Over the weekend, I learned that Party Poker has decided to begin offering "Casual Cash Games," which are only open to players who are playing one ring game at a time. I have to say it's a great idea. In fact, I thought it was a great idea over a year ago when I devoted an entire column to promoting it.
Obviously this is an attempt to promote a better "poker ecology." In case you haven't heard the term, the poker ecology is a term that refers to the mixture of online poker pros, mid-stakes grinders, casual/recreational players and beginners that make up the universe of players at a given online poker room. In order for online poker to succeed as a business, there needs to be a mix of all types of players in the poker ecology. But in the past few years, online poker rooms have become more concerned about about attracting and keeping new and less skilled players in the player pool. The fear is the current poker ecology is driving new money out of the game quickly.
Poker rooms are taking different steps to address the problem. Bodog's poker network, for example, is run with a "recreational poker model," designed to cater not to online grinders but the players who are there to gamble and have a bit of fun.
I'm all for improving the poker ecology. And since the poker world is clearly listening, here are a few more ideas that online poker rooms should consider to promote a healthier ecology.
10. Offer rewards for "accomplishments"
There's a reason Zynga Poker is incredibly popular: It's social. While grinders may make fun of the experience, there is clearly a population of people who like playing poker with play money and earning badges for "accomplishments," like sucking out on the river. There's no reason these types of awards can't be folded into a real-money online poker model; some sites are even starting to do it now. Let the online wizards ignore them and let the recreational players revel in them.
9. Private tables/tournaments
PokerStars.com already has a great "Home Game" product, which allows groups to form their own segregated player pool and run ring games and tournaments either for real money or for play chips. Poker is, and should be, a social game. Allowing groups of people that know each other to play against each other online is a no-brainer. And while playing within the "Home Game" environment doesn't increase the overall liquidity of a poker room in that moment, you can be sure that players will also play in the larger network as well, once they've joined the site.
8. More bonuses for weaker players
Most poker rooms hand out bonuses to players equally, and normally I'm an egalitarian sort of guy. But if you want to improve your poker room's ecology, the players you should really be offering bonuses to are the weaker players. Let the good players win money by beating other players. Give weaker players the opportunity to perhaps lose a little less, or win once in awhile, with a bonus offer.
There are, however, two important caveats to this policy. First, you should never provide anyone with the internal reasoning for these bonuses, only that a select number of players are offered them. Otherwise, you'll be clueing in people that they're getting the bonus because they're a losing player, and no one wants to be known as a loser. Additionally, you have to be careful with offering bonuses to losing players, as you may be further encouraging someone with gambling problems, so tread carefully here.
7. Offer poker coaching
One of the things that really differentiated Full Tilt Poker from other poker rooms pre-Black Friday was the poker coaching it offered. If you have a not-so-great player who wants to get better, offering that player lessons serves two important objectives. First, it probably will make that player better. Second, it will make that player incredibly loyal, if they feel that their improvement is due to the advice offered on your site.
6. Offer something other than poker
I'm sure grinders will think I'm a lunatic for this suggestion, but why wouldn't you want to offer something other than poker on your site? And I'm not talking about online slots or other gambling games. I'm talking about chess, gin, skill games, etc. While your players may not play as much poker when they visit, they probably will stick around longer. And if you want to set these skill games up as betting games, that's great. Or you can just offer them as a nice break from the poker table.
5. Encourage players to try new games
On many poker networks, it can be hard to find a non-no-limit Hold'em game available. And let's face it; Hold'em can get boring after awhile. Why not offer your players a free buy-in at a low-limit ring game or tournament in a non-Hold'em variant? Give them a chance to try a new game and stay interested in poker.
4. Lifetime rewards
While I'm still not convinced that Bitcoin is ever going to enter the mainstream, I can say that the bitcoin online poker room Seals With Clubs has one of the best player retention programs I've ever seen. Players earn "krill" for playing in ring games and tournaments, and the more krill you earn, the better the rewards. Sounds like every other online poker loyalty program, right? Well, here's the difference: At Seals With Clubs, once you earn rewards, you keep them for the rest of that account's lifetime. Earn 1,250 krill and you gain entry into a 0.6 bitcoin freeroll every 80 hours for the rest of your life. Earn 150,000 and you'll gain entry into a 5 bitcoin freeroll that runs about once a month, plus you'll get 27 percent rakeback. There are also multiple levels between.
Most online poker rooms run promotions where you have to reach a tier every month, or you have a certain amount of time to release a bonus. While these may be great for boosting traffic in the short term, they are horrible for the poker ecology, because players feel the need to get through that requirement or reach that tier before the deadline passes. When they play poorly and lose, it generates ill will toward the poker room (i.e., "I never would have been playing if I wasn't trying to reach that bonus."). So after that bonus or tier is reached, the player doesn't want to come back, and that's bad for the poker ecology.
3. Encourage players with bonuses for chatting
Poker could learn a lot from online bingo. Yeah, I said it. You see, online bingo is a social game. And there's no reason poker shouldn't be, too. I've played at tables with tons of chat, and they've been a lot of fun. And I've played at tables where everyone is silent, and it's kind of boring.
Online bingo sites do a great job of introducing moderators into rooms who get people talking. Sometimes they'll give away free prizes with chat games. I know this isn't feasible at every table, but why not have moderators jump onto random tables from time to time and offer some free giveaways? Let players pick a card that will show up on the flop on the next hand, and if someone's card shows, give them a free tournament entry. Or run a "fastest finger" challenge with trivia questions. This will engage players and add some more fun to the game.
2. Segregated tables for single-table players
Of course I'd like to take credit for this one, but who knows if Party Poker read my column last March? The point of segregated tables for single-table players is that these players will now know that they're not up against a multi-tabling online wizard. Or if they are, they're up against one that's choosing to only play one table at a time. These games are bound to be more social because the players won't have their attention divided over 10 different tables, and they're also likely to be filled with players who aren't focusing solely on their win rate. These players are going to be there to have fun, and that's what an online poker room should be promoting above all else.
1. Lower rake
If you really want to improve a poker room's ecology, cut the rake. The more money that's removed from the poker economy and put into the coffers of a poker room, the less there is for players to play for. Lower rake is good for everyone in the poker economy, because winning players win more, break-even players become marginal winners, marginal losers become break-even players and losing players lose less. Obviously online poker rooms need to be profitable in order to survive. But instead of pouring money into player-retention programs that cater to multi-table online grinders, online poker sites should help everyone that plays by lowering the rake rate and tournament fees.
Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd has covered the gambling industry since 2006. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi. Follow him on Twitter @CasinoCity_AT.