The Big Issue: Is PokerStars losing its way at live events?

Why did you start playing poker? We’d bet that you didn’t expect to be able to quit the day job and start crushing the nosebleeds instantly, however appealing that might seem.

Pretty much everyone starts playing poker because it’s fun. A lot of fun. And never more so than when you’re playing live, sat next to other people and pitting your poker skills against theirs.

It might be terrifying at times, especially if you’re new to the game or suddenly thrust into a situation where you’re playing for serious and even life-changing money, but it’s also exhilarating. We spoke to former snooker world champion Ken Doherty at a recent tourney and he told us that the buzz of playing live poker was as close as he’s ever got to playing at The Crucible in his heyday. And if that doesn’t whet your appetite for the game, nothing will.

Tipping point

It might be the thought of winning money that gets you to enter a live tournament but, for most players, it’s going to be the fun they have that brings them back. For some, that seems to have got lost somewhere along the line.

There’s been a lot written about PokerStars recently, ever since the sweeping changes to their VIP system alienated once loyal pros like ex- sponsored player Isaac Haxton. More recently, they’ve been given a mauling over the way their live events – the EPT and festivals like the UKIPT – are run.

Irish pro and ex-PokerPlayer columnist Dara O’Kearney made waves recently with a blog post titled ‘A tale of two tours’, where he savaged PokerStars for what he sees as the company putting profits before players. O’Kearney played the recent EPT Barcelona and then travelled on to MPN Tallinn, and he said the two events couldn’t have been any more different. ‘Players may come for the poker [at the MPN], but they stay and keep coming back to stop after stop for the experience.’

‘Stars used to be very good at this,’ O’Kearney went on to say. ‘Over time they decided they didn’t want to spend money on this any more, and the goody bags got meaner, the parties less impressive, the hotels simultaneously worse and more expensive, the tournaments simultaneously faster and more raked. In Barcelona I was told that Amaya no longer want to break even from live events: they want to make as much money as they can from them. And boy does it show.’

O’Kearney said that most of the tournaments he played in Barcelona would go straight into his top ten of ‘most ill tempered MTTs I’ve ever played… When the recreationals reach the point they are too pissed off with Stars to go on attending, they will at least have a look around at other tours rather than just give up on poker forever. Tours like WSOP, MPN, Party, Winamax, GUKPT, GPPT and Unibet who are all making a much bigger effort to make their events fun and pro table rather than merely pro table.’

Barcelona was one of the last EPTs before a major re-branding in 2017 will usher in a new two-tier system of tours from PokerStars – the PokerStars Championship and the PokerStars Festival. The former PokerStars Caribbean Adventure will be the first Championship and stops in Barcelona, Monte Carlo, Macau and Panama are already planned for next year.

Beyond the loss that comes from the nostalgia attached to the EPT though, there’s a real fear that these events will not be created with the players in mind. Stars recently switched to 20% payouts across all of its live events (although it has since rolled back on the certain high rollers), and it means that a lot of players will make a considerable journey for a min-cash equivalent to their buy-in.

Stars say this is good for the poker economy as it will convince them to have another go at a future event. We think they might just put it back in their pockets and find something else to do.

A cash is a cash, but once the euphoria dies off, the feeling of heading home with the same amount of money as you left, minus your travel and living expenses, isn’t a great incentive to hit the road again. Earlier start times, poor structures and more hypers might let Stars proclaim their events as the ‘biggest ever’ but are they the best? Or the most fun?

Bring the fun!

Liv Boeree

Liv Boeree

If that’s got you feeling thoroughly miserable, here’s the good news.

For starters, to be fair to Stars, their tournaments are run immaculately and they’ve invested a lot of money in the industry’s best live streaming. Players just expect more from them than they’re giving at the moment.

And there are plenty of live tours that put the players first, offer value and see a smile on your face as a sign that you’ll come back and try again, even if you bust in the first level with set-over-set.

O’Kearney mentioned the MPN Tour in his blog and this offers fantastic value with big prize pools for a modest €550 buy-in. There’s still one stop left this year, at the Mazagan Beach Resort in Morocco, November 10-13.

And there are other tours trying new and innovative concepts like the new WPT Multi Venue Series, which tries to make it easier for the bulk of players that don’t cash. The next one, the Multi-Venue Series WPT National Iberia, plays out October 13-16 in Madrid, Barcelona and Vilamoura. Once the bubble bursts – simultaneously across the three venues – the tournament is paused and the remaining players join up for the final two days at the Hotel Algarve Casino in Portugal (Oct 22-23). It means that you can play for a big prize pool (the last Multi Venue event had an €80k first prize) for a small buy-in (€750) without having to fork out for travel and expenses before you cash. It’s a fantastic new idea and we hope it’s rolled out to other regions soon.

The key to finding the right tournament for you is to shop around. There are loads of tournaments in almost every country around the world, and some offer way more than others. As a poker player it’s your job to ensure the next one you play at is +EV, whether you win, cash or bust. Don’t settle for second best, and don’t settle for a tournament that’s just run to get your cash.

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