Online poker had its biggest weekend of the year with the biggest Sunday Majors all surpassing their guarantees. Nick and Mike provide perspective around the big numbers from the weekend.

With the cancellation of all live poker events, some operators are even home game organizers are moving their poker games online. Find out where you can play or host your next game.

Traffic at the cash game tables have reached a level not seen in years. The guys provide historical context around the numbers.


Full Transcript

Mike Gentile: Hello and welcome everybody to the Pokerfuse podcast. It is March 25th, 2020. This is episode number 47. I’m your host Mike Gentile along with my co-host Nick Jones. This week on the podcast, with so much of the world’s population staying at home, entries in prize pools and the Sunday majors spiked. We run through the numbers and significant happenings from this weekend’s action.

Social distancing and self-quarantining have caused the cancellation of both professionally organized live poker games and home and pub games alike. We’ll get you up to speed on which live tournaments have been rescheduled online and how to keep your home games thriving. Finally, online poker cash game traffic is surging as people at home look to entertain themselves. We’ll give you some of the latest traffic figures and put them into historical context.

Entries and Prize Pools in the Sunday Majors Spike

Mike: Once again any conversation about poker, particularly online poker needs to have the context of our current situation which is in the midst of this pandemic, the coronavirus, COVID-19. It’s brought a lot of players to the poker tables and that was apparent this Sunday with a huge turnout for the big Sunday majors. Nick what do we know about last Sunday? What are some of the things that happened?

Nick: Yes. Sunday was always going to be a very big day regardless because PokerStars was hosting its anniversary Sunday million which was a $12.5 million guaranteed online poker tournament. That’s their largest ever. It’s a guarantee designed to make it the largest ever online poker tournament hosted, just a fraction above the previous record they set for themselves of $12.4 million back in 2011. Almost 10 years ago they had a Sunday million of that size. They wanted to beat it.

There was definite question a few weeks ago going into it whether they would meet that guarantee. Now PokerStars has some fairly spectacular misses amongst its— Generally covers its guarantees pretty handily but it’s not immune to misjudging things. It’s absolutely possible this time. It’s a quite a tall order. Of course, with the last couple of weeks with online poker traffic booming in the wake of the coronavirus, I think it quickly became apparent that it was going to be a more question of how far it was going to exceed that guarantee rather than whether it was going to meet it. Indeed, it did blow out of the water.

Mike: They did roll the buy-in-back to the more traditional $215 buy-in for that tournament. The guarantee as you said was 12.5 million. What was the prize pool in the end?

Nick: Yes. They needed to attract 62,500 people to cover the guarantee. They ended up attracting about 93,000 total entries. The prize pool was $18.6 million, about 50% over the guarantee. It covered this guarantee within the first two hours of late registration. This was a tournament that had late registration open until day two. Technically, a 24-hour late registration period. People could reenter up to five times. There were satellites and guaranteed Sit N Go satellites running through to the start of day two and people just kept piling on.

18.6 blows any PokerStars tournament out of the water. The only things that beat it are Party Pokers millions online which are nosebleed online poker tournaments. Both have $20 million guarantees. Both did cover that guarantee. They had six months of ramp-up and these are $5,000 and $10,000 tournaments. In this $200 level, whether you call that mid-stakes or high stakes it’s in that area. There’s nothing close to it by 50%. It truly is staggering how many people played that tournament.

Mike: Yes. That’s quite an accomplishment by PokerStars. I haven’t seen a lot of chatter around how big of an accomplishment it really is. Has there been any feedback that things went smoothly? I know that there’s always the issue of scalability when you get into a tournament that has, how many did you say? How many total entries? 90?

Nick: Yes, 90 or should I say 93,000 total entries. There were 61,000 unique players, which I think is an interesting little fact that if it had no re-entries it almost would have covered its guarantee. It needed 62,500 entries. It got 61,000 unique players and 32,000 re-entries on top of that. That’s a lot of people. The PokerStars software has a hard cap of I think 107,000 total entries in a tournament as we understand it. That’s a technical limitation of the platform. They weren’t far off that max cap that they can hit.

Yes, it all ran smoothly. The only thing I saw was that they suspended their play money tables on Sunday. I generally wonder whether that was to allow more server space for this tournament to assure that it ran smoothly, which from everything I read it did, which is also a real technical achievement because on top of that there was the high roller tournament series just kicked off. They had their regular spate of Sunday tournaments, many of them smashed through their guarantees. Huge numbers of people at the cash game tables and we’ll talk about cash numbers later, but yes, technically held up.

