On this special edition of the Pokerfuse Podcast, former Managing director of MPN, Alex Scott, joins Mike to discuss some of the current trends in online poker including the use of real names at the tables and rise in popularity of phased tournaments.
Other topics on the table include the evolution of online poker rewards systems, bots, third-party software policies and more.
- The Future of the Network Model
- Rewards in Online Poker
- Online Poker Bots and Game Integrity
- Third Party Software
- The Use of Real Names in Online Poker
- Innovation in Poker Variants and Formats
- Online Poker Live Streaming
Mike Gentile: Hello and welcome, everybody, to The Pokerfuse Podcast. It is Monday, June 15th, 2020. This is special episode number six. I’m your host Mike Gentile. Today, I am joined by former managing director of MPN and 15-year online poker industry veteran, Alex Scott.
Mike: Today on the podcast, Alex and I discuss some of the current trends in online poker, including news of real names at the tables and the rise in popularity of phased tournaments .
Mike: We also dive into more controversial topics such as the evolution of online poker reward systems, bots, and third-party software policies.
Mike: Before we wrap up the show, we also talk about the various poker formats and variants that have resulted from efforts to advance innovation in poker.
Mike: Our guest today is our first returning guest, Alex Scott. For those of you that don’t know, Alex Scott is the former managing director of MPN. After 15 years in the online poker industry, Alex is moving on to a new role. We thought it was a good time to have him back. Alex, how are you doing today?
Alex Scott: I’m doing great, Mike. I’m glad to be back. Thanks.
Mike: Yes. Well, I can tell you. I was a little bit concerned like, “Wow, we just had Alex on not that long ago. What more is there to talk about?” As I started compiling a list of topics, I have to say that I got pretty excited to get your opinion on all these things. I’m going to be asking you a lot of questions about the online poker industry, some that you may not have been able to answer previously. Hopefully, now, we can get into some of the deep waters on some of these topics.
Alex: Yes. One of the exciting things for me is that this is the first time now in 15 years when I’ve not been working for someone in the online poker business, so I can speak freely now. One of the things that I couldn’t do before, for example, is praise a competitor for good things that they’re doing. I’m not here to bad mouth the competition or anything like that. I’m actually here to say positive things.
Mike: Okay. Cool, cool. Well, for the first topic then, let’s talk about the network model. MPN, the Microgaming Poker Network, was a network and so the network model is something that it seems to be less popular now than it was a few years back. I’m curious. What do you see is the future of the network model?
Alex: Well, I don’t think the network model is dead. I know there are some people that do think that. One of the things for me is I think the whole idea of B2B online poker is very challenging given the market that we have. Most people in the B2B online poker market are trying to sell poker to multi-vertical casino operators. People are offering sports betting, casino, bingo, and that kind of thing. One of the things I encountered over the last seven years working with Microgaming is that, actually, very few people out there, very few of these multi-vertical casino operators are actually interested in online poker. There’s a number of reasons behind that. A lot of the people involved in those businesses have been burned by poker in the past. They had an unsuccessful shot at it 10, 15 years ago and it didn’t work out for them. Now, they’re burned and they feel bad about it. There’s also this public perception which we spoke last time on the podcast about that online poker is in decline and has been declining for some time. You’re trying to sell poker to people and they think, “Well, you know, poker is in decline. Look at Poker Scout. You can see it’s been declining since 2010. Why should I invest my money in poker when I can invest it somewhere else in the new sports betting feature or a new casino game or whatever it might be?” It’s very, very tough, B2B poker. Well, I think it’s about to get easier in a sense because the pandemic has completely changed the game when it comes to poker. A lot of people are now interested in it that wouldn’t have been interested in it before because it’s made them think about diversifying their business. I still think it will remain very, very challenging to sell online poker to these multi-vertical casino operators in future and that’s the big challenge. It’s not really the network model. The big challenge is just developing interest in these big operators.
Mike: It also seems that with recent consolidation that a lot of these multi-vertical companies already have their own poker platform. Is there still enough online gaming operators out there that don’t have their online poker platform?
Alex: There are a lot of them. However, they tend to be on the smaller side. Definitely, the largest online gaming companies out there, they all have some form of poker products. Actually, some of them because of the consolidation that’s occurred in the business, some of them have more than one. Flutter, which is the combination of the Paddy Power, Betfair Group, and PokerStars, they’ve got several platforms. They’ve got the PokerStars platform. They’ve got their Java client, which runs on the Microgaming back-end. They’ve got their own poker client, which is Betfair and Paddy Power, so they got three.
Mike: Sky Poker too, right?
Alex: Oh, and Sky, yes. I forget about Sky. Actually, it’s a very significant one, so four. [laughs]
Mike: Yes, yes. Okay. All right. Do you think that traditional networks can continue to exist with the expansion of regulated markets? It seems like that has been a hindrance to the network model.
