“Change is not a destination, just as hope is not a strategy.” – Rudy Giuliani
I want to talk about marketing poker, and the product we’re selling, because I think we have problems.
I think as an industry we have gone super wonky somewhere along the line, and if, as I do, you enjoy the poker industry as a hobby or a job, and want to keep it around, it’s probably best we have a wee think about what we’re doing.
I’m just going to launch into a list of problems that I consider to be industry wide, with no particular relevance to any brand or operator, every single one of them is guilty of these fuck-ups to some extent. I have also entirely excluded the poison that is affiliate marketing, as I will be having a full length rant about this next week.
The Fabled Recreational
Okay, so who is this guy? I mean, it’s not me, and it’s not my friends. We all have full time jobs outside of playing poker, making us “recreational poker players”… and yet, we use that term to describe people who are not us.
Nobody wants to admit to being this guy and nobody can introduce me to this guy, but every operator claims to be directing the majority of their marketing budget towards recruiting this guy.
I constantly hear what “recs” want, they want gimmicks, they
want fun, they want to gamble, they don’t know what the hell a maths is, and
the more their online tables look like an episode of Tom and Jerry the better.
I constantly hear about what “recs” don’t want; they don’t want HUDs, they don’t want to think hard about a game, they don’t want to study and they don’t want simple software with game enhancing tools.
Except no recreational player I’ve ever met has ever been thrilled by a stupid cartoon avatar, and nearly all of the recreational players I have met use HUDs, have coaching, or at the very least discuss hands in a strategic way.
We all seem to have a dream that there are hoards of gullible, cartoon loving fools just waiting in the wings to spew money at us, if only we can disguise the skill nature of poker long enough to trick them into sitting down. Oh, and then of course somehow they will magically hang around to lose all their money ad infinitum in an environment that we know is poorly suited to them.
We build a community based on skill and mathematics, and then look for people to fund this community who we claim do not have the traits to enjoy being part of the community. Are we fucking stupid?
It doesn’t matter what shape the table is, what speed the blinds, whether or not HUDs are allowed, if you can launch tomatoes at your opponent (live or online), at its heart, poker is a skill game, and trying to hide that is doing it a disservice.
And, let’s be honest, no-one believes our bullshit. Poker has been mainstream for a while now, and at the beginning a load of gamblers were happy to punt off their cash. Twenty years ago no-one knew what they were doing, so total gamblers won often enough to get their buzz, and the skill gamers only had a slight edge.
As the average skill level moved up, the most degenerate of
gamblers worked out that against even a good recreational, they had better odds
of a win on the roulette table or slot machines.
The Poker Remainers stayed for the skill element, the discussions, the image of themselves as one of the smart, winning players… even if they are lifetime losers.
I don’t know who started this trend of infantilising poker so that it becomes more suited to a mythical group of idiots, but it was a disastrously wrong turn for the industry, and as a marketer, left me with a product to sell to a non-existent group of people.
I see grown men playing 5 a side football on their days off,
and they’ll never be premiership players, they’ll never beat the best in the
world, but do they change the ball to a rubber duck and play in moon-boots
because it would be more fun?
Do they fuck. They play the most serious game of football they can, then go down the pub and break down the strategy of the game.
I sit at live poker tables, and in online poker groups/forums and listen to some absolute guff chatted about the maths of poker.
“I knew it was a race,” says some old dribbler when he’s tank-called off my 50bb cold 4-bet shove pre flop with Q10 offsuit and gets there against my AA.
When he flops trips and takes the pot, we assume he’s gratified because he won money in that hand, but we miss the element of him being gratified because he thinks he considered the situation, made a tough decision, took a good spot and it paid off. When he loses we underestimate the power of him parroting what he heard a high-stakes strategist say, “I was unlucky to run into the top of her range there”.
Being terrible at maths does not mean you don’t enjoy working stuff out. Getting it wrong every time doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy the process of reaching the awful decision, and with the luck element of poker stepping in to strengthen confirmation biases, there are many terrible poker players who keep returning. They think they are good at poker and that some people just run better than they do… for twenty years.
They obviously don’t care about winning money on the long term, or they wouldn’t still be here, they care about their own self-image as a smart person. I can sell the dream of being a clever bastard, I will struggle to find people who want to buy a t-shirt saying “I’m a complete goggling idiot”.
Gambling V Skill
There is also a potentially poker lethal myth that a person
cannot enjoy a skill game one day and a punt the next, so somehow poker has to
I can’t share the sensitive info of any company I have worked for, but trust me, the majority of low and microstakes players play slots, casino and sportsbook online.
Intelligence and degeneracy are not mutually exclusive, it
is possible to be excited both by a deep, complex skill game such as chess or
poker and also enjoy spewing money on a long-shot punt for lols.
When a market leader fucks off all the top rakers to spend resources on developing its casino product, and then generates impressive revenue from a database of exclusively poker players on a very bad online casino, the clues are there, folks.
On the largest poker operator from Sept2018-Sept2019 my casino losses exceeded my poker rake by 5x, and I’m a smart, winning micro-stakes player. I also happen to be a massive degen. I can think logically about a poker hand, and then tube off some cash on a roulette table five minutes later, and I am not alone.
The half smart/half degen market is definitely one I can sell to; those players will happily go on forums to discuss poker hands they lost, spreading the word of my brand. Nobody proudly types “spunked €1k on slots” onto their FB timeline.
