Talking to the Players

Though I’ve considered myself dialed in to Run It Once Poker for the last several years, this past month has given me a different perspective and has opened my eyes to a few things.  This post won’t be to announce a new feature or policy, or to share updates on our progress. I’m just writing to share my learnings and thoughts for those interested.

I’ve said this before, but a big part of transparency isn’t just sharing our decisions, but our (and my) thought processes and reasoning.  This way, you can not only understand the basic features and policies we currently have, but can make your own judgments about the way I think, and gain some insight into what types of decisions I might make in the future.  Much of my concern in the last several years about the direction of Pokerstars, for example, was not about the specific new features or policies, but the story they seemed to tell regarding the way management was approaching the business, and what that might mean for the future.

If you’d be willing to chat with me about your thoughts, I’d love to get your perspective.

So, without further ado, here are my impressions and thoughts as of late…

Experience 

Firstly, playing for real money gave me a better sense of the product than I had when simply testing.  I really enjoyed playing on the app!

I will always see room for improvement (and we’ll keep making them), but I’m pleased with where we’re at now, which wasn’t really the case several months ago.  I know that a small subset of users have experienced bugs I didn’t encounter, which we’ll keep working hard on fixing, but based on my experience, I feel like we are 1 or 2 updates away from a clear top 2 or 3 poker platform experience, and I think that a year from now we have a good chance of being #1.

I’m excited that a weakness of ours in the early days after launch is on its way to becoming a strength!

Another insight from playing, along with interacting with the community: Our userbase seems to be a lot more recreational than I’d realized. I’d expected our policies and features to make recreational players have a better experience, but I definitely didn’t expect the disparity to be as large as it is.  (Take this with a grain of salt and ask around, as I’m incentivized to tell you the games are good.)

Communication 

Besides my playing experience, I’ve learned a lot recently by talking to users publicly (via Twitch chat and our Discord), and privately (reaching out to some users individually over the last month).

After talking to many of these users, I’ve learned that our policies, which were designed in large part to increase game quality, are working – but only half of the effect has been from our intended goals.  I’ve detailed our features and policies many times, so I won’t rehash those goals. Instead, I’ll talk about the unintended consequences that are helping our game quality but hurting our traffic.

I’ve read complaints from pros about the variance introduced by Splash The Pot.  While I think many of these are misguided, particularly the ones along the lines of…

“I don’t want to fight for my rakeback” or 
“What if I don’t win a Splashed pot all month? Then I get zero rakeback?!”

… STP does increase the variance (and slightly increase the average stakes) of our games.  This was intentional, as I previously discussed at length, and we didn’t expect every player to love it.

What’s not mentioned publicly, but, based on my personal conversations with those in the community, seems to be a huge blocker for many grinders making their way to Run It Once Poker, is the fact that STP introduces a number of game structures that players haven’t “solved for,” and there is a fear of that unknown – a fear that they won’t have an edge because they don’t know exactly what to do.

This was, as I laid out, one of the main reasons for STP.  We wanted to introduce elements that were less solved, both as a bot deterrent, and to create new and interesting challenges – opportunities for you to outwit your opponents.

What we didn’t account for was the understandable fear this created for a player-type which is very well-represented in today’s poker community.

Being In Touch with the Poker World

I came up in online poker during a different time.  Players from my generation had to explore strategy without clear answers.  It was mostly about adjusting, counter-adjusting, and so on. Those who’ve survived have, of course, adapted to the new poker landscape – one in which definitive answers do technically exist for every poker situation.

I’ve always felt in touch with the poker community, but it’s become clear to me now that the overwhelming majority of my friends in poker have been around for a decade or more.  I’m now realizing that the newer generation of professionals doesn’t have the same makeup – the same mix of wants, needs, and fears – as my generation does.

It’s more challenging to make a living in poker than it was 10 years ago.  Natural selection now weeds out many of the less disciplined players (like myself!), leaving a more structured and responsible group of winners.  

Many players have worked very hard to maintain a small winrate, which they work hard to remain confident in.

That’s what they actually care about and will make career decisions based on – that they can be more successful on Run It Once Poker than where they’re currently playing.

Moving their play from a site where they have a proven winrate over to one with an occasionally different game structure (STP), for which there is not a worked out “best strategy,” would leave them feeling entirely uncertain and unconfident about their edge.

Now, based on my experience (having not studied splashed pot strategy myself), people are playing them terribly – we are all just guessing.  This is a spot where, I believe, the naturally selected trait of being responsibly careful is causing many to miss out on a fantastic opportunity.  Splashed pots are not only deterring pros from playing, making games better, but they’re being played so far from optimally that there is room for hugely profitable exploitative adjustments.