Alex: Let’s be honest. Regulated markets have been something that has slowed down the development of pretty much every online poker provider, not just networks. One of the issues that you have with the network in the B2B business, in general, is that you have to try to please everybody. We all know that the businesses, particularly the smaller startup-type businesses, that are the most successful are those that are really focused on doing one thing really well. If we look at GG, for example, which is doing very well at the moment, they’re purely focused on poker really and they’re doing brilliantly because of that. The day that they start branching out and trying to enter 10, 15 different regulated markets and try to add casino and sports betting and all of that stuff on the side, that’s when they’re going to start to struggle.
Mike: Interesting. Do you think that we will ever see a day when somebody is able to connect multiple platforms into a single network?
Alex: Technically, yes. While I was at Microgaming, we built something called Babelfish, which enables a job to form its clients on our network. It would have really been just a step further to allow two back-end platforms to speak to each other. Yes, it’s something that’s certainly possible, I think, from a technical perspective. From a business perspective, I don’t know if anyone would ever really see the value in doing it. Particularly because like I said, a lot of these big online gaming companies, poker is just something that they do on the side. It’s not part of their core business, unfortunately.
Mike: All right. Well, that is a little bit heavily industry-focused dealing with B2B side
Mike: Why don’t we shift a bit over into something that poker players might be interested in? A big topic that I have questions on is the topic of rewards. Who out there would you say has the best reward system?
Alex: I think it really depends on what you’re looking for. I don’t think anyone has got it nailed for every demographic of player. I think for the typical recreational player, I think PokerStars’ system is great. That’s going to be a very controversial answer. I know because a lot of people really don’t like PokerStars’ reward systems, especially serious players. I am a casual player these days. I’ve played a lot more during the pandemic than ever before. I’ve quite enjoyed the PokerStars reward system, I have to say. I also really like Run It Once, the Splash the Pot system. I think that makes the game really fun. I think that’s a really nice reward system, although I can see why some people didn’t take to it. I suppose if you’re more of a grinder-type player, then what the pot in poker is doing offering very large effective rake back through their system. Very predictable as well. I think there’s a lot to be said for that system too.
Mike: Yes. I think you hit on one of the keys there in the predictability. I know that the individualized rewards that we have seen recently, specifically through PokerStars, they claim that they’re trying to use these rewards to better manage the ecology and reward the players that are best for the games and such. The counter-argument to that has been that it obfuscates the amount of rewards that the players receive. What are your thoughts on individualizing rewards? How do you see that playing out in the future?
Alex: I think we’ll see more of it. The personalized rewards, they’re far more effective than something generic. We see this in all sorts of business. Even modern banking applications are now personalized to you and tailored to you. If banks can do it, being some of the slowest businesses in the world to react to anything, then online poker, online gaming operators, you’re supposed to be at the forefront of this. There’s actually no reason why they shouldn’t be able to do this very well. They’re all very effective. By effective, I mean in changing people’s behavior, which is what you’re ultimately trying to do in a reward system. You’re trying to reward the behavior that you like and, at least, not incentivize the behavior that you don’t. This is where the poker ecology comes in because poker is one of those games where my presence at the table affects the value of everyone else at the table. It can either go up or down, depending on whether I’m a fun player to play against, whether I’m winning or losing, whether I’ve got that star power that a professional player might have or a celebrity might have, that kind of thing. The right player can actually raise the value of everyone around them, get them playing for longer, get them to gamble it up a bit more. The wrong player— and I hesitate to say, “the wrong player,” because there’s no real wrong player in this. It’s not necessarily a bad guy. It can just be somebody who’s winning a lot that day. They can reduce the value of the people around them. Really, you don’t want to reward the people who are reducing the value of players around them on a consistent basis. Unfortunately, that’s a route to failure. You want to reward the people who are raising the value of the people around them. You want to do that as much as possible because they are the people you really must keep. Personalized rewards allow you to do that, whereas something generic makes that very difficult.
Mike: You had mentioned Run It Once in the reward systems that were on your radar as things you like and what they introduced was at-the-table rewards under what they call, “Splash the Pot.” I’m curious. This being rewarded— I wouldn’t call it immediately, but at the table as opposed to having something accumulate over time, what’s your view on that? Is that something that you think is good for the game or are there some aspects of that that perhaps bring an unwanted element?
Alex: I think it’s good for the game. I think the general expectation among consumers of all types of product is that things happen in real-time. It didn’t use to be that way. We used to send each other letters that would take days to arrive and that sort of stuff. [chuckles] We expect stuff to happen straight away. Even deliveries, even postal deliveries like with Amazon Prime now, you can sometimes just walk down the road and pick up the product that you ordered in a couple of hours. We’re becoming less and less patient for delays and things. If you are running a promotion of any kind and the reward happens the day after or three days later or a week later or whatever technical reason you have for that, just know it’s going to less effective. One of the great things about at-the-table rewards is that they’re timely. They’re right there. You can use them right away. They’re very visible and visceral as well, so I think they’re great. Look, you splash a couple of €100 in a pot, it gets exciting. That is an exciting pot to play.
Mike: For sure, for sure.
Alex: That kind of thrill is why we play poker in the first place.
Mike: How do you think rewards can be better utilized to grow online poker? Is there something out there that everyone’s missing?
