A New Poker Contender

About six months ago I was contacted by a former colleague asking if I was available for a project. At that point I had no intention of ever being involved in gambling again, but as I liked and respected the guy, I thought I’d hear him out.

He needed somebody to develop a loyalty program for a well-funded poker start-up keen on recreating the glory days of the industry. I have some deep misgivings about gambling VIP programs, but I like an interesting challenge, so I said I’d take a swing at it.

I didn’t want to produce anything that encouraged an unhealthy volume of play or that rewarded excessive depositing – the two things that traditionally constitute a gambling VIP. Conditioning people to play or spend too much is the biggest sin of irresponsible operators.

Nor did I want to use the cheapskate trickery of gamification. It’s perfectly possible to hijack psychological reward systems whilst offering little in the way of tangible rewards. It might be cost effective but it’s a cynical way to treat customers.

For example, simply displaying a player’s “streak” (the number of consecutive days of activity) can be hugely motivating even if it isn’t tied to a reward. People like to see their numbers going up and, once they’ve achieved a meaningful number, can be manically committed to maintaining it.

I found this the last time I did a weight loss bet. I went to the gym every day for over a month and lost about 7kg in the process. In a classic case of tail-wagging-the-dog, the amount of the wager became secondary to maintaining my streak. The world’s biggest language learning app DuoLingo use this to excellent effect and have written about it on the company blog. It works on me there too – I’ve not missed a day of Spanish in over 50 days.

But that’s fine. Losing weight and learning a language are admirable activities. Using those same data-driven tricks to perpetuate a potentially addictive vice is not something I want any part of.  

So instead I designed a simple program to reward and retain regular customers, with a cap in place to discourage any excessive behaviour. It was a creative solution that sought to reward grinders and recreational players equally for their contribution to the economy. Grinders provide crucial liquidity and recreational players put in the fresh money. A poker site needs both.

Understandably perhaps, nothing came of the concept. I think the company wanted something tried and tested that they recognised from the glory days. Almost certainly a program resembling PokerStars generous old volume-based system. I gave them something new and scary which didn’t fit their vision.

The experience wasn’t a waste of time though. The time I spent reconciling my thoughts on gambling, and trying to solve my ethical dilemma, is what led me to starting this blog. I realised how much I really enjoy the challenge of delivering gambling as a source of entertainment whilst minimising the risk.

After the silence, I fully expected that company to disappear without a trace. For as long as I’ve had any connection with online poker, there is always a well-meaning nostalgic millionaire who wants to produce a poker site by poker players for poker players. Even with money and celebrity backing, they have almost all failed.

Nowadays the challenge is that much harder. The industry is mature, so the survivors are rich and the barriers to entry are high. You’d have to be a genius to acquire players quickly and cheaply enough to have a viable product. And your software must be good enough that your customers don’t just instantly leave. People nowadays are much less tolerant of a poor user experience

So far, the new challengers at Uptick Entertainment have stuck around. They got back on my radar because they’ve been hiring some of my favourite former colleagues. Their payroll now boasts some of the most dependable and productive folks in the industry, covering all the most important areas.

If they give these industry veterans the time and support they need to deliver, then the customers will get great service, the games and promotions will be good, the payment options will be convenient and comprehensive, and the communications will be clear. That is an excellent foundation.

It’s very early days, but on grounds of personnel alone, I’d like to see them succeed. I don’t mind missing out on the ride, but just in case any of them are reading, here’s some unsolicited advice:

Make it social. The rise of modern-day co-operative gaming has shown that people want a sociable experience. Give players a chance to see who they are playing against and encourage them to interact with each other. Poker is a game of people and the nuances between them.

While there needs to be some level of anonymity to protect customer privacy, offering a faceless product would be to ignore one of the main strengths of the game. It is one of the few forms of truly peer-to-peer gambling.

If people know they will see friends online, they are that much more likely to play. Importantly, they are also more likely to invite their friends in the first place. The cheapest way to acquire new players in a cutthroat business is through word of mouth, so do everything possible to facilitate it.

Avoid quick hit poker. If you want to do poker properly, don’t fall into the trap of offering fast-fold, all-in or fold, or jackpot Sit & Go’s. I’m biased from a responsible gambling perspective because they are the most harmful formats. But those games are also a rubbish poker experience.

If a game takes less than 20 minutes to play, then you aren’t getting the best out of what the game offers. You should have time to observe how your opponents are playing and adjust accordingly. That is the complex puzzle that makes poker interesting even after hundreds of thousands of hands.

Besides, everyone else already offers those formats and have had years to refine it. The fight you are picking will not be won by plagiarism. Find a new way to offer the game and you’ll have a chance to grow a shrinking market. There is still so much to do in poker that hasn’t been done, so disrupt.

Focus on your niche. Finally, if you want to be great at poker, then only do poker. The temptation will always be there to expand into other easier more profitable games. Do that, and you’ll be just like every other gambling company taking the easy win for easy profit.

Clearly you believe that the poker industry is still big enough, and sufficiently profitable, to take on this huge challenge. Maintain that conviction and you may well come out on top. Good luck Uptick Entertainment Inc, you’re in for a fun journey.

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