PokerStars’ Director of Online Poker Experience, Chris Straghalis, joins Nick and Mike to discuss the importance of big prize pool tournaments in online poker, the future of new poker variants and tournament formats at PokerStars, the recent introduction of video chat at Home Game tables, and PokerStars’ approach to game integrity and rewards and much more!
Michael Gentile: We’re joined today by Chris Straghalis from PokerStars. Chris is the Director of Online Poker Experience. Chris, welcome to the podcast.
Chris Straghalis: Thanks very much for having me, guys. Pleasure to be here.
Mike: Chris, what can you tell us about your background, how you got into poker in general, how you ended up at PokerStars, and maybe a little bit about what your day-to-day duties are?
Chris: Sure. It’s a little bit of a story, I’ll try to keep it brief if I can. My initial background was in the computer industry. I worked in technology for a number of hardware companies, primarily in the storage industry. At one point, I was at a little bit of loose ends. I was actually playing online poker for a living on PokerStars back in the days when we were playing 10-handed Sit & Go’s, Limit Hold’em often the case, at ridiculous ROIs that were possible in those days.
A friend of mine who I played poker with, a guy named Dan Goldman, who was the original VP of Marketing for PokerStars reached out to me and said, “Hey, I’ve got an opportunity for you that I think would be a really good fit. Are you interested in working in online poker?” After going through a fairly rigorous interview process, I got the role. This one, by the way, was 2004, so quite a long time ago. In those days, you would probably consider PokerStars very much more of a startup than the industry standard that we are today, and the industry definer in some respects.
I didn’t even really have a defined role. In a startup mode, you pretty much do everything that’s asked of you to do, so I did all sorts of things. I think one of the first things I ever did was actually interview Chris Moneymaker to create the chrismoneymaker.com website. Since that time, I’ve held a number of different roles at PokerStars. I wound up running affiliates for a number of years and worked in online marketing, domain name management, SEO management, but my true love always being poker and being a poker player first and foremost.
I always gravitated to doing something more on the poker side of the business and wound up working in what we then called PRM, Poker Room Management, and doing a lot of work on our big tournament series, doing a lot of analysis, doing a lot of competitor analysis. Was responsible for the first ever MicroMillions we ever did, which was an absolute thrill to create something. I think the first one we ever had, we had over a million entries in that first series. That was really exciting. Then, more recently, I ran our poker product team as director of poker product where we did a lot of the game variance and things that we’ve done in more recent years.
Today, as you mentioned, I’m director of Online Poker Experience, a new title for us, and reflecting a little bit more the way that not only we look at our system, but the way our players look at our system. This really came out interestingly as a result of Discord. You may be aware we have a Discord server where we interact with our players and trying to help facilitate a community and answer questions. Not direct support, but just to be able to answer direct questions. We created a channel in there called Software Feedback, and that was at my request. I wanted to get feedback from our players about what they thought about our software.
Very interestingly to me, when players were giving us feedback about software, oftentimes to them, it wasn’t just about what I consider product, which was the development of our software and the things that we do to create a new game type or a new tournament variant or what have you. To our players, the software experience it is also the tournament structures, it’s also the guarantees, the pay tables, everything that goes into how they play on the software.
In thinking about it that way, the Online Poker Experience for our players is actually made up of three distinct areas, and those are the areas that I’m responsible for. One is, I’m continuing to be responsible for our poker product, the product management system that defines requirements that how we build our software, but I’m also responsible for our game integrity operations team. These are the ones that essentially, are the ones that catch bots, catch cheaters, catch people who are defrauding other players.
Then I’m also responsible for our poker operations team. The ones that actually write the tournament scripts that actually get put into our clients, our tournament series, our daily schedule, our Spin & Go’s and Sit & Go’s and what have you. That’s what it’s meant to reflect, it’s the joining together of those three areas and making sure that we’re all together working in the same direction.
Nick Jones: [00:04:58] It sounds like you carved out the perfect road. You’re touching almost every part of the online poker business then.
Chris: Exactly right. Exactly right. That’s what the title’s meant to reflect. It’s actually my department’s area is to reflect that we recognize now that for— Poker’s quite unique compared to our other verticals. Compared to casino or sports. Casino is usually an amalgamation of products from a lot of different companies, including internal studios. You’re taking bits and pieces from everybody and you’re creating an integrated environment for sports. You’re dependent on an external events to happen in order for sports betting— Yes, there are virtual sports and things like that, but the reality is, you’re very dependent on external schedules and that’s how your content is created.
For poker, we create our own content. Our Kentucky Derby, our Indie 500, our Cheltenham Festival, those are our WCOOPs, our SCOOPs, our MicroMillions. We’re the ones creating these seminal events. It’s important to realize that it is distinct and different and that it is better to think of it as a whole as opposed to pieces.
Nick: How important would you say like those big events, the WCOOPs to the online poker experience? How much more engagement do you see with players when you are running tournaments like this in the product, rather than just playing day-to-day cash games, playing weekly tournaments?
