’t just accept the status quo. Let’s, for example, say the WSOP main event. How amazing if you could play into the money online or turn up and play the Rio. God knows what field they would get if you could do that, because giving up nine days is a lot to people. The focus on live is to, again, make poker more accessible and try and persuade these live players to give partypoker a shot.
Mike: We’ve seen the relationship between Party and WSOP, for example, start to develop more recently. What can you tell us about there? We noticed that there is going to be some online circuit series held on partypoker.
Rob: We basically sponsor or license— We have the WSOP events outside of the US which we run in our partner casinos. We run one in my casino as well. They are normally a million for 1K type of level. We had an opportunity, I think, and Tom was there with me. We had an opportunity to work with WSOP in America a year or 18 months ago, but unfortunately, that deal didn’t come off, but we did try and sponsor WSOP. I don’t think I’m being non-confidential by saying that but, for whatever reason, it didn’t come off and 888 are still the sponsors.
Again, WPT, we have six to eight events a year. With those, I’d say it’s 3K buy-ins in jurisdictions which aren’t quite big enough to do millions, so we’re close with those guys as well. We’ve got all the different tiers. We’ve got our grassroots grand prixs which are like €200 buy-in, which our local casino partners run. We’ve got WSOP, 1K. WPT, 3K. Then we’ve got our high roller event which is effectively millions.
Now, on top of that, we’ve actually partnered with my friends over at Triton. Wasn’t Triton running a million pounds buy-in event in London in August? I don’t think we could do much more live, to be honest with you. We’ve got buy-ins from $200 to £1 million.
Mike: Great. We’re going to wrap it up there, but I wanted to give you guys the opportunity to bring up any topics that we may have not touched on before we call it a day.
Rob: Just asking you guys. You can see the direction we’re going, you guys probably think it’s risky, yes?
Nick: Yes, I think particularly the combination of what you’re doing with removing hand histories and HUDs, combined with the switch to real names, is a pretty high risk play. Because if you’re wrong in terms of stopping tracking, the scenario is a lot worse because now you’re going to have Poker Table Ratings with people’s win/losses with their real names associated to it, so you have to be extremely confident.
You’re kind of going all in with that move which I’m sure you understand. There are lots of people of all player ability who like third-party tracking tools because they play on multiple sites so they want to see their profit and loss across multiple sites. We actually have a product ourselves for Daily Fantasy Sports which does exactly that. You can upload your, basically, hand history yourselves across sites.
They just want to see how much they won and lost. It’s useful for taxes and it’s useful for those things. Preventing that, I think, is a significant negative to a plan that I understand. Obviously, from a business perspective, it’s probably a good idea. I would be surprised if it doesn’t make sense.
Tom: We hear you on the risks. We know and we acknowledge those points and we agree, but you have to take the plunge at some point so that’s what we’ve done. Real names will come in later, I think we’d be mad to do it at the same time.
Rob: Yes. It’s a slow approach, the real names. Ultimately, if players turn around and say, “We don’t like it,” we’re not going to roll out. We didn’t roll out HUDs and hand histories without significant consultation. We polled two years ago, 50% of people wanted to keep HUDs. We polled a year ago, 40%. Now, I think my vote which is 9,500 unique people, 29% want to keep HUDs.
Actually, we’ve seen HUDs become less popular over the last few years. Maybe if we’d done it when 50% of people wanted them two years ago, maybe that would have been a bit too soon. We’ve seen it, we have seen a trend. To go 50%, 40%, and now 29%; that’s quite a strong movement. Bearing in mind that when I did the polls, they’re very red-grind eccentric, the people that were replying as well.
I think we’re not massively risky on HUDs. I think we’re a little bit risky on hand histories and we need to come out and prove the security is going to be the best. The thing I touched on you earlier about getting all the sides to work together as an industry to kick out all the bots and cheaters. If you’re sitting at home and thinking about organizing a bot ring, you’re going to think twice if you know the whole industry is against you I think. You can try to make money in crypto or do something else.
I want to make one last point, the people that we catch that are using bot rings or cheating, some of these guys have never played a poker hand in their life. They’re data analysts, they’re computer geeks, they’re not necessarily poker players that are cheating. That’s something that people don’t think about. Firstly, I’m sitting at home, I want to make money by cheating. I’m looking at any opportunity as a cheat. If we make it hard to cheat in poker, these guys are going to go and try and cheat somewhere else. I think our biggest cheat has never played a poker hand in his life, Tom, yes?
Tom: As far as we are aware, yes.
Rob: We talked about him yesterday. Our biggest ever cheat never played one hand of poker.
Mike: Are there any efforts to follow up the prevention of cheating or the detection of cheating with prosecution?
Tom: It’s very difficult. It’s a question actually that one of my fraud guys asked me the other day in a specific case and I can’t comment on that case. Ultimately, I think our responsibility is to pass that information on to the regulator. The regulator can then make the decision on whether or not they feel that that person should be prosecuted. Now, obviously, there’s different forms of cheating and illegal activity. Money laundering is a totally different situation, so we have responsibilities there to report any cases of money laundering to various financial authorities. In some cases, detection of cheating will lead to prosecution; in other cases, it will be reported to the regulator where they decide to proceed or not.
Mike: Okay, guys, I think this was very informative, great. It turned out really well.
Nick: Thanks, guys. Thanks very much .
Tom: Take care, bye-bye.
Mike: All right, so how do you think it went, Nick?
Nick: I think it went too well that now we’ve got a week of having to write a bunch of associated content around this. There is half a dozen interesting news articles that we need to be pulling out of that.
Mike: Yes. There was definitely some interesting information. How do you think we did from an interview perspective? Do you that think we pushed back enough on some of the things? Do you think we asked the right questions?
Nick: I would be interested to hear our listeners opinions on that because this is new for us to be doing interviews on a live record. We’ve done obviously a bunch in our eight-nine year history of running pokerfuse and Poker Industry PRO, but always to turn it into written content, never audio content. It was a very interesting experiment. For us, we definitely listening to feedback. I think it was good. It was also conversation about their opinions and justification for what we’ve done. I think we raised some interesting counterpoints to help them explore the topic further, but it’s not a stage for us to voice our own opinions on the matter.
Mike: In the end, they are going to do what they feel is best for their business, and I think they expressed that. It’ll definitely be interesting to hear the communities’ reaction to some of these things. They covered some topics that they had covered previously but I think they also went a little bit further in-depth on some other topics. It’ll be interesting to hear what the listeners have to say.
Nick: Yes, and explored some upcoming changes in partypoker. They certainly do have a lot on their roadmap and lots of new information that Rob, in particular, talked about that they’ve got coming out. Including the real screen games but a lot of the other cash game changes that they’ve got coming out. It’s going to be fascinating to see how their product develops over the next 12 months.
Mike: On a bit of a different topic, what are your thoughts on the special editions of the Pokerfuse Podcast?
Nick: Well, I’m enjoying very much. I’m just thinking when we’ve got a whole week’s worth of news that we’re not talking about right now. Maybe we need to cram in a regular episode because, on top of all these partypoker changes, there’s been lots of other interesting news. I’m not sure if we’re going to be able to cram in anything. I’m just guessing next week’s regular podcast is going to be a double bill edition.
Mike: Could be. Yes, I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to squeeze one in this week, but definitely for next week for the continuation of our commentary on the news in online poker. I guess this is us being awkward with the outro again.
Nick: I thought you could end on that fading …
Mike: All right.
Nick: We’ll fade in the music.
Mike: Fading in the music. Take care, everyone. We’ll catch you on the next episode.