Put your hands up in the air if you’re a B2C poker operator who is not reporting accurately on poker player behaviour… I should see a forest of hands.
Many poker players are getting shunted into casino marketing categories because their spend on casino games exceed their poker rake. Not only does this mean the poker team are not getting credit for that customer’s revenue, impacting c-level decisions when it comes to poker marketing budget the following year, it means that the customer in question is getting sent the wrong marketing communications.
I’ve never opened an email from a casino provider about slots games, because I am not a degen, I am a skill game player, and that is how I will choose to see myself, irrespective of facts like losing €500 pcm at slots v only spending (rake) €100 pcm at poker.
Operators have the data, they need to examine it in the right way, and stop crediting casino managers with the work of poker managers.
Poker itself needs to be used as a marketing tool to drive
revenue on profitable verticals, because poker is not very profitable. I know
the pros constantly complain about rake but honestly, it’s fuck all money. The
average size poker room could in no way support itself in terms of the gaming
licence and other operational resources it needs to run.
There is nothing wrong with choosing not to play fixed odds betting games, but if you run around being derogatory about them as a poker player, pro or rec, you are slating the people who are keeping your cardroom, live or online, open, so pack it in right now.
Another major problem is that not enough people who work in
poker play enough poker. I do understand that people have families and more
drains on their time than I do, but if you never make the time to play live or
online, then you should not be making decisions about what players want with
the power to roll them out.
Get on the real tables, with the average players and see what’s happening now, today. If you are c-level making decisions based on what poker looked like ten years ago, or based on what is happening at 1milly sit down tables full of spewy business men and pros with 10% of themselves, you are clearly going to take things in a wrong direction for the average player.
The Wright Brothers invented air travel, but I wouldn’t want either of them as the lead mechanic on the Boeing747 I’m about to take off in.
The problem is that the back office of the poker industry is largely populated by dinosaurs because not enough good young people seem to be excited to work within poker, the dream is “being a pro”, not being a poker room manager. Problem is, someone has to graft 60 hours a week for under €50k a year, because hours running sims on PIO isn’t helping the industry, it’s only helping your bankroll.
If you’re a pro who produces no content, wants an expensive sponsorship deal before using any of your channels to push a brand (that impresses you), or relies on having 99% of your rake returned to survive despite living in a country where you pay no tax on gaming wins, you’re a scab. Get the fuck up and do some work, sell our business, and stop expecting me to do it for you and then complaining at me when I want to charge you for using services as a customer.
No industry can survive having a load of staff that take a wage but do not contribute to the bottom line. And don’t screech “we pay all the rake”, your rake doesn’t even get the doors open, so do some fucking work, stop tanking on every decision you make at a poker table, and that will free up some time for real graft.
Is it too late?
I am very concerned about online poker, overall, the product offering is a bit crap. It’s not keeping up with how I want to play the game as a recreational, and it’s trying to sell itself as a punt, which means that potential markets within the skill game sector are instantly put off.
Games such as City Skylines (fancy new version of SimCity) are insanely profitable for the makers, and those are nerdy, HUD using, mathsy, strategy games. We cannot attract that market without offering a comparable experience.
Why are we so ashamed of being a strategy game?
Until someone can explain that to me, I’m at a loss. Other computer strategy games have got more complex, with harder to use tools and more detailed, nitty elements.
Poker has decided it wants to pretend to have dumbed itself down, whilst those “in the know” are running complicated simulations and identifying profitable spots down to 0.1 of a bb.
Live poker, especially at sub €100 buyin, is still a healthy market, but in the main, live bowl ops have worked out their shit. They report a spend per head figure for pit and slot games as an average for every player that attends the nightly €50 bowl. If live poker breaks even, they are, in the main, okay with it, because the profit comes from elsewhere.
Higher stakes live poker is starting to struggle, maybe not
at the Milly buyin level, I literally have no clue about that market, but the
€1k-€5k is already feeling the fallout from the decline of online poker.
When there are huge overlays in €5k buyins and a €550 buyin exceeds its guarantee by 80% (Battle Of Malta 2018) it is pretty obvious to me that recreational players are smart enough to know they are bummed in online satties to €5k+ event packages and don’t even bother. They want to rock up to a low-stakes event and get pissed, not shit their pants when all in for 2.5x their monthly wage.
The problem is that as the higher stakes live events decline, we will see more and more skilled regs/pros popping up in €500 buyin live events, for the same reason they currently play €11 online games- they’ve cannibalised their own market, and are now forced to hunt for scraps in ours.
What can be done?
In principle, this is simple.
Everyone stop pretending poker is something it is not. It’s a difficult skill game, and if you want to win, you will have to work hard, you will have to think hard, and you will have to put in the hours.
Let’s stop dissing natural developments in the online game, such as HUDs, solver software, or even bots (I will write another piece on my dream for poker bots soon).
Everyone needs to stop harking back to dead and gone glory days that can never, ever return.
Let’s stop falsely dumbing down a thinking-person’s game, and trying to trick people into playing with us. If poker is so shit we have to lie about what it is to sell it, then maybe it needs to get in the sea anyway and we can all just play slots or SimCity, or both.
Let’s embrace who we are, which in the main, is slightly geeky human beings who are pleased to have found a community of other slightly geeky human beings, feel the love for what we are and reach out to other people like us.
I’m a competent sales person, but I can’t sell something that isn’t real to a group of people that don’t exist, and I don’t believe anyone can; a business that cannot be marketed, cannot be successful. I don’t want it to be game over with poker, do you?