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#3: Just Play

As I sit in front of my keyboard, struggling to trudge through the post I was planning to make, another topic keeps pushing its way to the forefront of my mind. I will get to everything that I planned on sharing with you, but I first need to indulge this fixation and discuss something I believe to be very important.

Poker is, by definition, a zero sum game. Or, as my good friend Tommy Angelo cleverly calls it, once rake is taken, “Zero sum minus some.”

ze•ro-sum game:
/zirō ˈsəm ɡām/
A situation in which one person or group can win something only by causing another person or group to lose it.

If you to win a pot, someone else has to lose it. For there to be winning players, there must be losing players.

These days, we generally call these losing players “recreational players,” because they play for fun rather than to support themselves. It’s imperfect, because you can play for fun and be a winner, but it sounds nicer than “losing players,” “fish,” and any other terms thrown around.

In the discussions I’ve engaged in since my last post, there’s been a lot of talk about what recreational players want, and I think the conversation is suffering as a result of a larger issue.

I believe that, due to the nature of online poker, there’s a deeply rooted problem in the online pro community: We don’t give recreational players nearly the respect they deserve.

I don’t mean that in the “everybody deserves respect” or a “be nicer to your opponents” kind of way. I mean that many in the online community think and talk about recreational players as if they are some homogeneous lump of clueless donators, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

I’ve been a pro or semi-pro for almost 14 years. In the five years prior, I played poker recreationally with friends, I played recreationally online, and I played blackjack and bet sports for what was significant money to me at the time – obviously, as a losing player.

Every pro has been a recreational player at some point, yet somehow, (it seems to me) so many people in our community view recreational players as intellectually inferior.

I’m pretty sure that my IQ hasn’t changed much since the time I was a recreational player, and (if you’re a pro) yours likely hasn’t either.

If you’re one of the many who aren’t giving recreational players enough credit, don’t feel too badly – I used to think this way without realizing it, too. I have more thoughts about why this happens, but rather than philosophize about how online poker affects our perception of others, I’m going to try to steer back towards the purpose of this post.

The impression I get from reading the forums is that many people evaluate how poker policies affect recreational players based on the premise that we have to trick them into believing they’re winners. After all, poker is a zero sum game, right?

Sure, some recreational players play because they think they’re winning players, but there are a number of other reasons people play poker. If the only reason people gambled was the expectation of being a favorite, Las Vegas would be vacant.

Relating to or denoting activity done for enjoyment when one is not working.

Personally, I got into poker and continued playing for several reasons:

  • For fun
  • For the challenge – to match wits with others
  • To make incremental improvements in my game
  • To make big improvements in hopes of one day becoming a pro

I’m sure there are a number of reasons I’ve never thought of because not every player is like me. Different motivations is a topic often talked about in the gaming world.

I see no reason why there wouldn’t be a similar reality in poker.

In order to have a productive discussion about features and policies, it’s really important to stop treating recreational players as if they are all the same and as if they are so different than professionals.

I see so many people ascribe thoughts and feelings to recreational players that they would never experience themselves. If your position on any specific thing is that it will upset recreational players but it wouldn’t upset you, you should be ready to explain why you’re so different from all of them.

Zero Sum, Plus Some?

Playing professionally in a zero sum game can feel weird to some people. In order to profit, someone else has to lose. Operating a zero sum game is similar.

But if people play poker for reasons other than earning money, which we know to be true, is operating a poker room really zero sum? And what about playing professionally?

A few years ago, my wife and I took our niece to Disney World. One night at dinner, we struck up a conversation with a family at the table next to ours: a middle-aged couple with a teenage son and a young daughter.

They lived somewhere in the midwest, but they made the trip to Florida to go to Disney World regularly. The father, let’s call him Bob, told us how many times they’d all been, but also how many times he’d been personally over his lifetime. I don’t remember the number but I know it was high – somewhere between 50 and 500.

He wasn’t saying, “Ugh. I can’t believe how much I’ve spent on Disney World over all these years.” He was telling us about how much he loved it there, how happy it made him. You could feel it in the way he spoke.

So, did Bob lose the money that those trips to Disney World cost him over all those years?

Of course not. He spent it on entertainment, and he couldn’t have been happier about it.

So, what if instead of Disney World, Bob absolutely loved poker? What if he’d spent all that time and all that money kicking back every weekend and slinging stacks around at the tables?

Now he’s getting more entertainment bang for his buck than he’d get elsewhere, and the professionals and the poker site have made money for playing their part in providing that entertainment; nobody loses!

The game of poker is zero sum, but the product of poker isn’t.

Yes, there is a subset of players who play for the “wrong” reasons, but most people continue to play poker because… well… they enjoy playing poker!