Chris: I think it’s interesting because when you think about poker, and we think about ourselves as poker players, and really, we’re all poker players at one level or another. When you say that, “I identify as a poker player,” you say, “I’m a poker player,” what does that really mean? It’s more nuanced than that for all of us. For myself, for example, I’m primarily a tournament player. If I have a preference, I’d prefer to play tournaments. That doesn’t mean I won’t play cash games or I won’t play a Spin & Go variant, or Sit & Go if it’s available to me, but my overall preference is for tournaments.
It’s very different. Tournament play is very different. It’s about a narrative, it’s about achievement, it’s about winning something, whereas cash game is always on. You can dip in and dip out. It’s hard to create an event around a cash game, it’s hard to create a narrative, it’s hard to create that compelling story. Where the advantage of a tournament series is you are creating a seminal event and something I like to call, and we’ve done it internally for years at PokerStars, we call it appointment poker. Something you put in your diary to say, “I need to be there on that date because it’s important, it’s a big deal.”
The World Series in Las Vegas, that’s another thing of appointment poker. They’re incredibly important because it is something that not only creates that narrative for people, it gives them that ambition, but it also lets you know that in the diary, you know every, September— Well, aside from this year. [chuckles] September WCOOP is going to happen. In the springtime, usually around May, SCOOP is going to happen. That’s really important for people because we know that, something I’ve said previously as well, although we are in business that one of the challenges you have is how do you get people to play on their site? How do you get them to deposit real money onto the site? The most precious thing people give us is not their money, it’s their time. Poker is an investment in time, and so we want to make that time experience very, very worthwhile.
Having a tournament series really lets us do that. It creates a block of time where we’re building around that whole entire experience. Whether it’s qualifying, whether it’s the leaderboards themselves, whether it’s watching our Twitch streams, it’s all about that engagement experience. They’re incredibly important for us, and like I said, creating these seminal events for us.
Mike: One of the areas that falls under your oversight is the introduction of new games and new game innovation. We saw not too long ago, a period of time where PokerStars was introducing a lot of new game types. We saw Fusion, Unfold, Showtime, Deep Water Hold’em. Has PokerStars moved away from that strategy of running these limited edition games? We haven’t seen a whole lot in that regard recently.
Chris: Yes. It certainly was an era of experimentation. It was a result of a few different things. Number one, it was a result of trying to get people more interested in trying different things in poker. We know as poker players that having these new challenges, getting your brain to think a little bit differently can get you reengaged. A little bit of it was reactivation, getting people reinterested in things. Actually, one of the main reasons we were able to do them so quickly, we actually did a lot of changes under the hood in our code that actually enabled us to develop these games very, very quickly.
Under our old code base, it would’ve taken us oftentimes many months to develop a new game variant where when we refactored our code, we were able to actually develop them very quickly. Having that capability, it made it essentially cheap in terms of the development time required to create these new game types. Essentially, it was a little bit of an experiment to say, “What’s the appetite here?” Trying a lot of different things and learning about them.
One of the things that we did that I think that was quite unusual at the time was we actually said up front, “By the way, this is an experiment. It’s time limited. It’s not going to be around forever.” When we introduced these variants, it was a way to gauge whether they were going to be something that people accepted or not. Always having the mentality in the back of our minds, if one was very successful, we would make it permanent.
You’ve seen that. We actually created, I think it was six different variants over time. The ones that stuck were 6+ Hold’em, which was already obviously coming from a live environment, also known as Short Deck, and Tempest which was a sort of variant of All In or fold, has some nuances that no other operator is really doing, and that has three blinds and it has an escalating ante system, so it does make it a little more interesting. Those were the ones that really got the popularity and stuck.
What we found was interestingly that the variants that I might have found more interesting, the Fusions or Swap Hold’em, which I think is a really fun game. The interesting thing there was that those were nowhere near as popular. That people like No Limit Hold’em. This is a truism, I think, we can all recognize. I think it was Mike Sexton used to say, “Minutes to learn and a lifetime to master.” It’s that game that always brings up and throws you new challenges. Any time we deviated probably too far away from that, we saw some resistance to that. People want what they’re familiar with.
Because again, people invest time into playing poker. When I say they invest time into playing poker, it’s actually not just about the playing of the game, they’re also investing their time into studying and learning about the game. Good poker players are spending at least as much time studying their game as they are actually playing the game. When a new variant comes along, it’s a question of how big is that barrier to entry, and understanding it. Is your study that you’ve done applicable to the game variant? It was very interesting and to say, are we done doing new variants? Absolutely not. We’re continuing to discuss them internally and think about whether it makes sense to do so.
The other challenge that we face with new variants though, that probably wouldn’t be as obvious to- because nobody lives in multiple countries at once. Every variant has to go through a compliance check or a regulatory check. Every regulator, and we are licensed in over 20 different jurisdictions, so the most regulated poker company in the world. Every single regulator has a different way of approving game types. Even different ways of how they’ve described the game of poker.
