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See Us, Hear Us: How to Win Back the Recreational Poker Player

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We kill 1.2 billion animals a week to fill our bellies.

But we never see these animals outside of a baby’s bedtime story book.

The sterile process that deals with the cull is deliberately invisible because, if it were right in our face, it would create a problem the next time we sat down to eat a freshly fried fillet.

I'm beginning to think the same thing happens in poker. We have all heard tales of the near extinction of the recreational poker player at the fingertips of the professional grinders dominating the food chain.

But have you ever seen a recreational poker player? They don’t appear in my Google Alerts emails on searches for poker. I don’t see their faces on most poker media sites.

There are no names, no faces and no stories. So I started to think they were a myth. A damsel in distress created by online poker rooms as an excuse to improve EBITDA at the expense of customer value.

What the Hell Do They Look Like?

Most online poker rooms offer a two-pronged attack when it comes to a marketing blitz. They either invite you to try their new bells and whistles, or their story is designed to show you why you should choose them over the competition.

Who is the rec player?

But wouldn't it be smarter to begin the journey with the customer? And if that customer is a recreational poker player, then isn't that the place to start saying once upon a time?

Marketing and branding guru par excellence, Bernadette Jiwa, suggests that to start telling better product stories we should:

  • 1. Speak to one person
  • 2. Anchor him in his imperfect reality
  • 3. Show him what his new desired reality could be in the presence of your online poker room.

What she is preaching is 100% pure golden empathy and that creates better experiences for our customers. But the first step is finding a recreational poker player.

What the hell do they look like?

I’m Spartacus! No, I’m Spartacus!

I cried watching that movie.  But I digress. I am a recreational poker player; or more accurately, I was a recreational poker player.

I began playing poker in the pub with my friends because they are boring without something to do. It was all about the money for me. I was a married man with a young son when I began playing. I was deep in debt and couldn't see a way out.

Poker came along and shone a flashlight. It was the easiest way I could make money without putting in any serious mental or physical work.

My priority back then should have been my family. But it wasn’t. I used to scream at my wife that I was playing poker to get us out of debt, but it had become more than debt after a year or so.

It became my community - a way for me to rise through some invisible ranks of hierarchy. Winning felt good. I played online and live and loved them both.

'Winning felt good'

I was a winner in the live cash games and tournaments. I was a winner in online MTTs. But I was a big loser in the online cash games where I would spend most of my time playing 50c/$1 and $1/$2.

That Was All I Ever Wanted

I focused on cash games because I had a family. Playing tournaments is a sure-fire way to end up in the divorce courts.

I played once or twice a week in a local home game. The game was £1/£1 Dealers Choice (DC) and I wouldn't miss it for the world.

I began playing on partypoker and then Full Tilt. I had a brief stint on PKR, moved to Genting, and then ended up on PokerStars.

I liked PokerStars because the interface was beautifully simple. There were always games and the MTTs were so big I once won $10,000 playing in an $11 buy-in tournament.

The only poker room I ever had any relationship with was PKR. I would email them, and they would email me back, and that was all I ever wanted.

I never felt like a loyal customer, other than at PKR, and that was only because they kept throwing bonuses at me. The only relationship I had with other online poker rooms were the spam-like emails asking me to play some silly game and win a million bucks.

Any one of these poker rooms could have had a loyal customer if I felt seen or heard. I was always interested in the online satellites for the big live events. But it was always a pipe dream to get a seat because the fields were so large compared to the number of available seats, so I never bothered. 

I would have liked help with my game, and also some support when I kept losing. A bankroll management tool integrated into the software would have also been very useful for me as well as a way for the site to keep me more informed within the world of poker - a more immersive and entertaining experience.

Poker is boring, after all.

I Never Cared About Rake

My biggest challenges were time to play MTTs and losing at online cash games. Sunday is the big day for poker players but it's also one of two days free from the 9-5 grind if you are a family man.

No relationship in all spam.

It's very selfish to use that Sunday to spend 15 hours playing poker before trudging into work with your eyes closed.

I would have liked someone from the company to contact me about my online cash games. Perhaps they could have suggested a new direction, therefore keeping me as a customer.

But, like I said, there was no relationship. So I just left.

I did want to be a professional poker player. I tried once. I failed once. I thought it would be cool. It was also a lazy way to make a living.

I don't care what the pros say about how hard the mental game is; it cannot be harder than working for the British Railroads 72 hours a week or working on the trash trucks.