Alex: Look, I don’t think there’s one thing that stands out to me, but I think it’s continuation of existing trends. We’ve got this trend towards personalization. We’ve got the trend towards more real-time, more interactive. I think that if you combine those things in creative ways, then you can come up with some really cool stuff. If I knew the answer to that question, I’m not sure I would broadcast it on The Pokerfuse Podcast. [laughs]
Mike: Oh, okay. Understood, understood. Rewards are not— they’re not all good. I know that there are certain responsible gaming efforts that are looking to maybe curb some of the rewards for gambling. What are your thoughts on that?
Alex: We were talking about this just now and the idea is we have seen some really, really distressing examples of VIP systems being misused or being carelessly managed by casino operators. I’m not going to name any names because it really could have been anybody. A few years ago, it was far, far too commonplace for people who were problem gamblers to be part of VIP systems and part of reward systems, getting incentivized with trips to see their favorite football team or to go to Tottenham or whatever it might be. There’s been some really terrible consequences to that where problem gamblers have taken their own lives. There have been several highly-publicized cases. Now, in the UK, what that’s led to is there have been gambling reform campaigners who have seen this and said, “There shouldn’t be VIP systems. They’re just too damaging.” Now, the implications for that on online poker are severe, at least online poker as is it now. If VIP systems and loyalty systems, rewards systems, if they were to be banned, then what would happen to Stars’ Rewards? What would happen to Splash the Pot? What would happen to rakeback? We’ve already seen a regulated market like Sweden, which has effectively outlawed rakeback and anything more than the single bonus. It’s been carnage. Frankly, the Swedish regulatory system was ridiculous to the extreme. I think if that happens, if VIP systems are limited as a result of regulation and are limited in a major way globally or in a major regulated market like the UK or if they’re banned entirely, I think that would be terrible for online poker.
Mike: Do you think that operators would be able to offset some of the impact of that by reducing the rake or the tournament fees or is that just not going to be enough?
Alex: Yes, you could. You certainly could do that. We saw at Microgaming when we reduced rake that player value actually increased in the long term and because player’s deposits lasted longer and they had a more enjoyable experience, that kind of thing. That translated to increased lifetime value, but the problem is reducing rake doesn’t have as powerful an impact on behavior. If you want to reward good behavior or behaviors that you want to encourage, the behaviors that raise the value of the players around you, then you can’t really do that by just offering lower rake. The problem is if you personalize that, then it becomes a reward system and it’s banned. [chuckles]
Mike: Just to be clear, a lot of the horror stories that we’ve heard are on the casino side of things. Has there been any bad news about poker-related VIP systems in general?
Alex: No, I don’t think so. Look, it’s a little bit unfair to call out casino because it’s not just casino.
Mike: It’s sport as well. Yes.
Alex: Well, like I said, there’s no particular company here. It could have been anybody. Frankly, there’s a few exceptions that do responsible gaming really, really well. For the most part, it could have been almost anybody. Imagine Supernova Elite back in the day, the gold standard loyalty system for many online poker players, right? Imagine trying to explain that to a gambling reform campaign. Imagine trying to explain that you had to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in rake over the course of a year. You had to play full-time hours for a year to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in rake and potentially lose much more than that if you weren’t a great player. I don’t think any losing players made Supernova Elite. I highly doubt it, but you never know. Imagine trying to explain that. It sounds terrible. [chuckles] In poker, we think of it very fondly in lots of ways. A lot of people, that was the turning point in their career. I know Jason Mercier, it was his turning point in his career. It worries me. The public perception of VIP systems versus the reality really worries me. It worries me that there are some nasty regulations coming down the line, which are going to really negatively impact online poker.
Mike: The theme of negative perceptions, one of the biggest threats to online poker as it’s been posed by some has been bots. How do you assess the industry as a whole when it comes to their handling of bots?
Alex: I think it really, really varies from operator to operator. Now, one of the interesting things that happened as we closed the MPN was we wanted to find new roles for as many people as possible. Our game integrity team was one of the teams we were most worried about because they’re very specialized in their knowledge. Our game integrity team approached pretty much everybody out there saying, “Well, can we help you out in any way? Do you have any job openings?” that kind of thing. Where most of them have ended up is a private games poker app called Poker Bros. They’ve not ended up at one of the major online poker sites. In some cases, that’s because those on my poker sites already have a really strong game integrity team. PokerStars, for example, has always had a really strong game integrity team. Party has recently developed a really strong game integrity team. They were really going to be much of an opportunity. I was surprised by how little interest there was and how some operators were treating this with a lack of seriousness. That was a big disappointment. Now, I don’t really want to call anybody out, but what I would like to see is I’d like to see more operators talking about what they do. Look, nobody has to go into detail about this, but we’ve seen people do this well. Party was one of the first to talk about their new game integrity team and the successes that they’d had. We did the same thing. We published our statistics for nearly four years. I think there was a US-facing black market card room did it. I can’t remember the name.
Alex: ACR. Thank you. PokerStars also published some information about what they do and gave integrity and so on. I’d like to see more of that from the iPokers and the GG networks of the world. I’d like them to talk more about what they do and how they make sure their games are safe.