For example, I think it’s Spain. They’re very, very specific about what poker is. It’s a deck of 52 cards. It has to be dealt in a clockwise manner. You must deal one card at a time. Very, very specific, right? Other jurisdictions, they can they be quite broad in their description of what is poker. That’s one of the challenges that we face when doing a new variant is saying, “How many licenses can we actually surface this game?” Then, of course, then you have the additional challenges we have to communicate about it.
Because we have multiple channels of communication, it’s not just through our software. We have our social media accounts, our Discords, our Twitch streamers, and so on. It’s very frustrating to a player when they hear or see about a great new game and they don’t get to play it. We do want to have games that are as broad into our liquidity as we can get. That’s not always the case these days, and it’s actually getting harder to do that. That’s one of the challenges.
Mike: Is there anything you can share with us about potential games we might see in the very near future?
Chris: I know that’s always going to be the interesting question to ask. Unfortunately, no. I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag. I know you have some people on your staff that are quite good at investigating and looking at our software and figuring out what we might do and speculating. I always look at those articles with great interest on, but unfortunately, at this time, I can’t really say too much more about what it is we’re planning on doing.
Nick: Maybe a slightly broader approach to that question then is, if we look back in the last few years, I think the big hits would be- the big standouts would be like the Lottery Sit & Go, the Spin & Go, which have probably been around like seven, eight years now, I guess. PKOs, I guess were pretty huge, and 6+ Hold’em, Short Deck, those three would stand out in my mind as real defining changes in the last decade. Do you think in the next five we’ll see another event like that? Do you think there’s more space for that level of innovation where I think the Spin & Go and it’s ilk really upended the kinds of games lots of people play. I think with PKOs that’s really defined MTTs. We have whole series dedicated to it. Sunday million is frequently or in always now a PKO
Chris: It’s currently now, yes, permanently a PKO.
Nick: Do you think there is that level of innovation that can upend how people play poker coming in, in the next few years?
Chris: Let’s unpack that a little bit if we can. Because I think you brought up three very interesting variants, one of which I was personally quite heavily involved in. Let’s talk first about Spin & Go and where it came from. Interestingly, and I’ve heard this, I don’t know if it’s been confirmed or not, but I’ve heard actually that the idea that for Espresso, which was the forerunner of the, as you call it, Lottery Spin & Go’s or variable price pulls, Sit & Go’s. It actually came from something we did back in the day, which we called Golden Sit & Go’s. If you remember, that was a promotion that we did where randomly, a Sit & Go, we would would turn it gold, we’d turn the table theme gold, and we would multiply the prize.
Apparently, that’s where somebody at that company got the idea to say, “Hey, why don’t we just make this a permanent game variant?” Not saying we’re going to take credit for that because we didn’t originate it, but it’s interesting how these things come about. Of course we’ve put our own flavor on that with Spin & Go Max, where we took Spin & Go and said, “Let’s deconstruct to Spin & Go and look at it and take it into its component pieces, and how can we create a different variant of that where we randomized the prizes, we randomized the number of seats, we created the all-in moment at the end to create a different narrative there.”
To say that did that set out to be an industry game changer? Probably not. It was like, “Let’s do something to make things a little more exciting.” Then it turned into something like you said, that today is a huge part of any online poker operator’s business. What I think was most interesting about Spin & Go though is it fulfills a need that perhaps was a need that even we as operators or as players were unaware of. When you ask players, and we’ve surveyed our players to say, “Why do you like Spin & Go’s? What is their main reason for playing?” You might be surprised that it isn’t the chance of a big jackpot that is the primary reason for people to play them. That might be your initial reason to play. Your initial reason to play, one, is to get that chance of a jackpot.
The top two reasons people play Spin &Go is number one, they’re quick. I know that I’m only going to play for a short period of time, because remember, time is precious. We know it’s a gift we get when people choose to play with us, but sometimes, we don’t have all the time in the world. Interestingly, the one that somewhat surprised people probably shouldn’t have was, it’s also, “I only have to play two players. I only have to beat two people, and I get to always play.”
When a beginning poker player plays poker, what’s the biggest mistake they make? They’re impatient. They play too many hands. In the Spin & go, it’s not that incorrect to play too many hands. You want people to be playing more hands. Actually, it’s the correct thing to be doing, to be more aggressive. It’s interesting to me that as people play them, they realize that their preference for them changes from what might have originally drawn them to it.
Now let’s talk a little bit about progressive KO, because that’s actually one that I was actually involved in helping to ideate on it. Again, not an original idea. In fact, Sky Poker had progressive knockouts before we did. It was actually a site, a now defunct poker site that I used to play on where I got the idea for them that along with one of my former colleagues we both had the idea at the same time, which was, how to make knockouts more exciting? They’re not big enough, they don’t feel very fun.
There was a site called Jet Set Poker, way, way back in the day, very small site. They had a really fun tournament format that if you were in the top 100 of their tournament leaderboard, there was an adjustable bounty on you. Then everybody else had a normal bounty. If you were top 1 or top 10 on their top 100 leaderboard for the week, you had a bigger bounty on you than anybody else. They would split the bounty price point that way. I thought, “That’s really interesting.” It was impractical for us to do because we were too big. You wouldn’t be able to get enough of those people into any individual tournament.
