Editorial: PokerStars Drops the Ball

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For years, PokerStars has been the gold standard in online poker. It is a poker room that knows poker; management didn’t just throw together some software, slap a download link on a website, and take it easy. The folks over there understand how the game works and how players think and, in turn, have provided the best product and best customer service in the industry for quite some time. Everything they have earned has been well deserved.

That does not mean, however, that PokerStars can do no wrong. Case in point: the ZOOM poker challenge at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA). It was a cute idea, to be sure, but it was implemented in such a way that one has to wonder if anyone put more than two minutes of thought into how the whole thing should work.

Here’s what the challenge looked like in a nutshell: players were invited to plunk down $1,025 to test their skills at the $100/$200 ZOOM poker play money tables on PokerStars. Each player got 12 minutes to try to build a starting stack of 20,000 chips as high as possible. If one’s stack fell below 20,000, it would be automatically topped off. There was a $50,000 guaranteed prize pool and at the end of the challenge and the top stacks would get paid just as if it was a regular poker tournament. The promotion ran for several days and people could participate whenever they chose and as many times as they chose; PokerStars kept a leader board posted so players could keep track of the scores to beat.

Last week, poster “Freefalling” told the story of his experience with the ZOOM poker challenge on the Two Plus Two forums. Aside from the posted leader board making it highly advantageous to play on the final day (so that a player knew what number must be beat), he was shocked to see that PokerStars coordinators began to allow multiple participants play at the same time on the final day, when aside from one exception, everybody had been playing by themselves earlier.

As Freefalling told it, the preferred strategy in the challenge was to go all-in as much as possible, since there were only 12 minutes in which to build a stack and stacks were regenerated should someone go bust. But as the tables were very tight, it was difficult to find willing callers on all-in bets. Should more than one participant in the challenge find themselves at a table together, though, they would have the natural advantage of finding an all-in partner (or partners), increasing the chances at a big double-up, triple-up, or even better. And since there were, to the poster’s estimation, only around 150 players at the $100/$200 tables, the odds of finding another challenge player at one’s table at some point were pretty good.

According to Freefalling, when the unfair advantage created by allowing multiple participants to play at once (in this case, five players) was brought up, a PokerStars coordinator “shrugged it off,” saying that if people wanted to do that on earlier days, they could have. Freefalling said that was never offered as an option, hence why people went individually. Another player said that a coordinator told him that there was a maximum of one player allowed at a time.

Another participant chimed in later in the Two Plus Two thread, saying that the seven players who cashed all played on the final day and all had much higher scores than those who played earlier (interestingly, the winner, David Williams, reportedly was the only one to play during his turn or played with just one other participant).

Normally, what PokerStars touches turns to gold, but that was not the case here. With this promotion, what Stars touched turned to crap. Where did PokerStars go wrong? Planning.

In fairness, I am guessing that the intent was just to host a fun contest and it did sound like something that would’ve been cool had it not seemed like it was just thrown together at the last second. But as it turned out, the whole thing came off as adlibbed and barely thought out. As poker people, the PokerStars organizers should know that poker players, more than most game players, look for angles whenever possible. Somehow, though, they didn’t think of the most obvious angle: the advantage of playing with multiple challenge participants.

But perhaps they did, as evidenced by reports of one coordinator saying only one player at a time would be allowed. But then, at the very least, the rules were not communicated properly down the line; all staff members were not on the same page. Anyone who has developed and run promotions/contests before knows that every loophole must be closed and every person involved in running the show must be aware of every rule and must not be allowed to make judgment calls without consulting the person in charge. Obviously, nobody should have been allowed to play at the same time as someone else and no staff members should have been allowed to make exceptions for anyone.

These problems also could have largely been avoided by making two changes before the challenge started: don’t post the leader board and don’t auto-top off the stacks. The former change wouldn’t make a gigantic difference when it comes to the major problem at hand, but it would eliminate the disadvantage of playing early in the promotion period. The latter adjustment would have greatly reduced the advantage of playing at the same time as other challenge participants, as moving all-in would have come with substantial risk. You get called and lose, you’re done.

Lee Jones, PokerStars’ Head of Home Games and one of the best “poker people” around, did talk to Mike “timex” McDonald and Andrew Chen about the problem and has taken the issue back to the PokerStars powers-that-be. He did not guarantee some sort of solution or restitution to anyone, but hopefully he will report back with an answer that will please the poker community.

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