PokerStars react to Bryn Kenney & Jason Wheeler’s post-Panama criticism

PokerStars React to Bryn Kenney & Jason Wheeler's post-Panama criticism

PokerStars respond to criticism levelled at the company by Bryn Kenney and Jason Wheeler after a less than satisfactory Panamanian experience for the pair at the recent PokerStars Championships.

I had a dream.

I was a school teacher, and my pupils were 888Poker, Unibet, partypoker, and PokerStars. I was standing in front of a huge blackboard; the type that you see in movies full of complicated equations. And this one contained the most important equation of all – how to attract loyal customers.

But it was incomplete.

PokerStars React to Bryn Kenney & Jason Wheeler's post-Panama criticism Next to the blackboard was a poster of Patrik Antonius in a pair of white Calvin Kleins and a Star Chart. Most of the online poker rooms had four or five Gold Stars, but PokerStars didn’t have a single one.

PokerStars was sitting in a corner crying, not in misery, but in anger and frustration. They believed they were doing the right things. They were experimenting and trying to do their best to provide value to their customers, but they were still starless.

But where do these stars come from?

It’s one of the most complicated questions in poker, and one that I didn’t find an answer to in my dream. Most businesses create easy to win stars such as EBITDA, Operating Expenditure, or the number of new signups.

Those figures don’t lie.

But none of them tells the true story of customer value.

The High Rollers

I think one of the most interesting questions in online poker is Who is the Customer?

It’s important because this is the starting point of the value proposition. It’s at this rock face that you go to, get down on your knees, and listen to those grinding.

But in the online poker industry, those doing most of the talking are in the minority. The professional players are not the biggest force in the industry, the recreational players are, but the latter are mute, and the former have a megaphone.

Over the years the European Poker Tour (EPT) evolved to be one of the greatest tours in the world. One of the things I liked about it, working amidst it, and viewing it from afar, was the way they created a select number of games that attracted the very best players in the world – The High Rollers.

The focus on these events and the people who competed in them drove the media frenzy. When you watched a video or read an article relating to one of these events you weren’t reading about Dusty Bowen the cleaner who won an online satellite, or Byron Biggins, the baker who won a live satellite.  All the emphasis was on the big guns.

When the PokerStars Championships flew out of the chrysalis from whence the EPT juiced out, the High Rollers followed.

But for how long?

There were some serious voices of discontent emanating from the recent PokerStars Championships in Panama led by the Global Poker Index (GPI) Player of the Year (POY) leader Bryn Kenney.

If you know Bryn, you will be aware that he is more likely to take up the violin than post something on social media, but this week he took the time to write a well thought out post on his Facebook Wall criticising the hand that is currently feeding him.

“So of course nobody is happy with anything PokerStars is doing,” wrote Kenney. “If you guys wanna fix everything and save your business then give me a call. But I understand you would rather watch it burn than listen.”

Are they listening?

Do they care?

We obviously see and hear the recent criticism of the company – especially around our live events –  and we welcome the feedback and will always take on board good ideas and valid critique.” Said Eric Hollreiser, VP of Corporate Communications for Amaya and PokerStar in an email to yours truly.

“We understand the criticism: it’s not totally wrong, and it’s not totally fair. The poker economy was damaged and had created a negative financial environment for the company, particularly in 2015 and 2016. We had to put our financial house in order and restructure the company to meet the growth expectations of the business and our shareholders.

“We committed to poker – full stop. Clearly, there were a number of unique issues that Amaya management faced in 2015 and 2016, but we have always been committed to poker. Today, Amaya management is very different than it was in 2015.  Every year we invest more in poker than any other company on the planet.  Even in the U.S. – where we have obviously had our issues – we are at the forefront of investing to open that market.”

So they do care, or at least Eric does, so where is the disconnect? Why isn’t Bryn Kenney willing to give them a gold star?

Not only do they cut all costs now and give nothing to the players but they don’t even honour their agreements,” wrote Kenney. “They have said that in the 10k+ tournaments it will pay only 15% of the field and in a small 10k today {Panama} they show a payout sheet that pays on average 20% of the field. I think they think everyone is stupid but what they don’t understand with their high rake and terrible service – soon they won’t have an event at all outside of Barcelona. Sad days for poker tournaments.”

