#2: Laying the Groundwork

In my last post, I updated you on our progress, discussed the very important topic of transparency, and told you that I would be sharing details of our upcoming poker platform in the coming months. Today, I’ll begin delivering those details.

As this will be the first discussion on important policies and features, I want to start with a few words on policy choices, which I reserve the right to reiterate in future posts.

When we started researching and debating our policies, it became clear quite quickly that no matter what we decided, many of you would be disappointed. In forum threads and on social media, no matter what policy was being discussed, there were very well-thought out and passionate arguments on either side.

So, even before we decided anything, I knew that those eventual decisions would invariably surprise and frustrate a subset of the poker community.

It seemed most of you agreed on one thing:

Finally, a poker player who gets it. Run it Once is going to do everything right!”

Unfortunately, there wasn’t exactly a consensus on the meaning of “everything right.”

“No HUDs allowed”
“Obviously let us use our HUDs!”
“Built-in HUDs!”
“Bring back regular Heads Up Tables!”
“No Heads Up Tables!”
“Get rid of Zoom! The fish play too tight!”
“Fast-Fold only, it’s so much better!”
“Higher rake at high stakes and lower at micros!”
“Higher rake at micro stakes and lower rake at high stakes!”
“Rake-free. Use ads!”
“Yay! They’re bringing back SNE!”
“ NO! Don’t give the best players all the money!
“You need a table cap!”
“ What!? I 16 table and I love it!
“No Spin N Gos!”
“Spin N Gos are the best!”

So… which are the good ideas and which are the bad ones?

(Obviously, you’re smart and you picked the good ones and I’m about to confirm you were right, but this question is here to give others a chance to think.)

The fact is, there are simply no right answers to these questions.

It comes down to figuring out what you’re trying to achieve as a poker room, then playing with a number of combinations of policies and features until you find one that best suits your goals. Certain policies work very well with a certain offering but very poorly with another.

With that in mind, I decided that it would be ill-advised for me to detail a single feature or policy decision today with no context.

So, while this first post is structured similarly to the way I intend to structure future posts, it covers more than the average future post will – AKA, it’s a long read!

I need to lay enough groundwork to fully explain these decisions, as well as the decisions I’ll be writing about in the coming weeks and months.

Some of you will be very happy with the policies we’ve chosen, and some of you will be unhappy with them. It’s my hope that those of you who are disappointed in our decisions can see their merit and can open your mind to the idea of playing on a Run It Once that isn’t exactly what you’ve envisioned.

If we chose policies that you wouldn’t have, it doesn’t mean we disagree with you. If I were put in charge of policy decisions at another poker site, some of those decisions would differ from ours because their product as a whole is different from ours. We designed Run It Once Poker from the ground up to bring something unique to the online poker world. We aren’t here to be 888 with lower rake or PartyPoker with different designs or Pokerstars with more transparency. We’re here to be Run It Once.

If you’re still thinking, “Yeah, cool, but I know you’re gonna choose all the right stuff,” please start over from the top.

If you have an idea in your head of exactly what you want Run It Once Poker to be, please start over from the top.

Okay, now that you’ve read this top section six times, let’s get to it!

I’m going to spend today talking about, in my opinion, one of the most consequential and deceptively intricate policy decisions a poker site has to make.

HUD Policy: What, Why, and How

I’ll start with our overall policy on HUD use, then get into our reasoning before diving into the first couple of features I’ll be sharing with you.

The What

HUDs will not be allowed at Run It Once Poker.

The Why

Let me start by stating clearly that I don’t think there is anything wrong with allowing HUDs or playing with a HUD (on a site that allows it). I enjoy using a HUD – I think it adds a really fun and interesting dimension to the game, especially in heads up or short-handed games against tough competition. I think HUDs, along with in-tracker studying, offer an absolutely fantastic way to learn about the game.

I discuss using stats in my Run It Once videos, and I’ve spent a ton of time becoming a better player through the use of a HUD (and tracker in general).

I hope that some sites continue to allow HUDs, and I think that many sites with features unlike ours absolutely should. We’re just going to do things differently.

Over time, the edges that pros have over recreational players have only increased. Our understanding of the game grows with each passing year, and novices aren’t getting any better. HUDs, which also advance over time, only widen the gap further.

“Great,” you may say as a pro, “more money for me!”

The problem, as you may know, is that most losing players have, more or less, a finite amount that they are willing to lose playing poker. Taking it faster doesn’t create a larger supply, and in fact, the opposite is usually true. Those amateurs who want to play for fun, or in the hope of improving and becoming a pro themselves, are, in some cases, losing so consistently that all the fun (and hope) is sucked out of the game for them. They quit sooner and find somewhere else to spend their time and money.