Mike: That was actually the next question I was going to ask is, if you think that more transparency would actually be better when it comes to policing bots or would it make it more difficult?
Alex: It certainly can make it more difficult if you inadvertently reveal a technique that you use to catch bots or catch foul play of whatever kind. Certainly, you have to be very cautious. I know that when I worked at Stars back in the day, I did some work in the game security team as it was called then. We were always very careful not to say anything publicly about our detection methods because anything that you say might give people the edge that they need to evade those detection methods. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve not spoken much about methods publicly and why nobody does. There’s definitely that risk. You can talk about lots of other things around it. Who’s on your team? What type of people are on your game integrity team? How big is it? How much money have you seized relative to the number of accounts that you have? There’s a lot that you can say without revealing information that is too sensitive that will help to give people confidence.
Mike: I like that idea. I think getting that out there as one of the faces of online poker can do nothing but help the public have more confidence in the integrity of the game. Okay.
Alex: I think the only reasonable counterpoint to that is that by talking about it, you raise awareness of the issue that there are all butts out there and collusion does happen and that the people use the software they’re not supposed to use. With anything like this, I think it’s far better to have a public debate about it, for the information to be out there so that people can make educated decisions.
Mike: Do you think we’ll ever get to a place where botting will no longer be an issue?
Alex: To be honest, I doubt it. Look, I think the bot issue is overblown. I think most people think it’s a more serious issue in online poker than it really is. I think it was Morgan Stanley. One of the investors published a ridiculous assessment of the impact of bots on online poker because of the theoretical application of this. Was it Pluribus? I think it was a Facebook AI. I forget the exact details of it. That was basically being applied in an academic setting and had not been applied to be on online poker games, which is a very, very different story. I think the threat is overblown. At the same time, it is an arms race and you’re always trying to get better and so are they. There’s no silver bullet to get rid of bots completely. If you were to get rid of bots completely from your site, let’s say Stars will completely get rid of bots, then chances are they’d go to the next— Well, actually, they go to the easiest competitor to get away with their activity and just continue there until they couldn’t do that anymore and just continue to cycle through. Really, for us when we were working, we worked really hard on game integrity for seven and a half years. We constantly got better. We constantly invested in it. It was a very expensive part of the operation to be honest, but it was something that we weren’t willing to compromise on. It’s that important, but you’re not going to get to the stage where there are no bots, I don’t think— An individual operator just needs to get to the stage where it’s easier for the bot users to go somewhere else than it is to continue with them.
Mike: Do you have a particular operator that you think is doing such a good job that they stand out from the rest when it comes to reducing botting?
Alex: Stars has always been good at this. They were investing in game integrity very early. Certainly, while I was there, game integrity was a very important part of the business and was invested in heavily and they were developing new tools all the time. I saw that. Also, when I was at Full Tilt, I saw that they were developing some very serious bot detection capability as well. Although, obviously, with what happened at Full Tilt, it never really played out.
Mike: They had bigger problems, yes.
Alex: At MPN, we developed it very aggressively as well. We developed some really cool detection capability, really powerful detection capability. I can’t really comment on what other people are doing because it’s so behind the scenes. They don’t talk publicly about it. From what we’ve been able to gather, it does seem like what Party is doing is paying off, which is great. I wish they’d done it sooner, but it’s great that they’re doing it now and it’s a very positive thing. I hope they continue to take it very seriously. Unibet, I know, does take it very seriously. We joke about it, but they poached a couple of our guys over the years. [chuckle] They probably know all that we know and they’ll have their own ideas as well. That’s good. Like I said earlier, even some of the private poker game apps, which are not known for their integrity, we know that Poker Bros, for example, hired some of our guys and we know they’re starting to take it very seriously as well. That will be a USP in that market for them. It will be very good for them.
Mike: Okay. Well, let’s look at things that are more front-facing, the use of third-party software. Whose policies do you think a new online poker room should look to model if they were starting out?
Alex: I think Run It Once has got it spot-on here. What it wants its model is no third-party software, except for after the fact tracking, right? No HUDs, no in-game system software, nothing like that. The only thing you can do is 24 hours after you’ve played some hands, you can download a hand history and you can then export that into analysis software and analyze it to your heart’s content. [laughs] I think that’s the right approach because the first thing is it’s responsible. As an online poker player, you should track your game. You should track your results. You should know whether you’re winning and losing. You should know exactly how much you’re winning and losing. You should be working to get better and tracking software allows you to do that. It’s a very important tool to do that. It also gives the poker community the ability to detect unlikely but possible issues with the software. Like for example, the Ultimate Bet Superuser scandal many years ago, which came out. Thanks to third-party tracking software. This had some very, very positive contributions to the game over time.
Mike: It has helped the community police the games. Do you think it still fulfills that role?
Alex: I think it does to a limited extent, so there have been some really high-profile examples where it has done that like The Ultimate Bet Superuser scandal. The reality is that the vast majority of game integrity cases are now generated proactively and internally. Certainly, in our case, it was pretty much 99% of all cases by the end were generated by our tools proactively and not by player reports. There’s always the 1%. There’s always that 1%. That 1% could be a really serious case, and so there’s value in it.