The payout structure was an argument that broke out during the final season of the EPT. PokerStars looked at their player data and made the changes, the players holding the megaphone didn’t agree, and concessions were made.

Were these broken as Kenney stipulates?

We have agreed to keep the payout structure for 10K+ events which we had for several years, and we didn’t get complaints about that payout structure – we did ask the High Roller players (in a survey on site) what payout structure they wanted, and the outcome was the one we used.” Said Hollreiser

“The structure has a ceiling of 15% from 48 players onwards but pays out slightly higher percentage on small field tournaments. We believe the high roller community is aware of this, as it was implemented recently in Prague and Malta. If we need to communicate this more frequently, we will.  And we’ll continue to take feedback and adjust accordingly.”

The other point that Kenney says needs addressing is a decrease in payout reliability.

“All of the things that people loved about PokerStars has disappeared even their reliability for keeping huge amounts on Stars as they have had some bad cashout stories like Fulltilt has had.”

It wasn’t the first time that I had heard stories complaining about cashout issues on Stars, so I pointed the question at Hollreiser and pulled the trigger.

In terms of any cash-out complaints, there will – unfortunately – be individual issues that affect cashouts from time-to-time, and we do our best to minimise these. There is no systemic issue.”

And it’s not only the High Rollers who have something to say.

The Jason Wheeler Piece

I first met Jason Wheeler in Prague, and I don’t think I have met anyone who loves the game as much as he does. Over time I saw him at every single stop, and he was a regular on the EPT and now the PokerStars Championships.

But for how long?

Wheeler wrote an even longer, deeper and well thought out piece on his Facebook Page with the Panama experience being the one that made him spit out his reefer.

He began by saying:

“Online is not being used as a driver of Live anymore.”

He pointed to a philosophy change within the company moving away from using heavy investment in online satellites to one of a more organic growth proposition that doesn’t seem to be working.

Put simply, why aren’t there more packages available online making this avenue to life changing money more attractive for the recreational players?

“We are constantly reviewing the ways we give players opportunities to win seats online for our live events,” Wrote Hollreiser. “We will be looking at providing more ways for players to earn seats online and make the satellite packages more attractive.

“In fact we’ve already started this by giving away 20 packages in a recent satellite to PokerStars Championship Monte Carlo, and this will be followed by an upcoming 25 packages guaranteed satellite to the Main Event and 10 guaranteed for the €1 million guaranteed National Championship (‪on April 2), with ongoing €10 Spin & Go satellites giving away Main Event packages worth €8,500.

“There are currently also satellite tickets available on our Tues, Wed and Thurs MTT majors, plus ‪on April 25 at the Championship; we’ll hold a 30 seat Mega Qualifier for the Main Event and a 50 seat guaranteed satellite for the National Championship.”

Wheeler seems to think that this is more of a reaction to declining numbers with the event around the corner than a positive response to player feedback.

It’s not a secret that the Brazilians love their poker. The live events held in that part of the world are some of the largest, especially the Brazilian Series of Poker (BSOP). So why did only 5% of the field at Panama come from that region?

Wheeler believes PokerStars are not securing their events far enough into the future and doing enough groundwork with the local forces to grow numbers for these events.

“It seems like Stars has been scrambling more lately and playing catch up, therefore, can’t develop a cohesive strategy where they use smaller festivals to drive bigger traffic to the bigger championships.” Wrote Wheeler.

Hollreiser points to BSOP as one of the possible reasons for a low turnout of Brazilians.

Panama was announced in August, giving interested players some six months to plan. We had nearly 1,100 unique players – roughly 60% of that was from LATAM and 40% Rest of World. The Main Event had 30% LATAM players including 5% from Brazil. While we would love to have had more Brazilians, we are competing with an excellent BSOP event running just after in São Paulo.” Wrote Hollreiser.

Both Wheeler and Kenney had another constant in their observations, and that was high praise for the quality of the staff working at the rock face of these competitions. But Wheeler believes there is a vital piece of that employment jigsaw missing.