If you’re already a winning player, this means you’re better at poker than the average player at the table. Even without solutions or practice, most of you will adjust to these poker situations better than the competition.  These splashed pots are “the glory days” that so many players say they wish they could return to, where nobody knew what they were doing and massive edges were attainable.

That said, it’s clear to me that I’m not thinking in the same way that many players are, and it’s clear to me that this anxiety exists and is preventing people from playing in our games.

I’ve been informed that this fear is exacerbated by the other elements which make Run It Once Poker different than the games you may be used to: Playing without a HUD, not knowing your opponents, not being able to short stack or table select, etc.

The fear of one’s small-but-currently-stable winrate evaporating is an entirely understandable one.  I’ve had a very successful poker career, and there have still been many times during it that I was uncertain whether I could beat this game or that game.  

In a recent conversation, someone quoted something I’d written long ago on this topic:  “The worst part of a downswing isn’t the money that you lost. It’s the fear that you won’t be able to win again.”

I’ve always been aware of the way doubts about one’s ability to win can severely impact their mental state, but I think it hasn’t been close enough to the forefront of my mind.  Perhaps it’s because of the time I came up in poker, or perhaps it’s because I’ve had an unusually fortunate poker career, but I haven’t been empathizing sufficiently regarding the fragility of many poker players’ careers and the resistance to change that comes along with that.

This is absolutely a failure on my part.  A circle of personal poker friends, a group of generally like-minded players that you follow on social media, and browsing poker forums where people won’t admit things like the above for fear of ridicule, doesn’t truly make one in touch with the players.

I plan to continue, and to ramp up my efforts, to reach out to players directly to learn more about them – their wants, their needs, their fears, and their stories.

Did We Make a Mistake?

So, what does this mean about the policies at Run It Once Poker?  Have our innovations been a failure?

The short answer is: I don’t know.

I believe they are certainly costing us short-term traffic, but I also believe they’re doing what they intended to do – making our games higher quality and leading to many recreational players enjoying their experience.

It’s not fun reading criticism about a product you’ve poured your heart into, but it comes with the territory of putting anything out into the world for others to see, use, or consume in any way.  For better or worse, the criticisms stick with you – you don’t forget them.

In this case, I think that remembering every critique gives me some healthy perspective.

If you were to scour the internet for the most negative opinions about Run It Once Poker since we launched (this is actually quite an easy research task – go to 2+2), you’ll read things like:

“lol if they just copied old Stars and had the lowest rake they’d be crushing. how does galfond not understand this?”

“lol galfond completely lied saying he was creating a site for the players – variance rakeback, anonymous games, no HUDs!! he doesn’t care about the pros at all”

However, if you were to go back much further (skip over the middle part, during our launch delays, where it’s mostly “lol galfond is an idiot for thinking he could do this. In b4 they never launch this site”), you’ll see a mix of positive and negative comments, like:

“lol galfonds gonna launch a site with all pros. good luck with that.  gonna be the most unbeatable games ever.”

Or

“I love the idea of someone like Phil being in charge of poker site so that ethical decisions can be made and they can make poker what it used to be before Amaya started slashing rakeback and ruining games.  I hope other people support them but I don’t know if I’ll play – the games are going to be too tough. I like Phil but I don’t know how he thinks a site filled with Run It Once members is going to attract other players.”

In fact, other than the occasional worry that my team and I wouldn’t be up to such a monumental task, the only criticism of our idea for Run It Once Poker was that the games would be way too tough – and this was something said by many, many people.

So, first, everyone expected our games to be far too tough.  Then, leading up to launch, I posted in-depth explanations for all of our decisions, policies, and features, detailing what we were hoping to accomplish, which, if you had to sum it up, was essentially to make our games user-friendly, fun, and high-quality.

Now that we’ve launched, there is criticism of those “dumb” policies, but nobody has been saying how tough our games are.  In fact, almost every single bit of feedback I hear from our players about the games is that they are very soft.

Keep in mind, this is true now, before we’ve truly ramped up marketing and player recruitment efforts.

So, while I’m still not tied to everything we’ve decided on, and the team and I will keep listening to feedback, reviewing data, and considering our options, it seems to me that our ideas have worked as intended – they solved the problem that most of the community felt was unsolvable for Run It Once Poker without a $200m marketing budget: they’ve made our games good.

Now, that’s not to say that we were right and the naysayers were wrong – far from it.

We’ve been in operation since February and we still aren’t close to having a profitable business – we burn quite a bit of money each and every month.  I’m not here to boast!

There’s a very real chance that this site simply doesn’t work, either because of our ideas, our timing, regulations, our David vs. Goliath(s)-esque place in the industry, or a number of other factors.