Then we saw what Sky Poker was doing and said, “Oh, that’s an interesting take on it, is you make the bounties progressive. Some of it goes to you and some of it goes as additional bounty onto you.” Interestingly, again, accidentally, not thinking about it, one of the changes that were made, we, at the time, were running— Actually, we were first introduced progressive knockouts, the bounty size remained the same as the normal bounty size, around 25% of the buy-in. When I did that initial MicroMillion schedule and I was trying, I was like, “It’s a chance to play around and to do some interesting things at the micro stakes level.” I said, “Let’s make that bounty a little bit bigger. Let’s make it half or even three quarters of the buy-in.”
We played around with some of the different sizings, and it was making that half of the buy-in, which we, at the time, called a Super PKO. That’s now become the industry standard. It’s very interesting how that happens. It’s accidentals. Again, you don’t go into this thinking, “I’m changing the industry. I’m changing the way people think about tournament poker,” but this is a case where it did do that, simply because it really comes down to the focus on what do the players actually want and why do they want it?
When you’re listening to them and you’re hearing the feedback about, “The bounties aren’t big enough. It’s not exciting enough to knock somebody out. I have to knock too many people out to get my buy-in back.” You can actually make changes to improve that. I think that’s really important. If we go look ahead to the next five years and what’s going to change, my guess is intentional innovation, it’s really hard to achieve. If you set out to change the world, it’s unlikely to happen, but I think what will happen is that there’s something today that’s probably nascent or things that are being thought about that will become that thing that will be five years from now, we’ll look back and go, “Wow. We could have spotted that, but we didn’t,” but it’s because it was already there and we didn’t see what it could become.
Probably the one that’s the closest to that today might be Mystery Bounty. Although, I think Mystery Bounty in and of itself has its own challenges, and in many cases, it’s probably Mystery Bounty exists today probably more as a response to the fact that live poker can’t really do a progressive knockout. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to play a progressive knockout in a live environment. I’ve been at a few places where they’ve tried it, and it’s an absolute shambles keeping track of everything. If you were to do it properly, you’d almost create a hybrid live online environment with iPads at the table and things like that. It’s just too cumbersome.
Mystery Bounty achieves the same objective as a progressive knockout, which is make the process of knocking somebody out exciting, and give somebody a chance to win a big sum of money. It’s a live answer to progressive knockout. Of course, we’re seeing operators bring that into the online environment, but again, it has some challenges that to me, I think you want to address those challenges before you can make it something that’s more than just what’s being used as today, which is more of a one-off type of a thing.
The biggest problem today, obviously, being that you have to already be in the money before you can actually experience the Mystery Bounty aspect of it. I think that, to me, is the frustrating part as a player, having to wait till 85% of the field is eliminated and you’re in that final 15%, that defeats the purpose. Whereas, in a normal PKO, you can win more in your buy-in back long before even late reg is closed, if that’s the case, if somebody happens to have a large bounty on their head.
Host 3: What I’m hearing is next MicroMillions, we could see some PokerStars innovation around there.
Host 3: Did I get it right?
Chris: No. What I will tell you is what we are going to be doing a little bit more of with our tournament series is taking some of them and being a little bit more fun with them and doing some more adventurous things. I think that’s something that we don’t always have to be so serious. SCOOP and WCOOP, those are our serious tournaments. They have amazing structures. I think that’s what you want when you’re at the top of- the crème de la crème. You want the skilled level and the big names to rise to the top because that’s what brings people to poker, that aspiration to be a champion makes a difference and it’s meaningful.
Whereas our other tournaments, like a MicroMillions or our upcoming series that we haven’t announced the details on, but I’ll give you a little bit of preview that our wintertime series will be a little more fun this year. We’re going to try— One of the things you mentioned, those time-limited innovations we did before, we’re going to be doing again, tournament series built around those kinds of things, to have fun with it. We have been doing that. We’ve been running Fusion tournaments and 6+ tournaments, but we’re going to continue to do that kind of thing as well.
Mike: As far as tournament series go, we saw escalating guarantees as a way that poker operators were competing with each other. That trend seems to have slowed a bit. Do you think that big guarantees are still a draw for players? What’s basically your philosophy on offering these big guarantees?
Chris: That’s a very, very interesting question. I think it’s changed over time. I do think that guarantees were something that drew people in and made a big difference and just the knowing that there’s an amount of prize money on offer. That was something you needed to do to again, compete for time, to compete for share of mind. Today, again, I think so many things have been established, that the expectations almost already there. We used to have these discussions all the time. Is there really a difference between a tournament that has a 500k guarantee versus a 600k guarantee? Do you advertise the value of the entire tournament series or individual series? Or is it even better to say, to focus on what first place is worth? Because that’s really what you can win. You can’t win the whole guarantee.
I think that the industry in general is trending away from that. I think you can have your marquee tent pole events where you do want to put a big guarantee on them. We still do that with Sunday Million Anniversaries and things like that, where it makes a difference there and you can move the needle. I think, yes, within a tournament series, I think really people are looking at the whole picture and they don’t just want to know, are you going to have big guarantees? They want to know, are you going to have all the game types? What are the buy-in levels going to be like? What are the structures going to be like?
