It’s The End of Heads Up as We Know It

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This past week PokerStars took to the 2+2 poker forum in an effort to include the community in a search for a solution to an ongoing problem: Players sitting-out at heads-up poker tables and only playing if a weaker player sits down.

Heads up tables: The sitting out problem

As more players have pursued the strategy of selectively sitting out at heads up cash tables – derisively referred to as “bum-hunting” – the lobbies of most online poker have filled with dozens of heads-up games with but a single player sitting.

The issue has evolved from a minor inconvenience into a serious threat to the poker ecology, as Phil Galfond detailed on his blog back in January of 2012: “In addition to the sit-down-sit-out problem, we’ve had the Heads-Up lobby problem for a long time: 50 people waiting alone at HU tables, 95% of whom won’t play a hand with anyone but an absolute fish.”

The PokerStars solution(s)

In the aforementioned 2+2 thread, a PokerStars rep outlined two approaches to the sitting out problem that PokerStars is considering – including one that would take the unprecedented step of introducing a potential financial penalty to the heads up play equation:

Solution #1: Forced play

As described by PokerStars:

Our initial idea for the heads up lobby was to introduce forced play tables. This would involve deploying a new type of table that requires a player to play a minimum number of hands once a second player sits with him. If the player leaves before playing that minimum number of hands, they will forfeit a small number of blinds to the other player as a penalty.

This solution is aimed to align the act of sitting at a table with the intention to play at that table. This is the motivation underlying many of our Ring Games changes over the last year or two.

Solution #2: Modified King of the Hill

Again as described by PokerStars:

All tables of a given Heads Up table type would be numbered in order, starting at 1. We would only publicly show the (numerically) first several tables of each type where only one player was sitting. You would be able to expand the table list if you wanted to see the larger, complete list of tables, but this would only be possible by changing a setting within our options menu.

The result of this would be that in order to be seated at one of the tables visible by default in the lobby, you would need to play other players who were also competing for one of those visible tables.

As the thread trudged along PokerStars reps said they were leaning towards “Forced Play” with a few tweaks to their original idea, such as allowing players who had earned a predetermined number of VPP’s during a rolling 30-day period to boot people from their tables without penalty.

Read the 2+2 thread here.

Other solutions already deployed

PokerStars isn’t the only poker room working on a fix for this issue. Several poker rooms/networks have already implemented measures to counteract players who refuse to compete against anyone but the weakest players:

Bodog’s solution: Anonymous Tables

Bodog was the first site to offer a solution to this problem back in 2011, although their solution, Anonymous Tables, was more incidental and not really aimed at this issue specifically. With their anonymous tables it’s virtually impossible for a player to know who they are sitting with.

iPoker’s solution: Heads-Up Hogging Protection

iPoker decided to create a tool –with the colorful name of Heads-Up Hogging Protection— that tracks players guilty of this practice (sitting-out at multiple tables) and restrict their ability to sit at tables in the future.

MPN’s solution: 8-Man Blaze

MPN simply decided to eliminate standard heads-up games, creating a modified version of their Blaze Poker (fast-fold) poker tables, where eight heads-up players are entered into a player pool, forcing them to face all of the players in the pool.

- Steve covers nearly every angle of online poker in his job as a full-time freelance poker writer. His primary focus for OPR is the developing legal and legislative picture for regulated US online poker and gambling.
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