Mike: Okay. All right. This next question, I’m going to guess I know the answer based on some of what you said earlier about Run It Once. I’m curious to know, do you think that there are some types of third-party software that are out there that get a bad rap and maybe aren’t as bad as they’re made out to be? On the flip side of that, are there some that maybe are looked upon as okay, that may be a bit more detrimental to online poker than some people realize?
Alex: To be honest, I think tracking software probably gets a bad rap because it’s often conflated with HUDs. HUDs, I do think, are detrimental to the experience. Look, if nothing else, they just make the game less fun to play. They make you a less fun player. They make you enjoy the game less. They make your opponent’s play in a less engaging and fun manner as well. I think they’re being detrimental to the game in that respect. They’ve made the game less fun for a lot of people. This idea that to become great at poker, well, it used to be that we’d tell people, “You’ve got to get good at reading people. You’ve got to know your probability in maths and that kind of thing.” Now, we’re telling people, “You got to learn how to use this HUD.” If the online poker site releases an update, it’s going to break that HUD. You’ll have to wait a few days before you can play with it again. It sucks. [laughter]
Alex: That’s a horrible story to have to tell a poker player, right? HUDs deserved the bad rep that they have frankly, but tracking software doesn’t. It’s often conflated with the two— tracking software is a really important contributor to the game. Look, is there any software out there which is worse than people say? One of the things that always annoyed me in designing online poker software, which I’ve done a lot of over the years, is that you design your online poker software. Let’s say you spend a long time designing the table to look a particular way. You introduce a new feature. Let me tell you whenever you introduce a new feature to an online poker table, you’ve got to think about exactly, where do the buttons go? Not exactly where do the buttons go and then question over it. It’s like, “Okay. Well, we’ve got to look at this table when there are two players at it, when there are three players at it, four players, five, all the way up to 10. Does that button work in that place for all 10 combinations? Nine combinations actually. [chuckles] Does it always work in that place for every variety of game that we offer? For example, is there going to be enough space for the cards in Omaha? What about if it’s six-column, are we going to have space for it then? You spend so much time getting these little details right and then someone comes and slaps a piece of third-party crap on top of it. It really winds me off. [laughs] That’s a very different type of harm, I suppose. The real harm of software like that is just that, really, it’s not a story that we want to be marketing to people. When people find out the truth that, actually, there’s all this third-party software out there that they have to buy to get good and be competitive, that’s not a good story. It would be better if the positive aspects of third-party software actually integrated into online poker software, which we’ve seen with GG’s, what’s it called, My Game. No. That’s—
Mike: That’s Party, yes.
Alex: Party’s My Game. It was first, actually, with its version, which I’ve forgotten the name of already.
Mike: Pokercode. Is that right? No. [GGPoker’s built-in tracking tool is called PokerCraft.]
Alex: Something like that, yes.
Mike: I’m not even sure. We are seeing a lot of features. Even Run It Once has the ability for your avatar to change based on your playing style in recent hands. There are things that operators are doing to try and give that information to the player, yet still make it more engaging.
Alex: Yes, absolutely.
Mike: One of the other things we’re seeing a lot of talk around right now is the use of real names at the table. It’s in its early stages of being implemented currently. Based on what you’ve seen so far and plans that have been discussed openly, is there any operator out there that you think is heading in the right direction or maybe one that’s heading down the wrong path?
Alex: I think real names is a really interesting topic actually because, first of all, it seems to have been, overall, perceived well by players, which I wasn’t sure it was going to be because of, obviously, the privacy concerns around it. I’m a bit of a privacy and security hobbyist maybe. I want to call it right. I take that kind of thing very seriously. I’m into technology and it’s a very important part of technology, cybersecurity. If you’re putting your real name out there and people are seeing you’ve won, potentially, a very large sum of money, then there are risks to that. There’s also risks around things like data protection, which GDPR, it’s like the fun police. Anytime you want to do something cool, you’ve got an interesting feature that you want to release or something like that. Somebody has to bring up GDPR and spoil the party for everybody. Obviously, this is one of those instances where you’re putting somebody’s real name out there. You’ve got to make sure that you’ve got their consent to do that and they understand the implications of it and so on and the potential downsides of doing it. There are some real upsides to it. We know that when people are anonymized on the internet, they behave far, far worse than they ever would in real life.
Mike: Sure, yes.
Alex: You put people’s real names behind something and, all of a sudden, they behave differently. Partypoker was the instigator of this if you want to call it that, the pioneer of it. They’ve had a very clear strategy, which is about making the behavior of online poker players better and more like the live experience that people really enjoy. Live poker tournaments in particular have been booming for years. People who are getting tired of playing online are now playing live and really enjoying the experience. Party is clearly trying to bring some of the positives of the live poker experience into online poker and trying to take away some of the perceived negative aspects of online. Real names is a great way to do that. If you’re playing live, especially in a tournament and especially with the same people over and over again, you do get to know their names and it’s a good thing.