Interestingly, one of the biggest requests we have from some of our most experienced players is, is there going to be a trophy? They love a trophy, and it’s amazing. A fun story is that for many, many years, we gave out gold bracelets for WCOOP. These bracelets, by the way were very, very expensive. They are actual gold. They’re solid gold bracelets worth thousands and thousands of pounds.
Some players weren’t even aware of that. They had no idea that that’s what it is. They’re like, “Oh, I got a bracelet, but where’s my trophy? I want a trophy.” Because that’s what’s meaningful to them and that their friends will recognize and understand, and they see it on their mantle or on their shelf or in the background of their Zoom call, they’ll see a trophy that lets people know, even if you’re not a poker player, everybody knows what a trophy means. It’s interesting that different things that resonate with different people, and so it’s not just all about the guarantee anymore.
Host 3: When you look at whether it’s guarantees to set, or new games that you want to try out, or marque events that you want to run, how much in your role are you thinking about, “This is a differentiator of PokerStars against the competition of online poker games”? Is that an important part of the decision-making process? Do you see yourself more competing with other forms of entertainment, or responding to just customer requests and what they want to see? I’m just wondering where the balance is there.
Chris: It’s a mixture of both. I think especially with the tournament series, tournament series in general are not about acquisition. They’re not about reaching out to new players necessarily. They’re much more about reactivation or getting people to come back to you because we do have people that only play our tournament series. For those people, we absolutely want to lean into what our strengths are. The biggest strength that we have aside from our amazing game integrity team, and I think we’re recognized in the industry is as really being the best in the business there, but it’s also about a breadth of our game selection. Nobody has the mixed games.
Forget about our variance like Fusion or Showtime, just having 7 Card Stud, [unintelligible 00:28:09] Deuce to Seven, Single Doll, Triple Draw, all the different variants that we have, nobody else offers that. That’s something that absolutely people recognize as part of our value and one of our USPs that we bring to the marketplace. We do make certain that we put on events in all of our tournament series that meet the needs of those players.
In terms of the entertainment aspect of it or that thing, like I said, it’s less around the big tournament series where that becomes a factor and much more in our smaller series where, for example, we just ran what we call a mini EPT during EPT London. This was a first time we’ve tried this. Not the same as EPT online, which we did last year, but actually, running alongside EPT London, a miniature version of the London series time to coincide with our Twitch stream, to allow players to participate while they’re watching our Twitch stream playing a very similar event. With the overall made event champion, also getting a package to EPT Prague.
Really tying that together, trying the online and live together because watching poker as a poker player, nothing makes me want to play poker more than watching poker. I get really interested and excited about it. Letting people experience some flavor of that while they’re playing online and being— Again that’s where the entertainment factor comes in, making that connection. Maybe if somebody can get a shout-out from James Hartigan and Joe Stapleton on our broadcast, they love that. Again, that’s another level of recognition, another level of ambition that you can go for.
Mike: Okay. We’ve touched on game types tournament series as it relates to competing with other operators. What would you say is the advantage that PokerStars has from a software perspective that allows them to compete?
Chris: I think certainly, we have historically had, not just the breadth of our offer. Again, because when I think about software now, I don’t just think about the actual individual pieces of it, but the breadth of what it is we offer. Probably the biggest thing that we offer, like I said, is all the different game variants that we have, but the other thing is that not everybody uses the software in the same way. I know that for some other operators, that they’ve been quite monolithic in saying, “This is our lobby size, this is our table size. You can’t really change it.”
One of the things that we do is we provide an incredible amount of customization within our software. We allow you to enable and disable things. You can have animations, not have animations, different card bases, different card backs. Very recently, we’ve introduced a number of changes to allow you to have all different— I think we used to have nine different felt colors, now there’s 20 odd different felt colors, background colors you can have and different themes you can pick to make it either— Some people want very minimalistic themes.
We have one that’s almost just like an outline of a poker table. It looks like a chalk drawing of a poker table. Other people want the full immersive experience with all the bells and whistles and the animations. For WCOOP we have a spinning logo in the background and lightning flashes on Tempest and things like that. I think it’s the flexibility and the customization that we offer is what’s truly unique. Other sites are doing that. I don’t think anybody does it to the same level that we do.
Nick: Something, I think, historically, PokerStars is always for me, stuck out is their home game support, and that’s even way pre-pandemic. PokerStars home game support was always top tier in my mind, in that you could create your own club, you could invite, you could run almost all your game types in your club, hundreds of people, that kind of thing.
I think there’s obviously been some catch up there, and I think a lot of operators scrambled with the pandemic and we saw huge surge of interest in home games.
One thing you introduced recently is video chat at the tables, just on the home game tables. I have two or three-pronged question there, how was that received? Was it technically difficult for you to implement, and could you ever see that technology rolling out beyond the home games?
