PokerStars VIP Club Changes: Ecology Balancing Measure Or Blatant Cash Grab?
Online Poker Report

Upcoming VIP Club Changes At PokerStars Could See Traditional Rakeback Shelved: Who Stands To Benefit?

pokerstars vip club changes 2017
PokerStars has prompted the fury of the professional online poker community even further, with news of yet another revamp to its VIP Club loyalty scheme.

On Friday, Stars announced that its existing rewards program will undergo a bevy of changes, including one that will see its rewards combined across all of the site’s verticals.

As per Amaya/PokerStars Head of Corporate Communications Eric Hollreiser, the changeover is expected to happen “sometime in 2017”.

Running down the changes

At the present juncture, details as to what the new VIP Club will look like are somewhat vague.

Hollreiser provides a few clues via the PokerStars Corporate Blog:

“…our current VIP Club, with rewards centered around monthly and annual statuses, will be replaced sometime in 2017 with a new, combined rewards program for poker, casino and sportsbook.”

In addition, the new system will do away with monthly tiers in favor of one that’s more personalized to player profiles:

“A key challenge with the current rewards system is that player progress resets each month. While that’s great for those that play the most, the vast majority of our players only play intermittently and casually; resetting VIP progress each month can make it a tough rewards system for those players to engage with. So, at some point during 2017, we will make the switch from the current monthly status system to one that is more personalized to your recent gaming activity and player profile.”

Finally, effective January 1, the site’s highest rewards tier, SuperNova, will be converted from an annual tier to a monthly tier. The playing requirements tied to all existing tiers is “subject to change.”

As the particulars of the new program are hammered down, PokerStars promises to share “what [it] can, when [it] can.”

Based on the language of the post, a strong argument can be made that PokerStars’ new VIP scheme will resemble the one recently implemented by the world’s second largest online poker operator, 888.

In March, 888 unveiled a new rewards program that rendered rakeback obsolete. Instead, players are now rewarded for completing challenges — some of them personalized.

The new system favors those who complete challenges across all of the operator’s online gambling verticals.

Upcoming changes follow consistent pattern

PokerStars’ announcement is unlikely to surprise those who closely monitor the company. Over the past year, it has been gradually redirecting focus away from professional players and toward its core customers, most notably the net depositing crowd.

On January 1, 2016, the site introduced sweeping amendments to its VIP Club, including reduced rewards for its high-volume players, a phasing-out of the SuperNova Elite tier, and the elimination of rewards at high-stakes cash games.

Then, in March, PokerStars went a step further, instituting rake increases for certain games. Both announcements were made only shortly ahead of their actual implementation, resulting in a large segment of the online poker community crying foul.

In particular, the November 2015 announcement that annual SuperNova Elite benefits would be slashed in 2016 did not sit well among high-volume pros and select Team PokerStars Pro members.

It appears that PokerStars has taken these criticisms somewhat to heart, as the latest announcement comes months, if not a full year, before the overhaul will actually go live.

That being said, SuperNova being downgraded from an annual to a monthly tier will undoubtedly prove a point of contention for those who have already achieved the status in 2016, and yet another reason not to invest trust in the company.

Who reaps the greatest rewards: pros, recreational players or PokerStars?

Undoubtedly, the transition will have a negative impact on players who play online poker for profit, most notably, mass multi-tabling grinders.

Many of these players rely on rakeback as their sole source of income. The further diminishing or elimination of rakeback may force them to either alter their money-generating strategies, or to abandon PokerStars altogether.

Less clear, is whether or not recreational players will benefit from the supposed friendlier model.

Hollreiser contends that the changes PokerStars has made thus far have worked out well for the recreational player:

“Players are getting more bang for their buck, which we can see in a number of ways: more players are seeing a flop, recreational players are depositing more, and new players are playing more (i.e. players are better enjoying their experience at the tables and want to play again).”

Yet, without publicly released numerical evidence supporting these claims, pros are left to wonder whether the online poker ecology is really becoming more balanced, or if the assertions are just a cover for PokerStars’ more selfish aims.

In reality, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, perhaps tending toward the cash grab scenario. After all, PokerStars is a for-profit company.

On one hand:

  • The movement away from rakeback should see online poker revert back to a purer form, where professionals win by outplaying their opponents.
  • A challenge based rewards that does not discriminate against occasional players is likely to resonate and be enjoyed by the bulk of PokerStars’ consumer base.

Then again, recent rake hikes and the overall lack of transparency toward high-volume players suggests that PokerStars simply wants cash game pros gone, replaced with net depositing players that will gladly punt money off at the casino, sportsbook and Spin & Go tables.

Of the pros that stick around, some former rakeback grinders may adapt an aggressive bumhunting strategy, where they’re able to hurt fewer recreational players than before, but individual players for a greater amount. In this scenario, the net impact on the poker ecology will tend toward neutral, at best.

And of course, there’s all the money PokerStars will be saving by not paying gigantic refunds.

Given this, it’s difficult to envision a scenario where the greatest beneficiary is none other than PokerStars itself.

Impact on New Jersey market

It’s not clear whether the forthcoming changes will reach PokerStars NJ, although smart money says they’ll at least be delayed.

Historically, New Jersey online poker sites have lagged behind their international counterparts. For instance, 888 Poker NJ sill abides by a traditional rakeback system, and has yet to introduce the company’s lottery sit & go variant. Blast was introduced internationally in July.

Likewise, PokerStars’ KO Poker was never launched in New Jersey.

Frankly, the NJ market may be too insignificant for PokerStars to invest the time and resources demanded by a structural overhaul.

And because PokerStars NJ is not allowed to launch its sportsbook, BetStars, in the Garden State, any version of the program that launched in NJ would first have to be tweaked.

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Robert DellaFave
- Robert DellaFave is a game designer and avid poker player. He writes for several online poker publications and dreams of one day programming a poker simulation clever enough to beat the pros. Read more by following @DivergentGames on Twitter.