Talking about the glorious game with PokerStars’ Lee Jones

Talking about the Glorious Game with PokerStars' Lee Jones

Lee Davy sits down with PokerStars’ Head of Poker Communications, Lee Jones, to talk about his role at the company, the difficulty of balancing the needs of such a vastly different customer base, and more.

Lee Jones is the Head of Poker Communications for PokerStars. I imagine the past few years have been…challenging. Jones first joined the largest online poker room in 2003. It was love at first sight.

Talking about the Glorious Game with PokerStars' Lee Jones“I’ve never lost my love for PokerStars or poker. It’s a cool gig.” Jones tells me across a boardroom table resplendent with chilled water that tastes funny. 

Jones’s role is to reach PokerStars’ customers, potential customers, and the public at large to evangelise poker as entertainment that is fun, interesting, and challenging.

“I count myself one of the greatest fans of the game,” says Jones. “For some people, poker is a means to an end, often a financial end. For me, it’s a glorious game.”

The way PokerStars treats customers has come under intense scrutiny in the past 18 months. There is no theatre vast enough to hold the strange amalgam of people who love this game. The one that PokerStars has curated over decades of graft is the closest thing we have. You have only to sit at a poker table to see how different the customers are. So, how do you define the ‘perfect’ poker customer, and how do you attract them to your stage? 

“I don’t think that there is a perfect poker customer,” says Jones. “People come to poker for different reasons. But I find that the people that end up enjoying the game the most are the ones who begin to understand and seek the nuance in the game. When people first get involved, they are excited about the All-In moments. It seems like it’s a matter of minutes between the first time they play poker and the first bad beat story. If you can’t get beyond that, you’re probably not going to stick around poker for long.  

“Poker is like an onion. As you peel back layers you see the complexity of the game, and begin to recognise how metaphorical poker is; you understand the real-world parallels. That’s when it can take hold on you. The best customers are the ones who arrive with curiosity and want to understand what this is all about.” 

The marketing genius, Seth Godin, talks about the need for brands to find a corner in a specific marketplace, so your voice isn’t quelled by the authority. But when it comes to poker, PokerStars is the authority, right? 

“We don’t use this tagline anymore,” said Jones, “but for the longest time we said, ‘We Are Poker’. Whatever form poker takes, we are that. If you want to play online poker, we’re the place to play. If you want to play live poker, we are the ones with the most live events. If you want to learn how to play poker better, come to us.” 

With this ‘authority’ comes ‘responsibility’. PokerStars is the brand that serves to sing the pleasures and pains of the poker community. They are that big. But how do they do that when their customer base is so diverse?

It’s undeniable that the professional poker players who call PokerStars home are responsible for the nauseating mustiness that surrounded the brand’s post Supernova changes. But they are such a small group that exists within a much larger group of people who are blissfully unaware of any change PokerStars makes. 

“Professional poker players are the loudest voice in social media, but that doesn’t mean they are the loudest voice within PokerStars,” Said Jones. “We serve the pro players, but we are a workplace for them. They are playing to make a living, so they have a unique relationship with us. But the vast majority of customers see us as a place of entertainment. We are acutely aware that we’re serving two completely different customer bases, one of which is significantly larger than the other. 

The professional players are important to us especially because they are role models for many poker players. But for a while, their influence on the company’s policies, behaviours, and promotions was outsized relative to their proportion of the customer base. We had to correct that, and of course, that upset them. If I were in that population, it would have upset me too.” 

I travelled to the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA), to learn more about the $25,000 Player’s No-Limit Hold’em Championship. And I did. However, the experience I craved, which didn’t materialise, was an understanding of what the event meant to the dreamers.

The PCA is a $10k buy-in event. It’s not an event laden with fish trying their luck, but I did find an amateur who loves competing in PokerStars Live games. When I spoke to him about the $25k event, he had only recently discovered the news, and it didn’t come from a PokerStars ad.

During my discussion with him, it was apparent the PokerStars changes that had incurred the wrath of so many in the past 18-months, meant nothing to him. He wasn’t even aware of any significant changes. As a customer myself, I don’t remember any communication with PokerStars either. Why? 

“The fact is these changes that were so huge in the social media sphere didn’t touch 99% of our players,” confirms Jones. “It did not affect them. There was nothing to be aware of or excited by one way or another. His day-to-day experience with PokerStars wouldn’t have changed. Unless you tuned into social media how would you have known anything was changing?”

