PokerStars Changes May Spell Opportunity For Competing Networks

If PokerStars Stumbles, Which Online Poker Operators Stand To Benefit?

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Since the Amaya takeover in 2014, PokerStars has swiftly evolved from a company that invested inordinate sums on its high volume players to one that places an increased emphasis on what popular Twitch poker streamers often refer to as “fun” (aka net depositing) players.

The changeover, and lack of transparency regarding some of the more controversial (and dare I say unethical) amendments has a segment of the grinder community seeking greener pastures.

Which begs the question: “If liquidity on PokerStars does take a pronounced hit, which second-tier operators stand the best chance of improving their position?”

888 Poker

888 Poker is the most obvious alternative option for grinders seeking a new home, as next to PokerStars it boasts the strongest cash game volume, the most active Sit & Go lobby and the highest frequency of six figure tournament guarantees.

The operator is probably also the most intelligent and aggressive marketer of any top 10 site or network that isn’t adorned with the Stars logo, placing it in a better position than most to retain and grow its player database.

Members are treated to a bevy of daily, weekly and monthly freerolls, with high ranking loyalty members  gaining access to tournaments with a monthly guaranteed value of $70,000.

And the general consensus among the poker community is that the play on 888 Poker tends to be weaker, although a strong argument can be made that due to the changes on PokerStars, the gap will rapidly shrink.

Yet, that’s about where the appeal of 888 Poker relative to PokerStars ends.

As far as rakeback, 888 players cap out at 27 percent, and in order to achieve that, players will have to pay $150,000 annually in rake and entry fees.

By comparison, even under the new VIP Steps scheme, SuperNova benefits are capped at around 30 percent (SuperNova Elite will receive up to 45 percent in 2016) and SuperNova status will be significantly easier to achieve.

All of which wouldn’t be a deal breaker if the rake percentage and rake cap weren’t already higher on 888.

Going further, 888’s software is vastly inferior to PokerStars’, and there are widespread reports of security breeches, connectivity issues and botting on the site.

Outlook: Disgruntled players on PokerStars may flock to 888 Poker initially, but once the games toughen up, there will be little incentive for them to remain on the site.

The iPoker Network

iPoker is the third most popular dot-com poker operator, with about two-thirds of 888 Poker’s cash game traffic. It operators across various skins, with some of the most popular skins being Betfair, Titanbet and PaddyPower Poker.

According to Poker Industry Pro via PokerScout, cash game liquidity on iPoker has been steadily climbing since the network was desegregated in August. From August 11 to the present, 7-day averages are up approximately 22 percent.

It’s not inconceivable for grinders to generate upwards of 40 percent rakeback on some skins, and sometimes significantly more through affiliate programs. Additionally, new players will find that iPoker skins offer some of the highest capped first-time deposit bonuses in the industry.

Call it old-school online poker at its finest.

However, the rake on iPoker is exorbitantly high, so much so, that savvy grinders will stray far away from the network, despite the lucrative rakeback opportunities.

Recently, iPoker raised the rake cap at the middle stakes even higher, and did away with its reduced rake cap for 3-4 handed play. To offset the changes, microstakes players now pay slightly lower caps – but still way more than they do on PokerStars. It is assumed iPoker rolled out the revisions in an attempt to make the network more amenable toward net depositing players.

Supporting this theory, the network has gone to great lengths of late to divide its promotional spend into events that benefit casual players and grinders alike.

The new metro-inspired client software also appears designed to attract new players, especially those passionate about video games.

Outlook: Unless they can get a stellar rakeback deal, it’s difficult to envision grinders switching from PokerStars to iPoker, or at least not until the cash game lobbies are less infested with regs – which could happen, but the transition process will be a slow one.

Microgaming Poker Network

The Microgaming Poker Network (MPN) may play the role of emergent dark horse in 2016.

In early 2014, the network hit a low point when Unibet parted ways to launch a standalone client. Cash game liquidity on the network quickly dropped 50 percent over the course of the next two months and stagnated for the following year and change.

The tide turned in mid-2015 when the network began introducing a bevy of changes to its business model. Although the overhaul was geared in favor of net depositing players, MPN managed to implement change in such a way that site regulars weren’t deeply impacted.

For instance, the decision to allow players to change their alias every 30 days or 1,000 hands acted as an effective measure against bumhunting. Although the changeover reduced the ability of regulars to target weak opponents, the games (at least in theory) became softer due to a higher prevalence of suddenly more comfortable casual players.

The big blow was dealt in October, when the network revamped its rake structure.

Conventional models dictate that the rake cap at higher stakes should be proportionally lower compared to other stakes, resulting in high stakes players paying, on average, a much smaller percentage of the pot as rake than their micro and low stakes counterparts. At the small stakes the rake cap is so high in relation to the blinds that players are taxed with the full rake percentage, typically between 5 – 6 percent, in all but the biggest pots.

In what amounts to a revolutionary new approach, MPN reconfigured its rake cap so that all players at stakes €.50/€1.00 and below paid the same three big blind cap (two big blinds at short handed tables).

Granted, the rake at the higher stakes was increased slightly to offset the decreased cap at the lower stakes, but not so much as to prompt outrage among regs. If anything, the revision appeared to be met with open arms, as since the new rake structure went live, liquidity soared 36 percent – enough to land MPN a spot in the top 10.

Not to mention, the site has been more active on the promotional front, rolling out offers that reward skill and luck in fairly equal proportions. And the network recently made headlines when nosebleed stakes reg Victor Blom took a break from PokerStars to win over $500k on MPN.

Outlook: MPN may not threaten PokerStars anytime soon, but the network seems well on its way to striking a balance between the wants of net depositing and winning players. Expect a move into the top five by year’s end.

Conclusion: PokerStars still the place

Questionable promotional practices and even more questionable ethics aside, PokerStars retains the mantle as the best overall online poker site in 2016.

Its virtual monopoly may start to weaken, especially if its tactics are ineffective at driving new traffic, and other sites continue to make strong moves. But for now, the only site I see as posing a serious threat (MPN) is years away from building up enough liquidity to attract grinders looking for an alternative to PokerStars.

- 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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