If you’re paying attention, this is the exact same thing Daniel Negreanu has been saying for a long time in defense of many of Pokerstars’ changes. While he and I agree on the problem, Run It Once will try to solve it in our own way.“When you play live poker, you can see the tight guy playing on his phone the whole time or the angry drunk guy ready to tilt off his chips.”

“When you play live poker, you can see the tight guy playing on his phone the whole time or the angry drunk guy ready to tilt off his chips.”

HUDs increase a pro’s edge by giving the pro a larger informational advantage. They also help pros target recreational players and more quickly identify their leaks, which can be exploited for far more than the leaks of a slightly weaker pro.

Perhaps most importantly, HUDs can be scary. If I’m a recreational player and I see a Twitch stream or Run It Once training video that looks like this…

… I’m thinking that I have no chance. A number of people even think that this is some kind of bot (which it’s definitely not, guys!). I wonder how many people have quit online poker simply from seeing something like this.

HUDs can be enhanced by datamining, which all sites seem to “ban” without good enforcement, leading to rulebreakers gaining an edge over rule-followers. Datamining, of course, further increases a recreational player’s disadvantage.

While the downsides listed above aren’t very controversial, any online pro will realize that I haven’t yet addressed the most important part of the equation. The debate over HUD policy isn’t so much about pros vs. cons as it is cons vs. the greater cons of poorly-enforced anti-HUD rules.

So, what is Run It Once going to do to effectively enforce a no-HUD policy?

The How

While preparing to write this, I came across a blog post of mine from over six years ago, long before Run It Once Poker was ever conceived, and even before Run It Once Training!

The post was focused on the problems I saw with the state of the games and starting a discussion about what could be done to fix them. I was trying to get poker sites – primarily the most player-friendly site at the time, Pokerstars – to listen and react to ideas from the community.

Halfway through that post, in an attempt to avoid arguing for things that advantaged me as a player, I set some goals that I believed to be universally true:

“In determining if a rule or feature is ‘good for the game,’ I believe the goals are as follows:

1. Make playing poker an easy and fun experience for both pros and recreational players

-Should be self-explanatory. Let’s not scare anyone away

2. Close loopholes that allow unethical players to gain an advantage over those who choose to be more honest.

-Don’t punish the good guys

3. Promote the play of more hands

-In addition to more regular games being good for players, it’s obviously something that poker sites have major financial incentive to do. We need their goals to be met as well as ours.”


-Me, January 2012

For a long time, my personal stance was that HUDs should be allowed. This stemmed from the core value that was always most important to me as a player, represented as #2 above.

Someone using an “illegal” HUD while their opponents follow the rules would lead to a severe disadvantage, even in a top pro vs. top pro scenario.

I didn’t believe that the existing sites could effectively ban HUDs, and I thought that introducing another poorly enforced rule (like bans on multi-accounting, datamining, etc.) would be a huge mistake.

After a lot of discussion amongst the Run It Once Poker team about HUDs, the first few things we came to agree on were:

  1. If we can find a way to effectively ban HUDs, we should.
  2. If we can’t find a way to effectively ban HUDs, we should allow them.
  3. We have yet to see a poker site ban HUDs in a way that we would consider effective enough.

From there, we began the brainstorming phase.

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve sat in a room, or on a call, trying to come up with a rule or feature and had more or less this exact conversation:

Person 1: What if we went with this?
Person 2: Ooh nice! And we could do this too!
Person 3: Love it. That’ll be so fun! And it solves that problem.
Person 2: Yeah! Okay, I can start mapping out how that would work with Person 3 and have something for us to look at in a few days.
Person 1: Cool, I’ll ask the Product team to mock something up for that other part too. It’s going to work really nicely with how that thing looks.
Person 3: I can’t believe we finally solved this!
Person 2: Wait… Can’t someone exploit it by doing this?
Person 1: Yep, damn.
Person 3: Damn.
Person 2: Damn.

Person 3: Okay, but what about this?

Like in many other areas, we went through plenty of bad ideas before finalizing a HUD enforcement plan we were happy with.

I’m now reminded of a section from a David Sklansky book. I believe it was in DUCY, which I read a very long time ago but don’t have anymore. I can’t find the passage, so I’ll just have to summarize my hazy memory of it:

Sklansky discusses some specific crime (something where the criminal profits, like theft or fraud) and he argues that the punishments didn’t do enough to disincentivize the crime because the rate at which criminals were caught multiplied by the severity of the punishment didn’t add up to as much as the rate at which they weren’t caught multiplied by the gain. In other words, breaking this particular law was +EV.

I believe he argues for a much harsher punishment in order to make breaking the law a -EV endeavor.