Mike: Are there any regulatory concerns beyond privacy that could be an issue when it comes to using real names at the poker tables?
Alex: GDPR, data protection is the obvious one, which we spoke about already. That’s really about it though as far as I can think of. I’m not an expert on the law around this area.
Alex: Yes. I think other than data protection, you should be pretty safe. I would certainly assume that an organization, the size of GVC had considered the data protection implications of it, so yes.
Mike: That’s one of the recent innovations. Part of the big theme, I think, of the past couple of years when it comes to innovations for the biggest online poker operators, PokerStars, has been the introduction of these different types of poker variants. How do you see that overall? From an outsider perspective, do you think that that has been time well invested and that we’re on the verge of discovering the next new poker variant that’s going to be a big hit, or do you think that maybe the efforts could have been better directed in a different area?
Alex: I love it actually. I’m such a fan of new poker variants. That was where I was good. I wasn’t great at poker. This is even me in my peak, I’m definitely not any good now. Back when I was taking poker very seriously, I didn’t have the natural talent that a lot of players had but I did have the ability to adjust to new games relatively easy. I would sit in the next game and I would lose NL Hold’em for a couple of hours. Then when it became Dealer’s choice, that’s when I would clean up. I love that PokerStars and others are innovating with new game formats and bringing in things like Six-Plus Hold’em. They’re mostly Hold’em variants, let’s be honest. That’s because the Hold 'em variants are easiest for new players to understand. It’s a lot easier to sell something like Tempest Hold’em than it is to sell Five-Card Stud. They also make a lot of sense from a commercial perspective though. Other than the possibility that you hit upon the next big thing and all of a sudden you’ve got a massive head start in the most popular poker variant of the time like Winamax did with the Expresso for some time, it costs a relatively small amount of money to develop new poker game. Once you’ve done it, you’ve got it for as long as you want to. It will almost never fail to generate enough income to cover that development expense. It’s a very low-risk innovation, whereas you could easily spend the same amount of development effort on something more speculative and potentially never recover that investment. It’s low-risk and potentially high-return type of development. Makes a lot of commercial sense.
Mike: You had mentioned Expresso. For those that may not be familiar, that was the original version of the lottery style Sit-and-Go’s that are popular today, are often called Spins. With the rise in popularity of that type of format, we’ve also seen single-table tournaments go down in popularity. Question to you is, do you think that single-table tournaments or traditional Sit-and-Go’s are dead?
Alex: Yes, pretty much. [chuckles] There was a time in the past when Sit-and-Go’s filled an important purpose. If we go back 10, 15 years and we look at multi- table tournaments. Multi- table tournaments would, at that time, generally start every 5, 10, 15 minutes depending on where you were playing. Poker Stars, which obviously had the most MTTs of anyone at the time, they would have a standard MTT starting every few minutes and interspersed with satellites and play money tournaments and all the other stuff like that. You could be waiting a few minutes for one to start. Then you would be up against a very large number of players and the tournament might last hours. You might be sitting down to play at 8:00 PM. If you were lucky you’d make the final table and win at 5:00 in the morning. It was a major time commitment for people. The appeal of Sit-and-Go’s was here’s something I can play and I only have to wait a few seconds for it to start and it’s only going to last half an hour to an hour, if I win it might last an hour. The thing is now there are so many other variants of poker, which are more exciting, that fill that niche. If I want to play for a very long session, there are MTTs now starting every few seconds. There are several every minute to choose from. There’s far more variety than there ever was before as well. If I want to play a really quick session then I’ve got Fast-Fold poker, I’ve got Jackpot Sit-and-Go’s. I can play a quick cash game, turbo cash game or something like that. There’s so many other things filling that niche now and Sit-and-Go’s are basically the least exciting of them. They are easily the least popular form of poker at the moment.
Mike: Interesting. You had mentioned Fast-Fold. Why isn’t that more popular? It seems like that does fill one of the desires of the recreational player these days, which is to get in and not have to be committed for hours and hours on end. Fast-Fold gives a lot of action and moves you to a new hand as soon as you fold. What’s the barrier there?
Alex: I think the main barrier is that there are very few online poker operators that have enough liquidity to support Fast-Fold poker. We actually looked at this years ago at MPN in the early days of my career there. We found that you need right about 80 players in the pool at any given time for it to actually be Rush Poker, for it to be Fast-Fold Poker. Any less than that and you don’t get the experience of being able to Fast-Fold all the time, the full speed experience. There are a lot of online poker sites out there that can’t scrape together 80 players all day, every day at many stake levels. That’s a major reason I think why it’s not more popular is that just either the site doesn’t have enough liquidity and therefore doesn’t offer it in the first place, or players are having a bad experience playing it because they’re not really getting the Rush Poker experience. I think the other part of it is that actually those games are really tough. They’re not really populated by recreational players to the extent that you would think. They’re actually populated by grinders who want to get in as many hands as possible in the shortest of time as possible. That makes them really difficult I think. It’s a great game type to play a GTO-type strategy, for example, where you’re not really exploiting the particular opponents that you’re facing in that given hand. You can roll out a fairly generic strategy to a game like Rush Poker if you’re a mid-level pro, and you’ll do quite well. The combination I think of low liquidity and just how difficult those games relative to other games at the stakes makes them quite unappealing to a lot of people.