Really I don’t think it can be understated what they’ve achieved. It may be easy to look and go, “Well, that’s PokerStars and they can always get people and see, say, “No, coronavirus so everyone’s at home.” Again, keep in mind that the record that they’re beating they set 10 years ago. That was almost another era for online poker. I’m going to test my limited knowledge here of the top of my head, but Europe wasn’t segregated nine years ago, was it? Spain would have been part of the global player pool, I think.

Mike: Maybe France was at the time. I think perhaps.

Nick: It’s around that time. France and Italy. To achieve it today, also ultra-competitive and we’ll talk about what the other operators also managed to achieve at the weekend. It’s a remarkable achievement that PokerStars pulled off and could accommodate all the extra players who wanted to play that tournament.

Mike: Yes. Big shout out, big kudos deserved to PokerStars for being able to pull this off technically. Their platform withstood 90 plus thousand entries, that’s remarkable. As you said the play money games were suspended. To me that’s a positive. That to me showed that they were looking out, they were taking measures to make sure that there wasn’t interruptions. They haven’t publicly said that that was a part of the preparations or precautions, but it sure looks like it. Good for them. It’s a huge, huge tournament. I wonder how long that record for that buy-in level will stand given our current status, but who knows? We might see another repeat performance of that somewhere in the very near future given that we still expect a lot of people to be home for quite some time yet.

Nick: Absolutely and some of the other successes that we saw at the weekend came from tournaments that will be continuing to run every Sunday, so it’ll be really interesting to see how they perform moving forward. Partypoker ran again their regular now Partypoker million tournament, which is another $215 buy-in tournament. It has multiple day ones spread across the week and culminates in the final day on Sunday. Has a million-dollar guarantee, ran for months and never covered it, quite often missed it by quite a decent margin, providing a lot of value to players last week. I think they covered it for the first time. It just squeaked into the guarantee. Last Sunday they exceeded it by over 40%. Total prize pool of 1.4 million attracted over 7,000 entries. That was a smashing success for the operator as well.

Mike: Yes. 7,000 entries, again, a technical feat for Partypoker to have that tournament go off with no glitches. I know that there’s even denial of service or DDoS attacks are quite common and no reports of those from last Sunday? Pretty clear?

Nick: I think so. Partypoker was also running their POWERFEST. I think it was the first or second weekend of the POWERFEST. Second of three weekends of their POWERFEST tournament series. Again, don’t have all the hard numbers here. I’m sure they’ll put out a report after the fact, but just browsing down the lobby, everything seemed to cover on Sunday which again for Partypokers, POWERFEST is an achievement they often have a lot of overlays. They welcome them or have done in the past, but yes, we just checking down the lobby. It seemed across the board they covered their guarantees and many of them by a pretty decent chunk. There was a super high roller million dollar guarantee prize pool ended up paying out 1.3 million just reading a good article here penned by— And I actually summed it 50%, 80% over their guarantee. Yes, it seemed across the board tournaments from everything that we could tell ran smoothly. As I said, POWERFEST is still going on and there’s another Partypoker million ramping up for this coming Sunday.

Mike: Well, as good as PokerStars and Partypoker did, one that really stands out for me this past Sunday is the Million Superstorm from 888. Now, Partypoker had 7,000 plus entrants, this $1 million guaranteed tournament by 888 poker brought in over 11,000 entrants and for them, that seems to be quite an accomplishment to me.

Nick: Yes, there’s a big asterisk against that number though, because I think people have been entering it for six months. Maybe not that long. Yes, that was an exaggeration. Just reading our article here, three weeks they’d be running day one flights to it. They just carried them into the guarantee. They just covered it, which is good for them. I didn’t know I was going if anything though. The one operator that sticks out the moment that perhaps hasn’t benefited as much as some of the others. We’re not quite seeing the uptick in cash game traffic that we’re seeing elsewhere. This covered, but it needed 10,900 entries, it got 11,600 to say there’d been people who’ve been playing day ones for weeks now. Yes, they’ll be pleased they covered and hopefully, they can build on that, but we’re not talking— The last few tournaments we talked about did 40%, 50% over their guarantees. 888 didn’t quite achieve that.

Mike: Yes. Another factor to consider when looking at the 888 tournament is the buy-in as well. The others were at 215, 888’s buy-in is at a much lower price point of $100. You would expect that they would have been able to attract more players at that price point. It’s great that they achieved their guarantee. It’ll be interesting to see going forward if that is something that they can build upon.