Our plan to make using a HUD on Run It Once Poker -EV falls into three categories: Prevention, Enforcement, and Disincentivization

I’m not going to dive into the first two categories yet, in part because I don’t want to share our methods for HUD prevention and detection. Instead, I’ll be sharing a couple of our features which were partially inspired by the desire to disincentivize HUD use, focused on decimating the advantage one could gain if they somehow managed to operate a HUD illegally.

Quick note: As mentioned in my first update post, we will have a nosebleed stakes offering that is different from the rest of our games. One of those differences will lie in our HUD restrictions. For a number of reasons, without going into detail just yet, we didn’t believe we could do enough to disincentivize HUD use within the structure of that offering to make banning HUDs a fair policy for those games.

Screen Name Policy: Table Aliases

When you join a table on Run It Once, you’ll be randomly assigned an alias (a first name and a last initial). This is what will be displayed to your opponents on that table.

For those familiar with anonymous tables on other sites, this is our version of them, with more similarities than differences. We made changes in areas that we believe will lead to a more fun and engaging playing experience, which was our biggest complaint about other anonymous sites.

On Run It Once, your opponents will have names instead of numbers. This way, you can remember opponents more easily, and you can say things like “OMG. Damon just rivered another flush… Unbelievable.”

You’ll more easily notice if seat 2 leaves the table and is replaced by a new seat 2, because Simon T will be replaced by Meredith R, for example.

If Simon T comes back after eating dinner, he will still be Simon T, and you will still have the notes you took on him. Table Aliases are more like temporary IDs than a collection of faceless numbers.

With Table Aliases, we’ve eliminated the potential advantage of players accumulating and analyzing hands you’ve played via datamining. We’ve also eliminated the possibility of your results being made public without your consent. This system also plays a role in reducing bumhunting (the practice of searching for and targeting weaker players) and tables breaking when an individual player quits.

Most importantly, we’ve also removed ~60% of the advantage gained by using a HUD (spoiler: we didn’t stop here)…

Stats from the flop onward take a very long time to become meaningful, and your opponents would only be able to track those stats for the length of time you’re at that single table with them. Every new table is a fresh start.

Even the more specific preflop stats, especially in a 6-handed game, take plenty of time before they become remotely dependable. (In fact, many HUD users make significant mistakes by playing differently than they should based on a stat with way too small of a sample size)

Stats like ‘Check-raise vs. Delayed Continuation Bet’ and ‘Fold to Raise on Paired Flop’, which can become quite valuable over time, are rendered completely useless at our tables.

There are, of course, two sides to every policy discussion. Some players may feel uneasy because they can’t as readily investigate suspicious behavior themselves.

It’s not revolutionary, but to address this, we will send you Hand Histories 24 hours after you’ve played, with every player’s hole cards revealed. This way, you can take a look at what your opponents held if you ever have suspicions.

Of course, regardless of Hand History and Screen Name policies, it’s important that a poker site does a great job investigating on their own. Like with HUD prevention, I don’t want to get into details, but we at Run It Once (obviously) take game integrity very seriously, and we have a lot of advanced poker knowledge within the company.

“What we can all agree on is that we want online poker to thrive. We want people to enjoy playing, to be treated fairly, and to feel safe, comfortable, and welcome.”

As I mentioned at the top, I know some of you simply won’t like anonymous tables for whatever reason, even with our Table Alias implementation. This is something we thought about, of course, as we expect some portion of the population to strongly prefer traditional screen name systems. If this is you, I’m sorry. I really don’t want to disappoint anyone, but we had to pick a side.

In addition to the benefits, which we believe far outweigh the drawbacks, our screen name system sets us apart from most major players in the online poker site game. Those who prefer a system like ours don’t have many good options. Now they’ll have one more.

I’ve talked about this feature in broad strokes because I don’t want to bore everyone with the minutia, but I want to assure you that we’ve considered and come up with several policies surrounding this – things like the length of time away from a table before you’d be assigned a new name when you return. All specific details (on all policies, features, and rules) will be shared closer to launch.

To sum up: We’ve got HUD detection and punishment to prevent most illegal HUD use, and we’ve taken away ~60% of the value of using a HUD. So, we thought, how can we bump that 60% up to something more impressive?

Early in our discussions, one of the more popular ideas was to offer a built-in HUD with the very basic stats that tend to normalize more quickly. The benefits of this are obvious.

I was lukewarm on the idea because in order to implement it, you either have to put numbers on the table next to each player, which still scares the people watching streams (they don’t know that it’s built-in), may intimidate amateurs who don’t understand what the numbers mean while still leaving them at a disadvantage, OR you have to make ‘Display HUD’ an option that is set to off by default, which undermines the goal of leveling the playing field – many players won’t opt to use the HUD and some won’t even realize the option exists – and has all of the above problems (minus the intimidation and clutter for users who never find the option).

