I’ve never really understood the thought process behind turning a social poker site or app into a moneymaker. Not that there aren’t ways to monetize just about anything to some degree these days – I just don’t see how selling people fake chips for their fake bankrolls like Zynga, or offering access to a basic poker school, or anything else is any kind of substitute for taking rake. I also don’t get the appeal of playing poker for anything other than real money. On both sides, for operator and player, it isn’t poker without money.
The essential connection between money and poker is something that’s been known as long as the game has been around. James McManus talks about the necessity of money to poker a few times in his history Cowboys Full: The Story Of Poker. In the eighth chapter, he discusses the 19th-century Mississippi River card sharps who flocked from other card games to poker as they saw massive opportunities to make a profit through subterfuge, for a very simple reason. Trick-taking games like whist appealed more to those by those looking for friendly contests of skill. But “not playing for cash simply didn’t make sense,” McManus says. “Money was this game’s very language.”
An earlier source that McManus quotes in the book has probably the best line on the inability to separate poker from the exchange of money. Math professor Henry T. Winterblossom’s 1875 primer, The Game Of Draw Poker, says that “one might as well go on a gunning expedition with blank cartridges, as to play poker for ‘fun.’” Playing poker with nothing on the line, whether it’s on a social network or for play money on a site that offers real-money games, is like being armed with a stockpile of blank cartridges in the face of an advancing army of zombies. You can’t kill them, and they’re going to eat you, and the only question is how long it’s going to take.
The idea that one can replace money in poker, leave the social interactions, and still call the game poker, is preposterous. So far as venues for social interactions in the modern world go, online play-money poker rooms rank somewhere around “needle exchange” and “well-appointed public restroom.” Turning someone into a legit poker player after starting them on play money seems like the kind of thing that could happen every now and then, in the same way that sometimes people get hit by lightning. But often enough for a site to turn a consistent profit by creating these real-money players?
Without real social interaction, playing online poker for fake money is just a video game with a meaningless score – and a repetitive one at that. The prospect of winning money makes the repetitive nature of a real poker game fall away, giving every hand its own reason for existing. Anyone who is willing to spend hours racking up meaningless scores is for more likely to be diverted by the next Flappy Bird or Candy Crush than to become a cash game regular somewhere down the road.
I started playing poker online in the early boom days and never bothered to play for fake chips. The sole thing that attracted me to the game was seeing a commercial online telling me that I could play for real money. I didn’t know anything about playing poker other than faint memories of a handful of draw games with friends when I was a kid. The inexperience showed and I lost at first, but I put some effort into learning how to play and stopped the bleeding relatively quickly. And eventually I was able to show a profit, achieving the very thing that had drawn me to the game in the first place.
I’ve actually dabbled a bit in play-money poker lately because I’m a bit starved for the game at the moment. On the handful of nights that I’ve been able to make it to my local small-town poker room lately, there haven’t been enough players to make a game. In doing so I’ve encountered perhaps the only play-money products I can see perhaps enticing somebody to become a real-money player down the line. I don’t think it’s any mistake that they’re some of online poker’s newer, more mobile-friendly offerings that actually strip poker of much of its downtime and, in the process, mute a lot of the more traditionally social aspects of the game.
Fast-fold poker is one of the routes I could see someone converting to real money through. It has you in the action so often that you don’t really have time to chat to anybody – and players who aren’t in the hand with you have already been shuffled off randomly to some other table for a new hand of poker while you’re still deciding what to with your pocket queens. It streamlines the game so you spend less time reacting to your fellow players and more making decisions – and in the process it makes it easier to get to the heart of what the game of poker is all about. Anyone who finds playing fast-fold poker for play money enjoyable just might be the kind of player who would think about playing for cash.
The other route is jackpot sit-and-go tournaments. Like fast-fold games, they streamline the game of most of its social interaction, but mostly because they’re played as three-handed contests. Most of the streamlining in jackpot SNGs takes place in the decision-making process, since they’re played with a super-turbo blind structure and short chip stacks. There’s a lot more gamble in them than there is in cash games or classic online staples like the standard sit-and-go, and winning a jackpot prize pool – even in play money chips – is a strong psychological hook. Someone who enjoys jackpot SNGs for play money and finds they run well might be tempted to play for cash.
Both fast-fold games and jackpot SNGs strip out the very things that social poker is most often supposed to be based around, which makes them a huge improvement on the old social formula of “offer everything real online poker does, but without the chance to win anything of value.” But even these newer forms are good for just a few moments’ entertainment when there’s no cash on the line. Casual players will move on to other diversions and never be of real value to any operator. And real-money players, whether budding or veteran, will get bored and move on quickly – because without money, it isn’t poker.