Nick: Yes. The other one, close to that price ranges, the GG masters which is $150 guarantee. Yes, again on Sunday they— A week prior they had and correct me if I’m wrong, Mike. They had a $300,000 guarantee. That was up from 250 when it first launched, they covered that $300,000 guarantee. They upped it to 400,000 and they covered it again. They exceeded it by about 5%. Needed 2,900 got 3,050, somewhere like that. I think they have again increased it for next Sunday, is that right?

Mike: Yes, that is correct. Yes, at 250, they upped it to 300. Met their guarantee for the first time two weeks ago, upped that to 400, met their guarantee for the second time this past Sunday and upped it again to 500,000.

Nick: Yes. Again, so across the board, they’re definitely the top four operators in terms of European player pool, cash, game traffic, all having great Sundays and we can only really expect it to grow moving forward.

Mike: Yes, it’s going to grow I think for sure in the near term. I think that people are still going to be home for quite a bit of time yet. I think that some of the things that could maybe shrink the online poker sphere during this quarantine time could be things such as people financially not being as stable as they normally would be, and also just the amount of people getting ill.

I think, on a global scale that is, I’m no doctor, no expert. I’m not going to say that it’s beginning to peak, but it feels like there’s still ways to go. It still feels like the projections that were made have yet been reached as far as the number of people that will be infected. Though the financial situation and the health situation are a couple of things that can affect the attendance at these Sunday majors going forward. All we can do is wait and see how it shakes out at this point.

More Poker Live Events Moved Online Including Home Games

Nick: As we talked last week, there’s obviously no live poker anywhere in the world and If an event hasn’t yet been canceled, it’s probably just too far outside the horizon for it to be announced. What we are seeing and we touched on last week and we see more of that this week is the opportunities for live operators to move their tournaments online. We’ve seen a few more being announced to being hosted on online poker platforms in the coming weeks and months.

Mike: Yes. We’ve seen PartyPoker partner with PokerGo or Poker Central to be more specific, to bring the Poker Masters online. What do we know about Poker Masters?

Nick: That’s I mean it’s actually one of three that party poker have announced working with a third party live tour brands to bring them online. Poker Master is one of the bigger ones. It’s going to run for two and a half weeks in April. $15 million guaranteed, I think. I’m not that familiar with the Poker Masters. I know it was obviously a live-streamed event. I know the winners won a purple jacket. They’re the two things that stick in my mind and it’s high roller tournament, high stakes tournament.

Mike: Took place I believe in the PokerGo studios if I’m not mistaken.

Nick: Just looking here, I think they’ve published the online schedule. Buy-in started like $10,000 and go up to $50,000. I’m not quite sure what the details around if it’s going to be live-streamed. That’s cool. I say it’s just one of three of the Partypoker deals that they did. In fact, before really the whole outbreak happened and they think just coincidental, we probably touched on that this last week is that they’re going to host the first-ever WPT online and that’s another $50 million guaranteed series that’s going to run in May. I think that was just fortuitous that this was struck ahead of time. The timing has worked out very well for them. That starts coming in May and that’s going to have a pretty broad schedule. Then there’s the Irish poker festival, which is going to be hosted in April as well. All on the Partypoker platform.

Mike: You had mentioned the potential of live streaming Poker Masters online. It’ll be interesting to see how operators fill their production needs with the online product. When you had live products, it’s very traditional to have television coverage, for example, like we’ve seen traditionally with the world series of poker and WPT, but how they adapt and change to get some promotional material or watchable content for fans when the games are online. That will be interesting to see how they play that out.

Nick: Absolutely. You think there’s an opportunity there and they’re going to have to do something. Obviously the great live streaming content that’s happening now is the Phil Galfond challenge. That is going to provide a lot more entertainment over the coming weeks and months. I think that is only going to be successful in attracting more people to watch the final couple of weeks of that play out.

Mike: There’s been traditionally some examples of covering online content. The one that jumps out to me was the what? What did GPI do with the cube back in the day, not too long ago?

Nick: I remember what the concert was and I never saw the execution. I don’t know if I could say with confidence that the idea was executed on.

Mike: I remember there being some controversy over watching a table with just the avatars there and live commentary and missing the actual live human beings. They also did webcams too. I believe that they were concurrently streaming along with the games. I wonder if when we get to a final table if that is something that one of the operators might try to implement.

Nick: It’s actually interesting on a bit of a tangent, a question that I’ve been getting a lot to personally and over Twitter and stuff is how can we take a home game or a pub game online and keep it going? The obvious answer there is Poker Stars. They’ve got their home game system and it’s pretty comprehensive. You can create a private game, control who can play. I think you could do both play money and real money. That’s a good feature. What it doesn’t have is webcam or audio support. I think that’s a big thing that people want.

