After several years of incredible growth rates, the online poker industry has experienced a slow decline since Black Friday changed the landscape dramatically.
New players are harder to get and they don't play as much as they used to do.
New players have also experienced an increasingly tougher trajectory to becoming a winning player.
As a result many have lost interest in poker and lost their starting capital faster than before -- partly due to the increasing use of HUDs and poker software.
But times are changing again thanks to a few revolutionary changes at a few prominent online poker sites and it bodes well for the future of the recreational poker player.
Players Up, Revenue Up at Unibet
Formerly one of the most pro-centric real money online poker sites, the new Full Tilt Poker recently launched a large makeover of its software to focus more on the recreational player rather than the established grinder.
It's not, however, the first poker site to implement these changes. They might have picked up a few ideas from Unibet Poker.
Last year Unibet launched its own, new poker software with a complete focus on the new and casual poker player. And the good news is that the change has already been successful.
The number of players has gone up (according to Unibet; the site is not tracked) and turnover is increasing.
“Our recent Q2 results show poker growing 12%," Head of Poker at Unibet, Andrew West, told PokerListings, "but that’s artificially low as the site is in EUR but the reporting in GBP and the exchange rate has changed.
"Gross EUR revenue in July 2015 was 33% higher than July 2014 and August is on track to beat that.”
West: "Poker Can't Go Back to 2007"
As West explains, in 2007 Unibet calculated that if a player played poker in one month there was a 66% chance he or she would also play the next month. That number dropped below 50% in 2013.
So Unibet decided to leave the Microgaming (MPN) network and create its own software.
In the new software you can't choose which table you want to play (you can only choose the limit), you can change your alias three times a day and the poker bonus offer is in general mostly for players not raking several hundred euros per week.
It's also not possible to chat at the tables so new players can avoid abuse from the more experienced players.
“The aim of our new model is to keep new and casual players alive for longer," says West. "We can’t go back to 2007 but we can go back to a poker site that is just about playing poker."
“We don’t allow HUDs, table selection, trackers or any other external programs. We do allow three alias changes per day and we spend a lot more of our promotional money on lower-end players.
"The whole site is designed with casual players in mind."
Easy Games, Simple Missions
A centerpiece of Unibet’s new focus on recreational players is the free bonus of €12 available to all new players.
The money can only be used on NL4 (€0.02/€0.04), the lowest stake in cash games, where very few sharks bother to play. The level of play is generally low and beginners will be able to gain plenty of experience.
To get the free bonus paid out you need to reach 750 raked hands (that reach the flop) and the only time limit on the bonus is to play at least one hand within seven days.
New players can also gain experience through monthly missions and challenges. It can be missions as simple as changing your alias or playing a tournament for new players to get acquainted with the software.
"There's No Point Trying to Be a Version of PokerStars"
Unibet’s new software has generally also been well received within the poker community, West says.
“Most people can see that even if some of these changes will hurt their bottom line in the short term in the long term this benefits them, too."
Unibet takes it as a compliment that a large competitor like Full Tilt is moving in the same direction. It's still too early to say if it will have the same success but it's certainly the way of the future, West believes.
“I think it’s easy to have ideas but it’s hard to implement them, so I can’t predict how some of these sites will do.
“But I do think that there’s no point trying to be a version of PokerStars unless you’re already PokerStars’ size.
"In the long term I think that the only successful strategies will be the PokerStars model and the Unibet model.”