When PokerStars switched from a private to public company, the cost-cutting was swift and brutal for the pros. The communication that arose amidst the broken teeth and rattling mice was poor. I couldn’t help but feel that a new way of thinking had infiltrated the company at a high level, and the message was at odds with how the loyal company employees felt about running an online poker room.

It’s a hypothesis I put to Jones. 

“I wouldn’t say that, no,” says Jones adamantly. “Sure, we had some seismic changes – going from private to public, a change in management, and the growth of our casino and sportsbook businesses – you can read about it all on the Internet. But what didn’t change was the underlying commitment of the people in the company, from the execs on down to our customers and the game of poker.

The emphasis of the conversation turns to mistakes. A company, the size of PokerStars, doesn’t drop brands like the PCA and European Poker Tour (EPT) only to realise they made a mistake. It shows an extreme amount of humility to reverse those changes. But a company on point doesn’t make those mistakes. It showed that PokerStars doesn’t know what their customers want, and that is incongruent to the way the company functioned for well over a decade.  

Jones doesn’t have a problem with mistakes. “Given the speed and magnitude of changes that we had, a couple of false starts and miscues were to be expected. The measure of a company and its people is what you do when you’ve made a mistake. We went back and corrected our mistake, which is the very best you can do.” 

The reversal was a surprise, but it showed that the voice of the High Rollers was essential to the PokerStars Live product. Was PokerStars afraid the gang would boycott PokerStars Live events if they didn’t eat humble pie? There is agreement that the masses are unaware when PokerStars makes a major change. So why would a recreational player care that the EPT brand is now the PokerStars Championship? 

“We hear from many people beyond the high rollers,” says Jones. “We do surveys at every tour stop. We have third-party companies surveying for us. We have dozens of employees at every major tour stop talking to players at the tables, the registration desk, and the breakfast buffet. We get that kind of feedback. For whatever reason, many people attach importance to brands such as the EPT; they saw that as integral to the experience. So we responded to that.” 

PokerStars has made numerous changes in the past 18 months. Big changes. But the one I believe is the most important is the decision to use Discord to communicate with their customers.

Moving away from social media and forums like 2+2 and creating a home for PokerStars players, there now exists an immediate connection with a member of the team. If you want to learn more about your customers, and PokerStars clearly does, then the PokerStars Discord server is one of the most critical changes they have made in recent times. 

“I had been looking for a way for the last couple of years to make direct contact with our players,” says Jones. “I was aware of Discord because of my involvement with Twitch, so we set up a Discord server for PokerStars. It is an incredible opportunity for the players at PokerStars to have direct and immediate 24-hour interaction with us. We aren’t doing customer support there because it’s not the right medium. But people realise that they are talking to a human being that works for PokerStars rather than a faceless entity. It’s a personal, immediate reaction. Discord is going to become a bigger piece of how we interact with our players.” 

I believe online poker rooms are great at understanding the demographics of their customers. Surveys accomplish this, and it’s essential if you want to create a product that your customer values. But psychographics is even more critical. How do our customers feel? What causes them pain and grief?

Lex Veldhuis has 7,000 concurrent daily viewers on Twitch. The PokerStars Team Pro is interacting with them in a way no poker room has ever done before. He knows how his tribe feels. He knows what causes them pain and grief.

How vital is Twitch totalking-glorious-game-pokerstars-lee-jones PokerStars? 

Absolutely crucial,” says Jones. “The two words that I immediately associate with Twitch poker are ‘fun’ and ‘community’; poker needs more of both.

Furthermore, PokerStars’ Twitch streamers provide another place where PokerStars and its customers can come together. 

“If you think Lex or Jason Somerville is cool and they say they play at PokerStars – where else would you play?” Posits Jones. “We have to create multiple touchpoints. In Discord, we make a direct contact with players. Via Lex and Jason, we make an indirect relationship, but either one is fine.” 

Discord works.

Twitch works.

I’m a PokerStars customer, and I don’t use either of these forums for communication. If I didn’t do this for a living, I doubt I would have even heard of them.

Email becomes my only contact with PokerStars, and I don’t think they’re doing a decent enough job of making me feel loved, or keeping me abreast of changes.


“This is why Twitch and Discord is the future,” says Jones. “You should have seen it last night after they finished the tournament broadcast {PCA}. Chris Moneymaker was in the Twitch Booth streaming, and we threw the tournament stream into Moneymaker’s Twitch stream, and people were eating it up. Discord does the same thing. You get a personal interaction with a PokerStars representative, and you’re being communicated to, not by an email but by someone trading jokes with you and commiserating with your bad beat directly at the moment. 