Of course you could fire up Skype or Zoom or something on the side and do it. Having that integrated seems like a real opportunity. I know universities as well. They’re setting up private password-protected tournaments for people who want to continue hosting their game online and they’re saying that’s been quite a success. I’m actually struggling to think of an operator, honestly real or play money that has built-in webcams that you can use for home games. I know ATT has webcam tables, but I don’t think they offer a private game set up. Maybe there’s an opportunity there for someone, even if it was just play money, then people would settle out off-site.

Mike: Is 888 the only one that has webcam capability? Did PKR have webcam capability back in the day?

Nick: I don’t know.

Mike: I’m not sure because it was just animation.

Nick: I’m not sure. I want to say maybe some of the agencies like PP Poker, they bill themselves as private poker club tools, although they’re used for a lot more than that. My guys, they have but don’t have any experience playing on them and I’m not sure if I would recommend them to a mate down the pub he wants to keep playing his small, 10-pound pub game or something. That was a total tangent to what we were talking about. [chuckles]

Mike: That’s okay. I think that we’ve heard talk recently from Party Poker specifically about trying to use facial recognition as a security feature that plays into, or at least seems closely related to offering webcam ability at the tables.

Nick: Yes. I think he spoke on this podcast is that he wanted audio chat at the table rather than text chat or emoticons. He wanted use of the microphone with your mobile phone or laptop, I think. The idea is obviously out there is nothing new and I’m sure there must be at least a free tool. I remember even maybe way back when Google Hangouts was a big thing that somebody had made an app based on Google Hangouts, which supported webcam and audio along with playing a poker game. There’s definitely a huge demand out there. I was shocked by how many people reached out to me asking for recommendations both publicly and privately looking to take their game online. It doesn’t seem like there’s an obvious go-to recommendation if you want that webcam functionality, which I think a lot of people are looking for.

Mike: Well they say that necessity is the mother of invention. Perhaps we will see some new innovations coming in online poker as a result of the situation that we’re currently in with COVID-19.

Cash Game Traffic at a 5-Year High

We saw online poker operators have a tremendous Sunday with their major tournaments, a great turnout across the board. We are also seeing numbers spike in cash games. Nick, how’s traffic looking these days?

Nick: It’s a term used to describe everything at the moment, but it’s unprecedented the amount of cash game activity there is. In almost every market on almost every site, we’re seeing 50 to 100% growth month over month. We’re in a period where you would normally expect traffic to decline. March, normally the end of the winter periods, the weather is getting better and traditionally this would be time more people would be going outside and doing less indoor recreation activities. Obviously that has been appended with the current situation.

I am blown away by the impact that this has. I thought like we definitely see a noticeable bump. If you look at the total cash game traffic graph since tracking began, which was 2006, we’re talking like an almost 15-year record, it is the most noticeable spike in the whole period. The only two biggest changes are Black Friday and this. They’re the two standout changes. It’s been extraordinary.

Mike: That’s quite some company. Give us some absolute numbers. Where are we at now compared to the peak of total? Just to make things clear, any numbers that we provide are cash game seats occupied, not unique players.

Nick: The numbers are the average number of concurrent players playing at one time on any side that’s tracked by game intel, which tracks around 70 of the world’s largest online poker rooms and that includes anyone that you probably would think of. This time in February last month, we had concurrent cash game traffic dated around 30,000. It is now 45,000, so that is across the board in every market up 50%. That is 45,000. That is a five year high. We have to go back to 2015 when we were at that level. We were at that 45,000 kind of level.

We’re seeing in the markets that are being affected earlier, so Italy. We’re seeing an even more pronounced change. Italy has gone from what is normally 1,300 to today. We’re looking at almost 3,000. That’s increased by more than a hundred percent and will probably rise further. That has a chance to actually hit an all-time market high so this market also answers the question before the time the Italian market started in late 2011. It peaked at 4,500 or 3,000. Now, it’s no signs of it slowing down so we could absolutely see that set market high in the European segregated market, which is Spain and France. Similarly, that’s gone from 3,500 to where are we now 7,500 so again, that’s more than double.

I would expect to see the same in the global market, maybe slightly less, just because it includes so many different markets. It includes a lot of Asian markets and that kind of thing, where, if anything, they might be coming out of lockdown. Maybe we won’t see 250% growth but we’re going to see double at least I would say in pretty much any market and on any site. I mean, some have done better than others but everyone’s seen double-digit gains over the last couple of weeks.

Mike: This is a five-year spike. If I’m trying to put into context what happened five years ago that may have started the downward trend of online poker cash game traffic at that point, I’d have to say it was probably Spin & Go’s at that point that really had an impact?