“We want playing poker on Run It Once to be a simple, streamlined experience.”

Did Disney Bob, before his first visit to Disney World, decide he would go multiple times a year for the rest of his life? Do you think he planned those trips all at once, mapping out exactly how much money he wanted to spend in total?

I admit, I didn’t ask him those questions, but I’m pretty confident the answers would’ve been no.

What if Bob had arrived at Disney World that first time and had no fun at all? Or what if he loved it, but he spent a bunch of money and only was allowed into the park for 1 hour? Do you think he’d have kept coming back?

I doubt it.

Bob kept returning to happily spend more and more money on great experience after great experience. I think that as long as Bob is being shown a good time, he’ll continue to be one of Disney World’s best customers.

This is why it matters how long a player’s deposit lasts. This is why the playing experience is important. Poker is an experience-based product. The more enjoyable the games are, the more players can lose without actually losing. I’m going to repeat and reword that for emphasis: If the games are more fun, more value is created, recreational players will spend more in exchange for that added value, the pros and the poker site will profit more, and nobody needs to be tricked.

It’s in the best interest of both the poker site and the poker pro for the playing experience to be a good one.

Eliminating Some Negative Experiences

We can all agree that certain forms of predatory behavior take some of the fun out of online poker for some people, but who’s responsibility is it to curb that?

Many people argue that it’s the responsibility of the professionals to make sure recreational players are having a good time. Many feel differently – pros don’t owe the game or the other players anything, and as long as they play by the rules, they’re doing nothing wrong. Some take it further and even neglect unenforceable rules.

There are many predatory practices in poker that nearly everyone agrees, “It would be nice if nobody did this, but since the others do, I have to.”

It would be better for the games if recreational players weren’t made to feel targeted, but regardless of what you or I believe is right, if you’re a pro who doesn’t target weaker players with a seating script (on a site that allows seating scripts), you will lose out to the pros who do.

This means, in my opinion at least, that we can’t blame players who are trying to make a living for looking out for themselves within the rules of the game.

So, if the pros aren’t going to improve the experience for recreational players, the responsibility has to fall to the poker operator. That’s us.

Some people were taken aback by my last announcement because we’re doing some things very differently than other sites are. This is because we see problems that we believe poker operators need to address, and the only way to do it is by making changes.

A great example of this is the addition of Shot Clocks to big buy-in live tournaments. Without them, players can maximize their edge by taking a really long time to think through each decision. This makes the overall experience of playing in the tournament worse, but it’s within the rules so it’s going to happen, and the experience in those tournaments suffer as a result.

Since being introduced, Shot Clocks have been almost universally liked, even (and sometimes especially) by players who routinely play slowly in traditional tournaments.

If we were to agree that a world without the aggressive targeting of recreational players leads to a better result for everyone*, and we agree that players will act in their own self-interest, then we would have to agree that policies and features which curb or stop that behavior are good ones.

(*In reality, there are some pros who aren’t strong enough players to win without playing exclusively against recreational players, or who will at least win less without the ability to target losing players in the way they can elsewhere. This particular group will sometimes be left out of the decisions which benefit “everyone.”)

Alright, now that I’ve expressed my passion for the way to think about recreational players (aka poker players) and managed to finesse that into a reasonable segway, let’s start talking about what I was planning to.

Our Goals

Some of the discussion sparked by my last post has centered around the very complex topic of poker ecosystems. The policies and innovations I’ve announced so far are ones which, among other things, protect recreational players. Some people in the poker community believe this comes at the cost of the professionals, but hopefully I have adequately explained why that isn’t the case.

I’ll be sharing two more policy decisions today. One of them actually increases pro win rates and recreational player loss rates. The other helps recreational players and a subset of pros at the cost of another subset of pros.

So, if these decisions don’t all lead towards the same result, what exactly are we trying to accomplish? Where do we want win rates to be?

I recently took part in some discussion about whether or not reducing the disadvantage of losing players leads to a better ecosystem and usually, in the end, better results for the pros. I believe this to be true in the current environment (as part of improving the product of poker), but that belief was not the driving force behind our team’s decisions.

We didn’t choose our policies in an effort to achieve certain win rates and loss rates or to favor any particular type of player.

Our primary objective has always been the viability of the poker dream, now and through whatever challenges the future throws at us. Beyond that, we kept two simple goals in mind while designing Run It Once Poker:

  • A good experience
  • Fair games

“Relax and enjoy the ability to focus on what made you love poker in the first place: the actual game of poker.”

Last time, I started off by belaboring the point that policy decisions and features need to be evaluated as a whole – that judging an individual policy without context is silly.