Chris: Yes. Some great questions. The video chat was actually a response to the increase in home games that we saw, which exploded during the pandemic. Many people, we were all reaching out to connect over video chat of some form or another. Many people found themselves playing poker, playing trivia games, or engaging with people over that video chat because we all wanted that human connection. Realizing that, it became quite natural to say, “What about integrating video chat at the tables?”
Technologically, actually, again, with the way that the changes that we’ve made under the hood to our tech stack, not as challenging as you might think. The integration of video into the table wasn’t the difficulty. The major difficulty was you actually have to fundamentally change the way the table is laid out in order to accommodate the video being actually in the avatar.
A poker table is incredibly complex to design. We we actually have it down to the pixel as to where every single element is. That’s why whenever we add something new, it’s always a challenge. Again, the variety of game types that we offer add to that level of difficulty because whenever we’re designing a poker table, we’re not just talking about No Limit Hold’em in mind, we have to think about, what does it look like when it’s 6 Card Omaha? What does it look like when it’s 7 Card Stud? Because you have cards now going into the middle of the table, you have more cards that are needed to be in front of you.
Of course, we’ve added elements over the years, like Throwables, for example, which interact with the avatar. When you make that now a video, we had to redesign all of that. That was more of the challenge, was how do you re-layout the table and still support all of the variety of game types that we have in our home games because we do support literally every game type that we have, we have it in our home games as well. That was really the the bigger challenge from a technology standpoint.
As to how it’s been received, I think it’s— One of the things we’ve done a little bit differently than we might have done in the past, where we’ve really been rather quiet about it. We haven’t made a big deal about it. You wouldn’t have seen a campaign from us or anything above the line as we say, anything publicly really pushing it, because we really want it to be robust and strong and make sure that we’ve got not just the experience at the table, but we actually, have massively revamped the home games lobby and your ability to join a club. Because that was also one of the biggest pain points we got from players was they didn’t like the fact that, “Oh, I get an email from somebody, I got to type in a code, I got to type in a password, I got to do all these different steps.”
We want to make sure we get the entire, what we call happy user journey, nailed down end to end before we actually make a big noise about it, but certainly, from the limited introduction that we’ve done, the response has been very, very positive, and we do see people really engaging with it. Again, it depends on the type of home game you have as well, because some home games are truly a home game. They’re made up of you and your friends and you’re getting together on a Friday night or Thursday night or whatever your poker night is, but we have other home games that are much more about communities where they can be built around an individual.
We have our ambassador home games where this have thousands and thousands of people in them. Not really a home game, more a community game. Then, of course, you also have, what I call, regional home games. For example, I live on the Isle of Man, it’s a relatively small place, but there’s an Isle of Man home game that has a few hundred people in it. Do they all know each other? Are they all comfortable being on video with each other? Because that’s part of the question. Not everybody’s using it in these larger home games because they’re not quite as comfortable about it yet.
Of course, the other challenge with video comes moderation. The question about expansion, do you ever plan to do video as a normal poker tournament? Some competitors tried to do that with webcam poker in the past, for example. What did people do? They put a Post-it note over their camera so the software said it was on, but you really couldn’t see anything. Sometimes other things happened on camera that you don’t want to see. How do we avoid that?
Interestingly there, we are actually working with our colleagues over at PokerStars VR who have similar moderation challenges in their liquidity. Obviously, they have a lot of voice chat going on there and that’s hard to moderate. They’re using some AI technologies there, and we’re learning from what they’re doing to help see if that’s something that before we decide if we could expand beyond it home games, we have to be certain that it’s going to be a safe environment.
Mike: Do you see video chat being an opportunity to be introduced at perhaps final tables as a form of game integrity?
Chris: I could absolutely see that. One of the things we talked about a lot back in the day, was whether we could make the WCOOP final table actually be live. A lot of concerns around that would be the logistical challenges. What was the desire to do that, was we wanted to humanize online poker. That’s probably the biggest challenge you have with online poker is, and one of the reasons that people don’t want to play live if they play live is that, “I don’t know who that guy is on the other end. Is it really somebody, or is it a team of people, or is it—?”
No matter how much we might talk about our game integrity and our processes, there’s still that suspension of belief that they have. This would be a way to help people feel comfortable with that. Also, it would be good for us to help build the personalities and the characters at our final tables. Again, I think there are some challenges to overcome there. You have some people who might not be willing to do that. Do you put that in at the front of the tournament to say, “By the way, if you final table this tournament, you’ll be required to stream it with your camera on.” Would that stop somebody from registering? You don’t want to create those barriers to entry.
Certainly something we’re open to exploring and thinking about, but I think we’re ways away from that yet, but what we will be doing is probably more streamed games with cameras on. We used to do things like the Streamer Showdowns, for example, where the streamers would all play cash games, but you had them in boxes, but instead actually having them playing at a video chat table and showing it that way is another way to incorporate the technology. It’s just a cleaner look and a cleaner interface when you do that as well.
Mike: On the topic of game integrity, we’ve seen a lot of chatter in the industry recently about real-time assistance. What’s PokerStars stance on what constitutes real-time assistance and what’s being done to protect players?