I never cared about rake. It never interested me. The way I saw it if I wanted to play on a certain site, then I had to pay their dues or go somewhere else.

I don't play today because my values and priorities in life have changed. Playing poker for long periods of time is a waste of my life and those that exist within it.

That’s my story; here are three more.

This is Santiago Garcia Mansilla

Santiago Garcia Mansilla is a 33-year old recreational poker player who lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Santiago is married and has his work cut out because his wife recently gave birth to their first child.

Santiago Garcia Mansilla

Santiago is a big poker fan. Of all the hobbies he has, poker is his one pride and joy.

It’s not easy to find time to play, especially now he has a baby, but he finds time midweek and when the baby is asleep.

He always makes sure that his family comes first. His bedtime ritual consists of 45 minutes of poker before the toothbrush comes out.

There is also a live game that Santiago plays in 3 out of 4 weeks/month. There's a pool of 20-25 people and they have a leaderboard and additional prizes for the best players.

Once a year the group head to the biggest casino in South America, The City Centre Rosario, to play in the Grand Finale of the Circuito Argentino de Poker. Last year it had 1,240 entrants, a record for a live poker event held in Argentina.

Santiago prefers playing live because he likes to connect with his friends. The visceral feel of the deck, chips, and money is an important aspect of the game for him. When he plays online he feels divorced from the world and therefore it feels like the rote rhythm of a job.

When he does play online he plays on 888Poker. He will play $1-$5 SnGs, micro-stakes cash games and MTTs with buy-ins ranging between $1-$12.

888Poker gets the nod because the fields are smaller, which makes the games run faster. He likes the structures, late registration rules and can find quality games at any time. Santiago also believes the competition is stiffer on a site like PokerStars.

A Desire to Get Better, Win a Package to WSOP

PokerStars did once have Santiago's business but today he prefers to play on the second largest online poker room on this big blue planet. He would like online poker rooms to offer more satellites to live events coupled with an increase in live events in more parts of the world, particularly Buenos Aires.

Rake is important, but so is experience.

Like myself, Santiago would also like the online poker rooms to help with coaching and believes the ambassadors and team pros could be used to help in this regard.

There is a desire to become a better player, increase his bankroll, learn to play more tables and one day win a package to compete in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event.

The days of becoming a poker pro are behind Santiago. The family life has put an end to his dreams. There is also the fear connected to a career that coexists with so much variance.

Santiago is very knowledgeable about the poker industry. He has read all of the nonsense between Amaya/PokerStars/grinders. He doesn’t know if his games are flooded with pros but he does take note of the better players and tries to avoid them.

He doesn’t use a Heads Up Display (HUD) and believes only pros would use them.

Communication with 888Poker is sparse. He has exchanged emails with them, and used the online chat for deposit information, but believes they could respond quicker to his requests for information.

Rake is important to him, mainly in the live events he competes in as he thinks the online rake is acceptable at his level of play. He loves his poker books and in particular the work of Jonathan Little. He would love to one day compete in a World Poker Tour (WPT) or WSOP event in his hometown.

This is Shane Povey

Shane Povey is in his 30s and lives in Bridgend, South Wales, with his fiancée and two kids. His priority in life is his family and that means a full-time job comes before poker. Shane only plays at night when the children have gone to bed. 

Shane Povey

Shane visits the casino once a month to try his hand at the live game but he much prefers to play online because he can squeeze in far more hands. That’s important to him because he's a winning player and time is of the essence.

PKR is the site where Shane spends his time. He joined them in 2012 after watching an advert on TV marketing the niche 3D software. 

“After that, there was no going back,” said Shane.

His game improved by watching the other players he was competing with very closely. Over time he slowly moved up the stakes until he was playing high-stakes MTTs and in 2013 was named the PKR Player of the Year -- something he is very proud of.

Today Shane plays MTTs exclusively with buy-ins ranging between £50-£200. He prefers these stakes because he likes playing against players who know what they are doing.

The Allure of Community

One of the biggest allures for Shane over at PKR is their community. He sometimes plays tournaments on PokerStars but 99.9% of his action is on PKR as he believes they deserve his loyalty after showing him the same.

He wouldn’t change anything about his experience -- he loves the site that much.

Shane would love to one day become a professional poker player as it provides a freedom of time and would allow him to spend more time with his family rather than spending most of his time at work. 

The presence of pros in the game doesn't deter Shane. Instead, it spurs him on. Shane believes that it is inspiring to see the PKR pros who not that long ago were in the same situation as him. PKR has shown loyalty in the past to promote within and that is something customers like Shane value.