Mike: We talked about how Jackpot Sit-and-Go’s have made the traditional Sit-and-Go’s obsolete. Do you ever envision a day when all cash games will be Fast-Fold, for example?
Alex: No, not at all. Not unless there is some major changes to Fast-Fold that make it work with smaller numbers of players. I don’t see that. Really, the only site that could achieve 24/7 liquidity with a game like that is PokerStars. I don’t think there’s anybody out there other than Stars that has 24/7 liquidity at the moment. Without that, it doesn’t stand a chance. Plus there are enough people out there that don’t like the idea of the game. They don’t like the fact that they’re playing different opponents every hand and that kind of thing, and those people would rather play cash games. I don’t see them being anything more than a niche in the long-term. That said, when Full Tilt first released them, wow, they were popular. They were the game to be in for a while. Things have changed. Rush Poker hasn’t had the same longevity, I don’t think, and the same universality and the same enduring appeal that Jackpot Sit-and-Go’s have had.
Mike: One of the other, I guess it’s an innovation, definitely a trend that we’ve seen recently develop in online poker has been phased tournaments. For those that may not know, phased tournaments allow multiple day ones. In some instances, I guess there were even multiple-day twos. The concept is to have a large field begin a tournament over a long period of time that then ends up being able to consolidate down to a single day. One of the questions I have is what’s the difference between a phased tournament, the impact that a phased tournament has, and the impact that re-entry has? Re-entry’s got a bit of a bad rap for allowing the better players to use a bigger bankroll to gain an advantage. How are phased tournaments any different?
Alex: I don’t think they really are that different. They certainly have that same advantage, you can buy yourself in multiple times and fire multiple bullets and that does give an advantage to people who have the most money. They do have advantages for recreational players as well though. For example, if there’s a big tournament and you can’t make it on a particular day because you’re a recreational player and you’ve got a family occasion or you’ve got a job to go to or whatever, it gives you the opportunity to play when you might otherwise not be able to. Also, if you bust out on, let’s say day one A, you might not be in the right headspace to reenter immediately. Being able to come back the next day and reenter that day with a fresh head, that can be an advantage as well. Certainly, that’s something we saw a lot in our live events that we used to run. They have benefits all around. To the operator, they obviously allow you to run a tournament with a much bigger prize pool and therefore a more marketable prize pool. What we’ve seen recently is a similar reaction that we’ve seen when multi-entry tournaments first came out. Now, we don’t really see much in the way of multi-entry tournaments anymore but for a while, they were super popular. People very quickly realized that they gave people with the largest bankrolls a massive advantage and the best players a massive advantage. They dramatically reduced variance for the best players basically. Re-entry has the same effect to a lesser extent and so do phased tournaments. I think a lot of casual players, a lot of recreational players are starting to be vocal opponents of these type of tournaments. Even some professional players are becoming vocal opponents because the long-term impact of this is not positive. Basically, you end up with a player pool where recreational is very quickly go broke and all there’s left is professional players and that’s not good for anybody.
Mike: One of the things that I think was championed as a game-changer for online poker, and has been to some extent, has been live streaming and getting online poker on Twitch. It feels to me like the popularity of Twitch, maybe the hype behind Twitch and online poker has subsided a little bit. I’m wondering, do you think that’s actually the case or do you think that Twitch is still one of the main driving forces that online poker can look to expand its player base?
Alex: I think Twitch is great and the hype was justified. It was really cool what people were doing with Twitch over the past few years. I guess the reason that the hype has died down a bit is one passage of time, it’s not new anymore but also everyone is doing it. You struggled to find an online poker site that wasn’t represented in some way on Twitch by somebody. It’s become the norm now and that makes it less interesting to talk about everyone’s doing it. I do have a big worry about Twitch though, which is you can’t stop people under the age of 18 watching it. The majority of users of Twitch are under the age of 18, mostly teenage boys. [chuckles] It is a bit of a stereotype but it is true. Now, the problem with that is you can’t be marketing online poker to teenage boys. That’s not cool and it’s not legal either. Unfortunately, there’s no effective age gating. There’s no age verification. In fact, a lot of online poker Twitch streams, you can watch without even being logged in to Twitch. It’s worrying to me and I think there’s a real risk of a regulatory crackdown in this area as well. We spoke earlier about VIP systems and so on. The usage of Twitch and the fact that so many online poker operators have so much riding on Twitch and it’s such a major part of their marketing strategy, it does worry me. One of the rules that the UK Gambling Commission has, for example, actually the advertising standards authority in the UK. They say that you can’t select a media which predominantly appeals to under-18s. For example, you can’t advertise during a kid’s TV show or in a magazine that mostly kids are going to read or whatever it might be. Those circumstances are obvious but they have made some interesting rulings where automatically generated ads when you use Google Ad Words, for example, to generate an ad, paid search and so on, they have made rulings that the placing of online gambling efforts, alongside content due to that has been a violation of the rules. They’ve made some very strict interpretations of the rules as well. The fact that we’ve got online poker operators that were clearly advertising their products on Twitch which is a medium which appeals mainly to under-18s is a problem. It’s a problem that I think can only really be addressed with Twitch changing to a model that properly verifies user ages.