Chris: Real-time assistance isn’t necessarily new to us. I think the term is is much more new to— It’s an acronym that’s now become popularized. Basically, we don’t allow anything that helps you make a decision. You’re not allowed to use any software that’s helping you make a decision that’s not wholly your own. You cannot use charts, you cannot use anything that gives you advice, you can’t even use randomized timer software that lets you randomize how you make your betting decisions.
From our standpoint, all of those things constitute some level of real-time assistance. Even if you’re the one actually under the control, if you’re getting an outside influence in real time, alongside while our client is open, not allowed. If you want to use a solver after your session is done, and check your hands and see whether you made the right decision or not, versus what is game theory optimal, yes, you’re free to do that, but don’t have our client open. We’ll detect it, and we’ll send you an email, and tell you it’s not allowed, and take further actions. We’re very strong about that.
Nick: I think the big change we’ve seen in the last two or three years is just the prevalence of solvers and their perceived accuracy and precision. Do you think the job now of policing it is more difficult than it was three, four years ago because of perhaps the ease of access to these tools and a lower price point as well, perhaps?
Chris: Yes and no because those tools are improving, but so are ours. We don’t stay still. When I say, I’m responsible for game integrity, it’s not just the operations side of our game integrity, not just our agents that are working on it, but also we have incredible tools on our backend that help us detect these things. We’re always improving them. We’ve made huge improvements and expanded the range of things that we can detect alongside. It is an arms race. You are battling against some very motivated people out there, to try and implement software that can help them make more money, but we’re also very motivated to keep our games incredibly safe. It is more difficult, but we’re up to the challenge, and I’m confident in our abilities to continue to proactively detect these things.
The reality is, no matter how much solvers are prevalent, and I think anytime you watch somebody on stream going through a solver and evaluating their hands and saying, “Oh, I didn’t realize that actually here, I’m supposed to 3-bet when I actually—” At some percentage of the time. Again, these are non-obvious things and you can’t memorize all those decision trees. It’s not humanly possible.
What we look for is we look for decisions that are being made at, what we call, superhuman level. Levels of perfection that are just not achievable at no matter what level of memorization you might have. I think that’s the kind of ways you have to look at it is you might be in a single decision, you might be good in a spot, but you’re not making those decisions with 99.9% accuracy all of the time. Nobody can.
Nick: Can you talk a bit about the pros and cons of discussing the number of players that have been banned or the amount of money confiscated and redistributed to players? Because I know PokerStars has done it in the past, talked a bit about what they’ve achieved in terms of dollar amounts and accounts closed. Of course, that’s got to be balanced about against not making it, like the tables are riddled with cheaters and the games are broadly secure. What’s PokerStars broad policy on allowing other people to disseminate that information on efforts of the integrity team?
Chris: It’s a balancing act, if I’m honest, because we do want to— I would say, five years ago, you wouldn’t have heard anybody really talking about it at all. That was because you didn’t want to shine a spotlight on it because reality is, it’s making a bigger deal out of it than it really is. That I think is part of the problem is that people think it’s far more prevalent, at least on PokerStars, than it might actually be. That’s what we don’t want to do, is we don’t want people to go, “Oh my goodness, the sky is falling,” because the reality is, 99.99999% of our hands are absolutely dealt without any interference whatsoever.
There was always that status of, or the stance of, you don’t talk about it too much because you don’t want to scare people unjustifiably. However, the reality is the world has changed. People are much more aware and much more connected now to that. We are more comfortable to talk about that and make them aware of just exactly how non-prevalent it really is. That’s where we have come out with some aggregated numbers in the past. We very potentially are willing to do that in the future. I don’t particularly have an objection to it. You do have to worry about, again, certain levels of privacy, certain levels of— We can’t get into specifics about individuals, and sometimes you have to be careful about the data that you released, whether things could be inferred from it. We do have to be somewhat careful in that regard.
Mike: Conversations so far about game integrity has been largely around real-time assistance. What about bots?
Chris: Interestingly for us, I would say bots are, I wouldn’t say, they’re a thing of the past, but they’re dramatically lowered on our platform. We don’t see— Again, it depends on what you define as a bot. Now, a bot in most people’s parlance is literally, I push a button, I walk away, and this thing on my computer is playing poker for me. Those are largely a thing of the past because they are very easy to detect, at least with our systems, they are.
However, what you do see a broader prevalence of is what we might call push the button bots, where again, this is much more kin to real-time assistance. We’ve had that terminology for many, many years, where it’s you are getting a program that’s telling you something to do, but you’re pushing the actual button yourself. In that case, we still consider you to be essentially a human bot. Those we still see and we still prevent. One of our measures internally on how we test our effectiveness is how proactively we detect cases versus player reporting. Again, in the high 90 percentile, we proactively detect these things versus player reporting.
We’re again, very, very confident. In fact, it might not surprise you to realize that we do scour the internet and we look in some of the corners of the internet to see, because bot manufacturers have to get their information out there somewhere, so we do check on these things. What you’ll see from almost every single site, they’ll say, “Don’t play this on PokerStars.” I think that’s something we’re very, very proud of because it shows that we are, even the bot makers will say, “Don’t try it. It’s not going to work.”
