Poker’s next big story

Throughout its decade long journey from a game enjoyed by a few degenerate millionaires and colorful pros in dark-lit casinos, to a game loved and played by millions online, poker has relied on great stories to keep its momentum going.

First there was the idea of playing online itself.  Then there was the Moneymaker rags-to-riches David vs Goliath narrative.  And the allure of playing in front of the WPT cameras.  Then came the stories of grinding for profit and living large in Las Vegas.  And of playing poker for stakes unfathomable to the average Joe.

For every new market that embraced the game, these stories repeated themselves. Every year there was a new batch of media people following a new group of wide-eyed amateurs and newly crowned pros having their first go at a WSOP bracelet or a WPT title.
For years the industry rode on wave after wave of these recurring stories.
But eventually the sea stilled and the tide started to turn.

Social poker burst onto the scene and spread awareness of poker to new demographics. Mobile poker offered relief from an experience that was slowly growing stale. National operators fought valiantly to keep the game in the spotlight.

Long overdue innovation like so-called lottery Sit & Go tournaments has managed to make the game relevant again for long-since churned players. But it hasn’t been enough to stem the tide. The mainstream media rarely takes our calls these days – unless, of course, there are irregularities to report. Other game phenomena, like e-sports, have stolen our mojo.

The game has been been in a spin for a while now in mature markets and recovering from this stall will require a new set of stories that can capture the imagination of past, current and potential players and deliver a fresh narrative.
Or will it?

Here are some thoughts.

Poker as a sport
Perhaps the most promising attempt to evolve poker’s narrative right now is the one captained by Alex Dreyfus. Through his various assets like the GPI ranking system, the Hendon Mob player base and the Global Poker Masters initiative,  Alex is trying to piece together everything it will take to earn poker, if not a place next to traditional sports, then at least a place next to other recognized mindsports like chess and scrabble.

It is a brave undertaking full of pitfalls but if there ever was a man for the job, it is Alex.

US regulation
When online poker is finally regulated in key US states like California, the game is bound to to experience an uplift. Not only will new players flock to the tables but the media’s love affair with California will likely lead to a lot of great and hopefully fresh poker coverage. The question is if the above stories will just repeat themselves or if being regulated in key US states might actually add new chapters to the story.

Perhaps a natural convergence will occur between the strong US home game tradition and online poker thus creating a more social poker experience online. That would be very welcoming indeed. I personally hade the opportunity to see that working back in pre UIGEA days when offered a integrated forum and play experience.

Back to the roots
One direction with potential that the industry can take is to return the game to its basics. Player versus player. Cards versus cards. In our pursuit of short term profits we have allowed the game and the core game experience to be bastardized by people and corporations eager to get a leg up. While the live poker experience remains largely true to its roots, online poker has turned into a game of data mining, data analysis, finger dexterity, coding skills, over-the-shoulder tutoring, money lending and financial backing. In my opinion we continuously ignore this reality, but it is a reality that I believe has turned many a players away from the game nontheless.

A conscious effort to clean this mess up and and leveling the playing field in the process is a marketable message that I believe would resonate well with millions of sidelined players.

Gamification and e-sports
My aversion towards the concept of ”gamification” the way it was framed two years ago at the peak of its hype cycle is well known to anyone who follows this blog. What I feared would happen back then is largely what did happen. CEOs jumped on the bandwagon and took the snake oil salesmen’s reckless shortcut approach to building more immersive, fun and rewarding game experiences.

The implementation of game mechanics and storytelling techniques that enhances the intrinsic motivation to play had to step aside to leave room for the pure extrinsic motivation tricks certain gamification clowns pitched as golden geese.
Hopefully those days are beyond us now so that we can embark on the tough challenge of closing the unnecessary gap that exists between online poker and super-successful game genres like card battlers and MOBAs. I wholeheartedly believe that would make poker appealing to a much broader mid- to hardcore market and breath some fresh air into the industry.
But it is  certainly not easy.  I can only hope that more people see the potential in doing this and join us who spend our days trying to innovate the game along this trajectory.

Poker doesn’t need no stories

An interesting view championed by several of my industry insider friends is that what poker needs is for people to stop trying to make it more than it is and – even worse – things it isn’t and can never be. One reason why online poker is in a challenging phase, the argument goes, is that it was never really suitable for the mainstream consumption we’ve spent som much money trying to create. The problem isn’t with revenues – its with costs. Driven by insanely optimistic estimates – like in the case of New Jersey – we end up overspending on narratives that can never attract enough players to justify the spend.  An endless game of catch-up and cutbacks that hurt service and product fundamentals ensues.
Poker is poker. Gambling is gambling. It is not for the masses and will never be. Poker will also never have the revenue potential of slots so poker sites’ operating costs need to adjust accordingly. That the media has lost interest in spinning tales of lavish lifestyles lived under the neon lights of Las Vegas is not a problem. It is a blessing.

It is big.

The world’s most entertaining lottery
One of the first articles I got published in Inside Poker Business back in 2010 suggested that the costliest mistake we made back in the heydays was to go overboard on the ”you can beat this game if you are skilled” narrative. High on the obvious upside of marketing a for-money game where you could have the upper hand, we ignored the longterm cons of shifting expectations from ”I expect to lose” to ”I should win” and the devastating feeling of losing in a game where those who lose are labelled suckers, donkeys and fish to be preyed upon.
To play poker without maximizing one’s chances is considered the hallmarks of a fool.
This stands in stark contrast to so many ”best memories of poker” stories I have been told and shared over the years that all have in common that the game, in that moment, wasn’t considered a cut-throat blood sport. Ridiculous stakes, stupid, side bets, stories of costly revenge on office arch nemesis, glorious plays with nine three off suit, magic one outers on the river after every move up to that point was badly misplayed.  Five dollar tournaments shipped while barely able to control the mouse. Hilarious stories told at the table worth every dollar paid to play.  Losing a buck online to a world champion. Forming new friendships. Trying Omaha, dancing a jigg when you get dealt four aces before going all-in an realizing too late that all you have is a pair and a tendency to not read the rules properly. Crazy ten second who-pays-for-lunch games.

The way I look at it, poker is the world’s most interactive and entertaining lottery game. Just like when I play slots (guilty!) I don’t expect to win. I  just know that I COULD win.  But unlike when I scratch a lottery ticket (guilty!) or wait for a random series of numbers to be revealed in the right order, (guilty!) I experience a whole host of emotions while playing poker that amount to me being entertained. But that’s not what I was told when I started playing, continued to play and finally gave up on becoming the next Kidpoker.

I think the industry could benefit greatly from backtracking and taking a lighter approach. No one needs to trumpet the fact that there is money to be made. Wherever there is money to be made, those who have the talent and dedication to do so will discover that opportunity.
While the industry has turned in a recreational direction, I don’t think enough has been done to truly alter the perception of what online poker is and should be about.  On the product front things are looking brighter.  More inclusive reward programs,  new game formats and improved mobile support are all helping to make casual consumption of poker more attractive. But we’re going to have to speak loud and clear if the message is going to get across.

Agree? disagree? Missing something?

E-mail me, ping me on Skype or tweet @infiniteedgeKim .  The opportunity to spark constructive debates and discussions is the primary reason I dedicate time to this blog.  I regard this particular post merely as a first stab at a huge topic. There is so much more that should be said. By me and by others.