I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything with this post – I am just here to share my thoughts based on what I’ve been learning.  And those thoughts are, regarding our policies:  

I think our decisions are probably good for the long-term success of a poker site and the poker industry, and it’s clear that a lot of users (mostly recreational) love them.  That said, I think it may have been too risky for us to have launched with them off the bat. They’ve discouraged pros from playing on our site for reasons we didn’t predict, and as such, they’ve hurt our liquidity, probably by a whole lot.

Had we launched with “normal” games and policies, I expect we’d have had a lot more traffic up to this point, but I am also certain that we’d be getting a lot of criticism about our game quality (“lol told you so”), and that many players may have started leaving before we could remedy that.

The most disappointing thing for me is that the ultimate goal of our policies, which we took great care in creating, was to protect online poker as a profession, in order to help the very pros who (even if they “support us” in theory) don’t want to play on RIO because of them.

Public Sentiment and Our Marketing Message

This brings me to a new thought I’ve been having about Run It Once Poker and our messaging.

Since long before launch, we have leaned into being the poker site that is run by poker players, cares about poker players, and that has low rake and fair policies.

Since launch, we’ve gotten public support from a number of great people in the industry.  Especially after this recent streaming week of mine, which I suppose drew more attention to us. I’ve seen a lot of tweets or posts along the lines of, “Run It Once and Phil are trying to do great things. We should support them.”

Every time I read something like this, I’m so, so appreciative to those people for not only understanding what we’re trying to do, but being willing to speak about it without any personal incentive to do so.

As I’ve read it more and more, and thought about the pre and post-launch sentiment, and the critiques and expectations mentioned above, I’m wondering if this messaging is actually not helping the cause, or perhaps is even counter-productive.

What’s implied in messaging like that is, “support Run It Once and Phil because it’s the right thing to do.”

While the poker community has proven time and time again that they can be kind, charitable, and virtuous, I don’t think this is the approach they take to deciding where to try to earn their living.

Playing on Run It Once Poker to “do the right thing” might lead people to opening an account, possibly playing a table once or twice to feel they are doing something positive, but will it really cause them to move all of their play to a new site – or in other words – to make a substantial career decision?

Poker pros and aspiring pros need to play where they can be most successful. They can be charitable or kind off the table, but work is work. Earn is earn.

These splashed pots are “the glory days” that so many players say they wish they could return to, where nobody knew what they were doing and massive edges were attainable.

So what if, when people say things like “Play on RIO to be a good person,” people are hearing, “Do a good deed. Sacrifice your winrate to help RIO!”

I think we probably need to change that messaging (which starts internally), at least to this segment of our target market.  

Now that, for most users, the software is great and only getting better, games are high quality, and rake is low – that’s the message we should be delivering to pros and aspiring pros.  That’s what they actually care about and will make career decisions based on – that they can be more successful on Run It Once Poker than where they’re currently playing.

I’m obviously doing a bit of that now, with this post, and streaming more will probably help showcase those things, but I think we also need to work a little bit on our identity.  I fear that “being the good guys” can only get us so far.

Looking at the traffic of sites like (actually, I’ll refrain from naming names here), which have bad reputations and aren’t viewed as ethical, proves that most players are going to go where the games are good, whether or not they like the site operators.

Actually, if I’m being open and honest here, I think the fact that we are ethical and care about poker is probably a detriment to the company, but we are who we are and that’s not going to change.

What’s the point of this post?

I’m writing all of this because I’m curious to see how others in the community feel, both publicly and privately.

I feel that my recent month of private communication with players on the site and friends/players who haven’t played has been eye-opening.  As mentioned, I don’t think much of it is actionable just yet, but I very much want to keep having these discussions, to learn more about our players and our non-players, and to figure out how we can create a place that they’re excited to play.

If you’d be willing to chat with me about your thoughts, I’d love to get your perspective.  Here’s where you can sign up to do so:

Complete this survey, with some basic info about your background as a player (these are questions I’d ask anyway) and your preferred way to chat with me.

I’ll be contacting you one by one, based on how much time I have available, and chatting with as many of you as I can.  I have no idea how many sign-ups I’ll get and how quickly I can chat with each of you, so I don’t know how long I’ll keep you waiting or if I have a chance of getting to everyone.  

I will make an attempt to chat with a variety of player-types and to give each of you who I do chat with an appropriate amount of personal attention.  I won’t have anyone pretending to be me – if we chat, I promise it will be me on the other end of the conversation.

I’d also love to hear opinions publicly.  I’ll be doing my best to keep up with reading forum posts, Reddit, and Twitter.  I’ll be busy replying to people privately, but if you don’t see me responding, I’ll still almost surely be reading at some point.

Even some feedback about a post in this style, much less about announcing something and much more about my personal thoughts and feelings while on this Run It Once journey, would be much appreciated and will help me shape my future updates.

Thanks for taking the time to read, and for those supporting us in any way – thank you so much!  I promise you’re supporting a team of hardworking, amazing people who care very much about online poker and its future.