I’ve already given you a speech today, so I won’t repeat that one, but the decisions I’ll soon touch on will add to and benefit from the picture I began painting last time. You should leave here today with a good idea of the type of atmosphere we’re trying to create at Run It Once Poker.

We want playing poker on Run it Once to be a simple, streamlined experience.

We not only want to level the playing field and make the games more fun for recreational players; we want to improve the experience for pros, too. We don’t want you to have to deal with distractions and annoyances that come along with deciding whether or not to take part in one form of incessant edge seeking or another.

We want you all to just open Run It Once Poker and start playing.

I’ve given such a long introduction to what we’re trying to achieve that I think I can breeze through the actual decisions quite quickly.


Let’s cut out some of the steps standing between you and poker.

When you open the Run It Once lobby, you’ll have the option to choose the stakes you’d like to play.

Click on €50* No Limit Hold’em, and a modal will pop up where you can toggle the number of tables you want to join. Click “Okay, Buy In” and you’re at the table.

*Spoiler: We’ve chosen the euro as our in-game currency.

No scouting tables; no seating scripts to contend with or to decide whether to use. Just click twice and you’re playing poker.

“But wait, Phil,” some of you are thinking, “you skipped the part where I choose how much to buy in with.”

Good catch, but actually, I didn’t!

€50 No Limit Hold’em

Many of us refer to €0.25/€0.50 as “€50NL” and €5/€10 as “€1k NL,” but on most sites that’s not actually what they mean; the buy-in is variable.

On Run It Once, €50 NL means €50 NL. The blinds are €0.25/€0.50 and the buy-in is €50.

At €1k NL, the blinds are €5/€10 and the buy-in is €1000. Simple enough, right?

This quick, clear buy-in process aligns with the experience we are trying to achieve at Run It Once Poker. I’ve tested it, and it feels good.

Like any policy choice, there are upsides and downsides. The main downside people jump to is “Recs like to buy in short.”

Anecdotally, it does seem that many recreational players, especially the pure beginners, tend to buy-in short. I’m sure they each have their own reasons for it, and I won’t pretend to know what all those reasons are.

I don’t believe that many players will be deterred by clicking on “€50 No Limit Hold’em” and then being forced to buy in for €50. I also don’t expect many to look at the blinds (which will also be shown in the lobby) and say “these are too low” and quit.

I could be wrong about both of these things, and if it becomes a problem, like everything else, we can adjust.

One benefit of a 100bb buy-in is that it forces bankroll management onto the type of recreational player who normally just plays the highest game they’re able to. Rather than 2 tabling with 80-100bb total, they’ll need to drop down in stakes and 2 table with 200 total big blinds. This leads to deposits lasting longer, which for most will mean a better experience. (I concede, some will prefer the quicker gamble of shorter stacks – pros and cons)

“The game of poker is zero sum, but the product of poker isn’t.”

Arguably the strongest positive to a fixed buy-in system relates to the removal of the main advantages that come with short-stacking and ratholing; more potential edges that pros have to choose whether or not to take advantage of when sitting at a table that allows a range of buy-in options.

To be clear: there is nothing remotely unethical about shortstacking, and although I find ratholing very annoying personally, if people are operating within the rules to do it, I can’t call it wrong. We just want something different for our playing experience.

We believe in the beauty of poker. We don’t want it to be about deciding whether or not to maximize your edge by exploiting technicalities. We just want you to show up and play.

Pure Poker

On the major sites, players have to make a lot of decisions about what they want to use to increase their advantage and what they’d rather not. These things run the gamut from completely ethical to outright breaking the rules:

  • Table Selection
  • Seat Selection
  • HUDs
  • Short-stacking
  • Bumhunting
  • Seating Scripts
  • Ratholing
  • Datamining
  • Multi-accounting

To the professionals:

Don’t worry about picking the best table, about finding the perfect seat and then buying in for the right amount based on the makeup of the table and your opponents’ stack sizes. Don’t worry about designing a HUD for our games or about whether or not to use a seating script. Don’t spend half of your mental energy staring at the lobby. Don’t fear being exploited by multi-accounters and dataminers.

In the same way that the players torn about how much time to take in MTTs enjoy that burden being lifted by a shot clock, let us handle improving the experience for everyone else so that you don’t need to decide whether or not to play your part.

To the recreational players:

Don’t worry about pros having a huge informational advantage over you, or about your results being made public. Enjoy not being hunted, not being targeted and attacked in the same way you are on other sites. Enjoy the extra information on your opponents and their play styles, all delivered within a nice, clean interface.

To everyone:

Relax and enjoy the ability to focus on what made you love poker in the first place: the actual game of poker. Have fun!

Open our lobby, pick your games, and just play.