Nick: Yes. It’s difficult when you look at the decline in cash game traffic, there’s no obvious points like that’s where Spin and Go were introduced. It’s not that definitive to me. There’s just been a general trend over the last five years of people playing more tournaments. Spin & Go was one. Ultimately, that’s still being introduced now on some sites and only introduced in the last few months or the last year that’s been going on for five years.

Even when they launched it took a while for them to become popular. It’s not like overnight, people were I’m going to just play those now and not six months later the whole of them. NWith growth in MTTs, growth in weekly schedules and big series Spin & Gos and just regular Sit N Go’s. We went through a double or nothing craze for a while, didn’t we? Then they were 50-50s and a bunch of other weird variants and then knockout tournament both in Sit N Gos and MTT format has been successful.

Broadly speaking, when we look at traffic, the online poker market, when we look at the reporting from public companies, the reporting from regulated markets, it is roughly static. Some are up, some are down but over the last four or five years, it’s roughly static. What we’re seeing is cash gains have gone from 70% of the market until it’s 30% to that being fully reversed. Tournaments now make up 70% of the market. When we talk about the massive decline after Black Friday, that cash-game traffic decline is reflected in a growth on the tournament side of things. We would expect cash game traffic to be declining seasonally. We expect it to be declining because players are moving over to tournaments and yet we seeing markets up 250%.

Mike: It’s important, what you just highlighted there that the cash game traffic figures are not a representation of the overall health of online poker. It’s more of a change between the cash games and tournaments, player’s preferences there so I know that is often very much confused. People look at cash game traffic and they see it declining and they just automatically put that on online poker is declining at that particular rate when really it’s a move. It’s a combination of things but primarily a move from cash games to tournaments. Cash game traffic is something that I think probably allows more flexibility than tournaments. Perhaps I can imagine people playing more on mobile, for example, cash games than they would tournaments. Though the shorter duration tournament such as Spins and small Sit N Go’s might be the exception there but it strikes me that MTTs are probably more prevalent for desktops. I don’t know if we have any data to give us more insight on that particular point.

Nick: Yes, you could be right. I think maybe if you see an influx of people getting back into the game, then the natural thing might be, “I play cash games with my friends,” or “That’s what I played 10 years ago when I used to play online poker.” The default might be just sitting down at a table or clicking on the Zoom or Fastforward game. Whereas they might not be so familiar with some of the new inventions like lottery Sit N Gos, Spin & Gos, like knockout tournaments and that kind of thing. It might be like the default that people jump into.

Should reference I think, last week, we talked very briefly, I just asked a poll on Twitter asking people whether the games have been fishier or not. I think the poll had been up in the air at that point. I mean that close. I think you got 600 or so responses. Of those who responded with an opinion, it was something like 80% of people who said the games were fishier than before. We definitely see—

Mike: How many? 80% did you say?

Nick: 80%, yes.

Mike: Wow.

Nick: Maybe it was 70% and then 15% said they’re tougher, something like that. That was a pretty clear signal that people are saying that it’s not just that loads of games are popping off, loads of tables running it’s that the games are easier to play. One of the best things about this when loads of people taking to the tables, we’re seeing it’s not just the bigger operator benefiting, we’re seeing it across the board really. It’s some of the smaller sites that you might prefer to play on. There’s a lot more games running now. If you played with Run It Once, or if you played with even 888, or iPoker, much smaller than PokerStars, you are going to have more games running around the clock, more game types, different types of tournaments just firing off quicker.

Mike: I’d be very interested to know of the 15% that said the games are tougher, what games are they playing? It strikes me that the division there could be of difference in the game types that they’re playing.

Nick: I would just say that’s 15% of people not wanting to say that their games are easier. [chuckles]

Mike: [chuckles] Very well could be too, playing the strategic information game.

Nick: Yes. I hesitated to say this last week because, well, you don’t want to embark on this huge hobby of spending a lot of money on online poker if you’re stuck at home, but if you play poker and you are interested or played it before then you might be shocked by how soft the games are now compared with last time you dipped your toe in the water. You might be interested in giving it a spin.

Mike: Yes and there’s plenty of freerolls, there’s play money games, there’s games for every budget. You don’t have to go crazy and kill your bankroll just because you’re staying home. There’s plenty of entertainment to be had at multiple prize points.


Mike: Well, that wraps up this episode of the pokerfuse podcast. As a reminder, please give us a like and a subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. You can also follow us and interact with us on Twitter. Nick is at @pokerprojones. I am @SpookyBugs. Thanks, everyone for tuning in.