Mike: It would seem that that would be a relatively easy fix for them to implement. I guess it’s just where are they going to get the motivation to do that.
Alex: Yes, absolutely. It’s not really known as a home of adult content, not intentionally anyway. It’s supposed to be a place that appeals to everybody. I don’t think poker is going to be important enough to Amazon, which is the owner of Twitch, to make this change. That said, maybe there’s something else going on out there which will also encourage them to make the change. I don’t know.
Mike: Assuming that live streaming of online poker does continue, what do you think that online poker operators can do to increase the utility or the appeal of live streaming?
Alex: It’s all about the characters for me. Look, I’ve watched a lot of Twitch streams in the past, not so many recently so I’m not really up to speed on who’s great right now. We ran a competition alongside our Universal Championship of Poker tournament series for a while, which was for people who stream the series. They could earn points for streaming and for having the most entertaining stream and that kind of thing. There are a lot of streams out there which are poorly produced and which are guys talking in monotone, [chuckles] not really engaging with their audience, not really commentating on what they’re doing and that kind of thing, and then no fun for anyone, frankly. There’s some really high production value streams out there with really engaging personalities. They’re exciting to watch and interesting to watch. I think that’s what makes a good Twitch stream to me. Now, there are people out there that they’ve taken it upon themselves to sell their services or offer their services to people, to help them increase the quality of their Twitch streams. Twitch streaming is becoming a big business now not only in poker but elsewhere. I think that every online poker operator who has Twitch streamers should be doing that. They should be helping their representatives produce the highest quality stream that they possibly can and the most engaging streams that they possibly can and that’s really how we can take it to the next level.
Mike: We’ve seen PokerStars start with some integration. For example, I believe that you can now have your PokerStars name associated with your Twitch account, for example. Is there anything else from an integration standpoint that operators could be doing to increase the appeal for the audience of Twitch?
Alex: Totally. It’s actually something that we came up with as an idea a long time ago, which was the idea that we could build Twitch streaming into the client. All you would have to do is click a button to start streaming because it’s quite difficult to get set up as a Twitch stream actually. You need a certain amount of technical knowhow. To do it well, you need to buy equipment and that sort of thing as well. It’s not something that the typical person can do easily. Any barrier like that that you can knock down will make it easier for people to get into Twitch streaming. What that would probably result in is a load of poor quality streams to begin with but some of those people would be the cream that rises to the top and you would get the next generation of great Twitch streamers. You would get that because of the integration that you had in your client. I think there’s a lot that could potentially be done though.
Mike: Twitch streaming is basically consumer side live streaming. What we’re going to see with the WSOP going online this year is we’re going to see the operator now, I believe for the first time broadcasting online poker as part of trying to bridge that gap from what used to be the live coverage to now covering a game that takes place on a computer. It’ll be interesting to see what PokerGo does with that. I’m curious, do you have any thoughts about commercially broadcasting online poker from that aspect and what they might be able to do to make it appealing?
Alex: Yes. One of the things that you see with the best Twitch streams is they are engaging people and there are people commentating on their own play, and they’re engaging their audience with offers and chat, and that sort of thing. Now, when it’s the operator broadcasting say the final table of an event, that sort of thing where you’ve got a random group of players who you don’t know in advance and that kind of thing, you’re not going to be able to do that, but you need to be able to bring the same sorts of thing to the table. You’re going to need engaging personalities on that stream. You’re going to need people who can talk about what’s happening at the table and they’ll need to be able to do it really quickly as well. [chuckles] Poker moves so much faster, and you’re not going to be able to just pause it anytime you like and edit around it and that sort of thing. You’re going to need a very, frankly, very engaging character. I’ve done some commentary on live poker, which is obviously a lot slower. It can be really tough. One of the biggest temptations is to just go off on a tangent and start talking about something and completely forget about the action that’s happening at the table. That might actually be the route to go [chuckles] with the online version because you won’t be able to keep up with the action, it will be too fast. It might be far more interesting to just call out them the most interesting hands that happen and maybe replay them or focus on them, break them down, whatever it might be, while just having interviews and engaging discussions and giveaways and that sort of thing. I’ve been brainstorming out loud here. I don’t think there’s an obvious solution to it. There is a risk that it will be extremely boring if it’s not done well. Judging from what I’ve seen from PokerGo, I think they’ll nail it. I think they’ll do a good job.
Mike: Great. That is all of the questions that I have for you, Alex. I do want to thank you for coming on. It’s been great having you here. You are a second-timer, so congratulations on that. Good luck in the new role. I hope things go well for you in your future endeavors. I look forward to seeing you still being around the community and chiming in.
Alex: Thanks, Mike. It was a pleasure being here. Thanks very much. [music]