Mike: Switching gears a bit, last year PokerStars revamped their rewards program to provide more value, more transparency, and more ways to earn rewards. How have those changes been received by players, and what are some of the learned lessons that you’ve had since introducing those changes?
Chris: Sure. I will caveat it by saying, it’s not my direct level responsibility for the reward system, but obviously, I am involved in it, and it is something that directly impacts the Online Poker Experience, so it is part of something I’m very aware of and a part of the decision-making that happens there. I think it’s been overall generally very well received and the return to PokerStars ways of being very clear about do X, get Y.
I think probably the area that that maybe had the slightest bit of confusion was the difference between what we call our loyalty program, which is your base-level rewards, which is 15% to 25% based on volume for every single player and every dollar that you rake, versus our rakeback challenges, which can provide additional rakeback on top, but they’re not really a loyalty program. They’re, again, it’s a challenge, it’s a promotion to provide an additional reward on top.
That’s probably the area where there’s still some areas we can look at to fine-tune that. We actually have been running some experiments in the last couple months on that to allowing people choice, for example, to say, “What level of challenge do you want? Are you willing to take a lesser challenge for a smaller percentage of reward?” I think, to say that, are we done? No, we’re not done yet. We’re certainly wanting to continue to improve.
I think most importantly, what we want to do is we want to listen to our players. We want to understand what the behaviors that we’re impacting. Are we doing the right thing for our players? It’s something we’re always at the forefront of our minds. Again, every poker player is different. We have a lot of different segments of players. We have people who play occasionally, people who only come for major series and then leave. It can be a challenge to try to reward everyone in a way that makes sense for them.
That’s the hard part of when you’re trying to do rewards is how do you make it still meaningful to somebody who maybe doesn’t play a lot with you, but when they play, they do? They do give you a lot. Again, they give you a lot of your time. The other challenge, I think, with poker is, again, unlike the other segments of our business, the amount of money that actually goes to us as part of your buy-in to a poker tournament is relatively small compared to your overall spend. If you’re buying into $100 tournament, $9 of that is a fee to us.
When you’re getting a reward on that, the amount of your reward to a casual player, can feel small because you’re getting maybe $2 back of $109 buy-in, but the reality is, you’re getting 25% of that $9 back. How do you balance that perception perception of value versus the actual value you’re getting? We’re also looking at how can we reward our more recreational or occasional players, versus our most engaged players who are very, very valuable to us. They provide so much to our liquidity, our ecosystem, and they’re very engaged and they provide us the best feedback. We want to make sure we have a proper balance there.
Host 3: That’s just something it’d be good to drill down on a little bit. The way I see PokerStars, and this might be a bit broad brush, so add some nuance, but you’ve worked there through what I see three years of PokerStars where we had a period of time where we had lots of rewards for high-volume players. That was, I would say, maybe the primary goal of the rewards program 10 to 15 years ago. Lots of money back to Supernova Elites. There was a big shift with the launch of Stars Rewards in 2017, 2018, I think, where I think it was an explicit decision where the vast majority of rewards should go to casual, lower volume players. Would you say it’s fair to say that now, like this change that we had a year ago is trying to strike a balance in the middle there, that you want to come up with—?
Chris: Exactly. Yes, I think that’s exactly right, because like I said, the problem you had with the reward chest that we were giving before that were more randomized was again, it wasn’t very clear to people. I didn’t know, what did I do to get this? Yes, I had a progress bar, but how do I equate that to how much I spent? Because it was variable. I think that was one of the big lessons learned was that people want certainty. They want to know, again, do X get Y? That’s clear, that’s concise, I know what I’m doing. We have enough complexity in our lives without adding more.
You’re absolutely right, we absolutely want to reward the people who are contributing to our overall ecosystem. It’s really, really important, but it’s also recognizing that everybody contributes in a different way. Even somebody who is only playing occasionally can be very, very important, versus somebody who’s playing, five days a week, eight hours a day. I do think Supernova Elite, back in the day, was a bit over the top, in terms of just the sheer volume you had to play. That’s not necessarily the right thing to be doing. As you said, we went from one extreme to the other, and I think where we are today is a much friendlier and much more understandable middle ground. Even Supernova Elite wasn’t that easy to understand.
I remember there were threads on popular forums of the day where people were doing immense calculations on what it would take to get there, playing different game types, and so on, and literally having in January, to plan out their entire year to figure out what it would do to get to Supernova Elite. That doesn’t seem like that’s a good way to do a rewards program. Again, it is something that simplicity, clarity is something we should always strive for.
Mike: Great. Chris, thank you so much. It’s been really informative. Great catching up, and hope to talk to you again soon.
Chris: Absolutely. It’s been a real pleasure. As you can tell, I like to talk quite a lot. Having been around for a while, I feel I know a little bit about the industry, so any time you want to have me back, I’m happy to chat again.
Nick: Thanks, Chris. [crosstalk] Thanks very much.
Chris: My pleasure. Speak soon, guys.