“At first we thought it was amazing that we could send emails to each other. But emails have a delay. We’ve moved past that. I don’t think we’re in a post-email world, but certainly, within the realm of business-customer communication we’re in a post-email world, meaning we have to go beyond email; Twitch and Discord are the perfect platforms to have an immediate interaction.” 

While I agree that Twitch and Discord are the future (and something better that’s yet to be invented), right now, if PokerStars does care about the largest population of their audience they should know that sound communication via email is still critical.

“A lot of people I know are very happy PokerStars customers but have no interaction with us,” says Jones. “Most of us are too busy to have any communication with every goods and service supplier that we use, except when something goes wrong. We love hearing from happy customers, but it’s vital that we hear from, and respond to, unhappy customers. Email continues to be a crucial medium for that interaction. Email is the backbone of our customer support, and we take it very seriously.” 

I wonder how long before PokerStars uses the same technology as Amazon, making our experience almost perfect. When email has sex with AI, the baby is an experience that feels uncannily natural.  

“We are doing more to recognise our customers individually,” says Jones. “The Rewards Chests and similar promotions are based on your playing habits. If you’re a casino player, you may be offered a casino bonus. If you’re not a casino player you won’t get that bonus offer.

 We’ve learned a lot about treating customers individually, but there’s still more to learn. When you log into PokerStars, we want you to feel recognised.” 

We end our tete-a-tete talking about the $25,000 Player’s No-Limit Hold’em Championship.  In many ways, it’s an olive branch. A strong one. It’s not going to snap. It will be one of the best tournaments of the year, and beyond.

But I believe PokerStars has to make sure the highest number of the 300 who receive Platinum Passes come from this vast pool of recreational players who have been blissfully unaware of these changes.

I ask Jones what he can do to ensure more dreamers open their chocolate bars and see the twinkling of Platinum?

I am part of a large discussion right now that is focused on spreading the Platinum Pass joy as far and wide as possible. We want the people receiving those 300 passes to reflect the overall PokerStars community, which is, as we’ve just discussed, massively weighted toward occasional and recreational players.

“Of the 300 seats that we randomly give away – are we going to see any of them at the final table?” Jones ponders. “It’s going to be a tough field. What I think is crucial, and we will get this right, is that these people will have an experience of a lifetime. When we started doing the PCA, I remember people coming to me with suitcases in hand after busting on Day 2 but thanking us for the experience of a lifetime. 

talking-glorious-game-pokerstars-lee-jones“My goal for the PSPC is if you bust on the third hand or reach the final table you will have an experience you’ll always remember. We can’t guarantee you will do well in the tournament. The skill and experience gap between the random person who binks a pass and Igor Kurganov will likely tell during that event. But it doesn’t mean they can’t have an amazing time, go back and say, “Oh my God I beat Erik Seidel in a pot.” And think about it, even a min-cash is a down payment on a house in some places. 

“It means you have a year to brag with all your home game buddies. You turn up here, we pick you up at the airport and whisk you off to a party. Then you’re sitting at a table with all the stars, with the same number of chips, the same deck of cards and ultimately, your queens can beat their jacks.” 

I was critical of Pokerstars’ communicative style during the mass changes brought about because of the apparent problems with the ‘ecosystem.’ It was wrong, pure and simple. But it was also out of character, and we need to wonder why.

During my time at the PCA I felt taken care of, as I am sure, the recreational players did. The professional players are a different breed. One is playing to pay the bills. The other is playing to have fun. To appease both is a tricky proposition, but from what I can tell, the people of PokerStars are doing their best.

There was nothing that I saw that told me anything other than here was a company that genuinely wants to do the right thing. Many of the PokerStars employees I met have spent five years, ten years, or more working for their company, and they believe in it. They want to listen to their customers. They want to create life-changing experiences. But they also want to make the most significant profit they can make; that’s a responsibility they have to their colleagues and stockholders.

I left the PCA feeling more empathy for PokerStars, but still feel there is plenty that I am deliberately left in the dark on, and that’s ok. If I were to remove a series of words throughout this article, making it look unreadable, you would still be able to read it. I don’t need all the answers. Neither do you. For me, it’s obvious what happened during the dark days of the Supernova changes, but those are behind us. My experience at the PCA persuades me that the people of PokerStars are committed to the health and growth of poker and the poker community. Also, they want to deliver the poker experience in as fair and responsible way as possible.

That’s good enough for me, and it should be good enough for anyone else in love with this glorious game.