Shane has never used a HUD and prefers to let his raw game do the talking. He has no concerns about rake, nor does he pay much attention to the rest of the poker world outside his experience at PKR.

Povey looking for new home.

Note: I interviewed Shane before the collapse of PKR but went back to him to seek an opinion of the closure. This is what he had to say.

“I was waiting for it to happen,” said Shane. “Unfortunately, after my great years in 2013 and 2014, not long after the site had a 'facelift' where all scheduled tournaments were changed and renamed, etc., the site lost a lot of players.

"The site has changed so much in last three years and those changes have not been good. It's not good news as I spent nearly every night for two years playing on PKR and I enjoyed it. But, those changes completely threw my routine off course. I was then only playing the odd tournament here and there."

So where will Shane take his business now PKR has closed?

“I will play on PokerStars or 888 and hopefully get into a routine on one of those sites.” Shane played on PKR under the pseudonym mrsuperking.

This is Angus Malcolm

Angus Malcolm is 36 years old and lives in the beautiful countryside of Church Stretton in Shropshire. Angus lives alone and played online poker as a hobby, using his winnings to support his interest in sports betting.

Angus Malcolm

When Angus is not playing poker he works 12-hour shifts for the NHS. When he was playing poker recreationally he would try to qualify for live festivals via online satellite qualification on both PokerStars and the iPoker Network.

Angus loves playing live poker but prefers online because his nearest casino is a 90-minute drive. Angus spent his time playing Sit 'n' Go's and MTTs and would try to qualify for higher buy-in events via the satellites and steps programs.

He would feel uncomfortable playing above $50 without using satellites. He would also play cash games up to $100 buy-in, preferring Speed/Zoom style games.

While Angus spent some time playing on PokerStars he was savvy enough to understand that there are easier games on other sites and spent most of his time playing on the iPoker network.

“I liked the rakeback and rewards and there were more fishy players," said Angus.

I asked Angus how the online poker rooms could provide more value and he said, reduce rake. One of his primary challenges playing online as a recreational player was the amount of pros in the game. Couple this with the high rake and he believes it becomes a difficult challenge for a recreational player to win money consistently.

"Rake is too high and that means 99% of players over their lifetime will struggle to make a profit in poker," said Angus.

Rakeback matters.

There was a time when Angus would have liked to play poker professionally but he believes he has too many gambling leaks. He gave it a shot in 2011, for six months, but called that time 'a monumental failure.' He admitted that he was also drinking too much alcohol at the time.

Today, Angus spends his time working on his sobriety. He told me that not drinking has created more self-awareness and believes if he hired a coach he would have a good shot at making it in the game now his life is so different. But poker doesn't align with his decision to live a more meaningful life.

“My interest in poker has gone,” Angus told me. 

Angus did try using a HUD a few years back but stopped as he believed they were more beneficial to cash game players. When asked about the effectiveness of online poker room marketing, he said:

“It’s all about sales, bonuses and getting you to deposit more money. Any correspondence I always send to spam.”

Angus was very switched on when it came to his knowledge of poker. He had read every book in print and kept pace with current news. Although Angus doesn’t play poker today, he wouldn’t put other people off playing the game.

“Play poker as a hobby and get a real job to pay the bills,” said Angus. “Only 1% of poker players will ever make enough to provide a good living. The other 99% are paying for the 1%, and the companies' rake!"

A Plea for Better Poker Stories

Do you remember those three questions from earlier?

  • 1. Speak to one person
  • 2. Anchor him in his imperfect reality
  • 3. Show him what his new desired reality could be in the presence of your online poker room.

I have just spoken to three people and chipped in myself. All four of us were anchored in our imperfect reality. Now it’s time for the online poker rooms to come and get us. Show us what our desired reality could be in the presence of your greatness.

1. Provide us with bankroll assistance

2. Provide us with a reasonable rake

3. Provide us with a realistic path to live events

4. Provide us with a community

5. Understand that offering poker players sports betting and casino solutions under one wallet isn’t always good value for the players

6. Stop spamming; start talking

7. Teach us to be better players

8. Support us when we lose

9. Continue providing us with games that we can play in the midst of changing nappies and spending time with our loved ones

10. But most of all, see us, hear us. And make us feel like we exist by communicating with us at our level, taking into consideration our imperfect reality. 

As a recreational poker player, what do you want?

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