PokerStars React to Bryn Kenney & Jason Wheeler's post-Panama criticismThere is no one in a position at Pokerstars that bridges the gap between the live and the online world. there should be a coordinated meeting between live, online, promotions, and marketing and they should work as a team to support these events.”

Hollreiser believes Wheeler has a point.

“We also agree {with Jason Wheeler} that collaboration is super-important in our company, but we’re not perfect and can always do better. We’ll strive to create an even greater bridge between the two while balancing the management realities of having different business groups, which is the appropriate way to manage the businesses.” Wrote Hollreiser.

“We will continue to work hard on our events and listen to players and evolve. I think that it should be not forgotten that events in some regions are harder to organise than in others. We will certainly continue to deliver high quality, and also numbers, in our already established events, while building on those new to the Tour.”

Wheeler also wants to see more consistent and frequent Spin & Go promotions, and not only promotions when an event comes into focus. This was another area that Hollreiser agrees needs further examination.

We agree with Jason Wheeler’s recent observations about online promotions and are planning to run more Spin & Go promotions.” Wrote Hollreiser. “We always need to balance the heavy online promotion calendar with the desire to support satellites for live events. We wish it were a bottomless glass of promotions, but our experience tells us that we have to strike a balance. Perhaps we’ve been off-balanced lately, but we expect to add more satellite promotions later in the year.”

Both Wheeler and Kenney pointed to the obviousness of the cost cutting exercises that are being felt at the rock face. Hollreiser didn’t hide from the accusations that operating expenditure had been thrust to the fore.

“We’ve made a number of tough decisions, and there’s still more to make, particularly in the online poker ecosystem. We urgently needed to cut back expenses in areas, including in Live Events. We may have cut too much in that area, and we are correcting that, but it won’t happen overnight.” Wrote Hollreiser.

More Gold Stars?

What I liked about Wheeler’s views was the way they he tailored them towards improving the ecosystem for the recreational players. It is this vast majority who don’t have a voice, and so it was nice for Wheeler to step up to the plate.

But why does it have to happen like this?

Why are PokerStars launching an event and then reacting to intense feedback on social media to improve the next one? I know that’s a natural organic way of developing your business, but surely there’s a need to get ahead of some of the trash, and have a conduit to the likes of Wheeler and Kenney so they can work on eliminating a lot of these complaints ahead of time?

I remember during my time working with the rail trade unions. They are amongst the most difficult to understand and bargain with in the world. What did we do? We hired a number of former Traincrew union members to work alongside us during negotiations. Perhaps, PokerStars should consider the same thing before it’s too late.

It’s not just Wheeler and Kenney complaining about PokerStars. I have been critical of players who complain and continue to play online at Stars and Live events, but I honestly feel the momentum is getting to a critical point.

Reading through the Facebook responses on Wheeler and Kenney’s pages, so many professionals, including a number of High Rollers, are obviously desperate for one of PokerStars competing companies to offer them the value they desperately crave.

But I don’t think it’s coming.

I think the other organisations will be too keen to continue to grow their recreational focus at a grassroots level than to change tact and suddenly create a burgeoning High Roller scene. I believe PokerStars will deliver the value to this tier of players quicker than someone else will step in and grab another gold star.

And what about Macau?

Players seem to be driving an unofficial movement to head to Florida instead of Asia. Hollreiser believes the Macau event will be a great tour stop.

“We’re confident that Macau will be a great tour stop and that in particularly the high roller events will be among the strongest we’ve ever done.” Wrote Hollreiser.

Are Hollreiser’s views on behalf of PokerStars worthy of a gold star?

The problem with these star chart metrics is they don’t recognise effort, innovation, and the difference companies have made over an extended period of time.

The marketing and branding genius Bernadette Jiwa once wrote:

The people with the most gold stars don’t always win. And sometimes they lose. Because they are so busy reaching for stars to stick, they forget to look up at the brightest ones, too numerous and too far off in the galaxy to count.”

And I don’t think those brightest stars are the High Rollers and professional grinders. They are the millions of people who play poker for fun on a daily basis, and I believe this is the biggest problem that all the online poker rooms in my classroom have to face, and why they can’t finish that equation that sits on my blackboard like an eyesore.