Though we thought of some ways to minimize those downsides, in the end, we came up with a different system.

A More Fun Way to Level the Field: Dynamic Avatars

Instead of displaying stats next to your opponents, we will group them into one of eight playstyle categories and communicate that information through their avatar’s emotions.

We’ll factor in VPIP and PFR, as those are the stats that converge most quickly and are therefore the most valuable in our games, and we’ll add in 3bet because… it just feels right.

An amateur player has no idea what VPIP 14%/PFR 10%/3b 1.5% means, but they’ll know that…

Of course, we’ll share all of the criteria we use to classify players. Most likely, the pros will be the ones looking at this, but it still won’t leave recreational players far behind because they can infer what an expression means.

Our Dynamic Avatars only take into account hands you’ve played against an individual opponent, just like your own HUD would, so you may display an expression to one opponent that is different than what your other opponent sees.

This was more complicated to build than simply displaying the same information to everyone (based on all play since joining that table), but we didn’t want to create an informational imbalance, disadvantaging players who’d already been playing when a new player shows up. That would cause annoying, edge-seeking table hopping and it would punish the players who stuck around and put in more hands.

In addition to being the best way we could think of to give all players the same information, we think it’s pretty fun!

When you play live poker, you can see the tight guy playing on his phone the whole time or the angry drunk guy ready to tilt off his chips. Dynamic Avatars bring a similar feel to our tables.

Expressions will change over the course of a session, just like they do in real life. Some players may even alter their game to try and reach a certain expression – maybe the spiral-eye weirdo!

Regardless of what type of player you are, I think you’ll enjoy the vibe that these (and other features you’ll learn about later) bring to our games, and I hope you agree they will lead to a more welcoming environment for all types of players.

Conclusion

We believe Dynamic Avatars, combined with Table Aliases, reduce HUD effectiveness by ~90% and supply information to players who ordinarily have none.

Along with prevention, detection and punishment, we think we have an effective way to enforce our no-HUD policy, which takes us one step closer to the level playing field that we aspire to offer at Run It Once Poker.

Also very important to us: We believe we’ve made our games more fair in a way that adds to, rather than subtracts from, the playing experience.

Run It Once has always been expected, and intended, to be a player-friendly poker room. At the time that we came up with many of our ideas, “player-friendly” was often used synonymously with “pro-friendly.”

Due to that, I was worried that our HUD policy would shock much of the pro community. After all, HUDs are part of a pro’s edge and most sites, even ones you may consider player-unfriendly, allow them.

Over the last couple of years, I think the poker community has grown to understand that improving the experience and environment for recreational players is “pro-friendly,” and that not every policy needs to have a winner and a loser.

A level playing field – who does that favor?

Transparency – who does that help and who does it hurt?

Sensible rake, a fun playing environment – are these better for pros or for recreational players?

Pros, recs… We use these categories because sometimes you need words for different types of players, but there aren’t two distinct groups. There are players who are slight losers on their way to becoming winners and there are players who just enjoy splashing around every once in a while. There are winners who aren’t pros, and there are pros who don’t win. Some of us play strictly to earn a living while some happen to make a living but play simply because they love the game.

What we all have in common is that we are poker players. Or, as we at Run It Once say internally, poker enthusiasts.

We don’t all want the exact same things, but we also aren’t bucketed into two groups, one winning and the other losing with each decision a poker site makes.

What we can all agree on is that we want online poker to thrive. We want people to enjoy playing, to be treated fairly, and to feel safe, comfortable, and welcome.

And that poker is great.

What’s Next?

This is the first in a series of posts detailing our policies and features. Like I mentioned, most won’t be as lengthy as this one, but they will all convey our thoughts and beliefs as a company in the same way that this one does.

As I share our plans, ideas and reasoning with you, please let us know what you think. Are we addressing concerns you have about online poker? Are we raising more concerns for you?

One of the benefits of an open discussion between a poker site and the poker community is that we can gain more insight from you when we explain our thought process. You can discuss a specific point, come up with alternate ideas to address the problems we’re trying to solve, or suggest additions that might make the platform we’re building better.

For each post here, we’ll open up a dedicated discussion thread for just that purpose.

I’d like to end by asking a favor of you. If you have a friend who’s become disillusioned with online poker for reasons that I addressed today, or for any reason, tell them about what we’re doing and about that discussion thread. Tell them we’d like to hear from them.

I want Run It Once to be the kind of poker site who would have joined that conversation I tried starting over six years ago. Let’s talk poker.