NJ iGaming Weekly: How Far Will 888 Poker Fall?

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Cash-game traffic on New Jersey poker sites continued to evaporate last week, bottoming out at its lowest point since early last December.

Historically speaking, April and May are slow months for online poker. But compared to the global market, cash-game volume on NJ sites trended downward at a vastly accelerated pace.

The AAPN network (888 Poker) sustained the heaviest losses last week, partially due to its 80% rakeback promotion coming to an end.

Since the promotion’s onset, 888 has not exactly been on the best of terms with its player base. More specifically, players have taken issue with 888’s tendency to make odd or rash decisions without first explaining them to its faithful.

It is therefore conceivable that 888’s troubles are not a direct result of any one promotion, but a composite of months of misguided decision making and lackluster communication.

A brief timeline of 888’s troubles in New Jersey

Since launching in November, 888 has experienced its fair share of controversy. Its most glaring faux pas are summarized below:

  • November 26, 2013: 888 Poker launches its New Jersey brand. No VIP scheme is in place.
  • January 15, 2014: Fresh off its successful Winter Sale promo, 888 ups the ante even further by offering players an unprecedented 80 percent rakeback. In order to qualify, players were required to wager $500 in a single day between the 15th and the 31st. The ambiguous nature of the word “wager” becomes a point of contention.
  • February 1, 2014: Frustrations come to a head as players report having no way of charting their eligibility for the 80% rakeback promo. Others complain about the speed with which rakeback payments are processed, with some believing that their rakeback was calculated incorrectly. Customer service is slow to respond.
  • February 4, 2014: PokerFuse crafts a piece recapping the confusion surrounding 888’s 80% rakeback promo.
  • February 18, 2014: Despite the bafflement, 7-day cash-game traffic averages on 888 reach an all-time high (146).
  • Late March, 2014: 888 resets player status points without warning. Overall, sentiments on Two Plus Two are decidedly mixed, with some assuming that the points were never worth anything, and others falsely believing that their accumulated points would count towards their VIP Rewards status when the program went live in May. Most agree that 888 does not communicate its decisions well.
  • March 23, 2014: Cash-game averages fall below 100 for the first time since before the 80% rakeback promo began.
  • May 1, 2014: The rakeback promo comes to a close. 888 finally launches its VIP scheme.
  • May 11, 2014: It comes to light that 888 has extended the 80% rakeback promotion for certain high-volume players. Since February 18, 888 has lost 61% of its cash-game traffic.

The final point warrants additional explanation. Poker sites are notorious for giving their best customers preferential treatment – that’s not the issue. What’s disconcerting is that instead of abiding by a set criteria, 888 appears to have hand-selected the players that would receive an extension.

To paraphrase Orwell, at 888, all players are created equal, but some are more equal than others.

Evidence for this claim is supported by testimonials from high-volume customers who have yet to receive a similar offer. It is speculated that players were chosen for their ability to act as “props” – defined as players who sit at an empty table, with the hope that others will join them.

Poor communication is 888’s undoing

While it’s still doubtful that 888’s more dubious decisions would have gone over well with the community, by disclosing its plans before enacting alterations there would likely be a marketed increase in player satisfaction levels.

Full disclosure would also present 888 with an opportunity to reconsider its stance before rolling out unpopular changes.

At times, PartyPoker NJ has used full disclosure to great effect, outlining its plans for change to the community and amending them based on player feedback.  New Jersey’s other international provider would do well to follow suit.

Currently, when the 888 rep is presented with a difficult question, he/she almost universally refers the player to the company’s support line. Unfortunately, 888 is not exactly known for providing exemplary customer service, especially with regards to New Jersey-only issues.

What results is a swarm of angry, unsatisfied players who ultimately must come up with their own conclusions – conclusions that may or may not be 888’s intended reality. But how would they know?

I’d argue that poor communication, just as much as the conclusion of the 80% rakeback promotion, is causing 888 to lose ground on New Jersey’s top dogs.

888 biggest loser in another poor showing for NJ online poker

One needn’t look further than 888’s pitiful cash-game turnouts to illustrate what happens when a company relies too heavily on ill-conceived band-aid solutions and not enough on providing sustained value.

7-day cash game volume averages, with last week’s figures in parenthesis, as follows:

  • PartyPoker NJ: 152 (166)
  • WSOP: 125 (129)
  • AAPN (888poker): 57 (76)
  • Ultimate Poker: 5 (6)

Data provided by PokerFuse Pro via PokerScout.

Overall, traffic across all NJ iPoker sites was down a staggering 10.1 percent, which equates to an average loss of 1.4 percent per day. This after holding relatively steady for the two weeks prior.

Again, the traffic trends in New Jersey are not indicative of the market as a whole, which by comparison only sustained a 1.2 percent depreciation.

The most steady operator NJ operator continues to be WSOP.com.

888’s sister site – both operate on the same software – has proven the antithesis of its counterpart in the areas of customer service and sustainability. And via its cross-promotional ties to the ongoing WSOPC at Bally’s and the upcoming 45th annual WSOP at the Rio, NJ’s largest standalone poker offering is positioned to become the industry’s market leader.

To conclude, if there is one lesson to be learned from the current situation of 888 Poker, it’s this: the best operators hardly need to rely on the best promotions to retain players, especially if the parameters of those promotions are unclear.

- Robert DellaFave is a game designer and avid poker player. He writes for several publications centered on legal US online poker and the regulated online gambling industries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
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