PokerStars’ Thorny Spin-&-Go Problem, Part 1

Being the world leader by a wide margin in your given industry doesn’t always guarantee smooth market sailing, as PokerStars is currently finding out.  Beset by increasing global regulatory pressures and short-term financial demands – the latter resulting from the site’s sale to Canada-based Amaya Gaming in a deal that generated more than $3 billion in new corporate debt – PokerStars finds itself needing to maximize existing revenue streams while pushing the opening of new ones to their fullest.

stars-spin-n-go-logoYes, the company’s been in a snarly situation regarding its dropping of many older, long-time affiliates, but it’s another new enterprise that’s drawn every bit as much attention – the launching of Stars’ new Spin-&-Go “lottery-style” SNG’s on the company’s global, dot-com site.  The worldwide introduction follows a successful test period for the new offerings on some of the single-country sites also offered by PokerStars – in this case, Spain, France and Italy.

Stars announced the global rollout on September 29th, and followed that with a promotional “Spin & Go Week,” which started on October 9th and has just ended.  Here’s Stars’ own description of how the concept works:

Spin & Go takes the form of a three-handed hyper-turbo Sit & Go tournament (500 chips, 3-minute levels) that begins with players selecting a $1, $3, $7, $15 or $30 game from a lobby screen. Once three players are registered to a game, they watch the spinning numbers on screen to see how much the prize pool for that game will be worth – anywhere from 2x the buy-in to 1000x the buy-in.

For the launch, the available buy-in levels – and potential jackpot prize pools – are as follows:


Jackpot prize











* If the highest jackpot prize occurs in the top three tiers of buy-ins, second and third place each get 10% of the prize pool on top, meaning the overall prize pools will be $8,400, $18,000, and $36,000 respectively

Within each different buy-in level there are eight possible different multipliers that will determine the prize pool, as follows: 2x, 4x, 6x, 10x, 25x, 100x, 200x, and 1000x. The probability of each prize pool occurring varies slightly depending on the buy-in level, and can be viewed in full here:

Team PokerStars Pro, Jonathan Duhamel, said: “Spin & Go is great for so many reasons. First, the game lasts just a few minutes, making it perfect for whenever you have some free time, and it’s ideal for mobile play. But the most attractive aspect is the lottery-style prize pool, which means you never know how much you’re going to be playing for. Having the chance to win thousands of dollars from just a few dollars is great, considering you only have to beat two players to win the lot!”

Okay, good enough.  The new concept has quickly grabbed an audience that’s already at least 10% of PokerStars’ overall SNG traffic.  Note also that Stars isn’t the first online poker site to launch these lottery-style tourneys, in which the final payouts aren’t known until after registration is complete.  At least three other major networks have launched similar products over the past several months, even if the “1000 x” multiplier of the highest possible tier, based on the example above, is rather larger than those available in the formats offered by Stars’ competitors.

As mentioned, the concept has been a quick hit with casual players, for a lot of different reasons.  That’s been true whether or not they’ve been playing the lottery-style SNGs on Stars or on other networks.  With the Stars rollout, it’s clear the company had its spokesplayers on point well in advance, such as with the Duhamel quote in the above.

Then there’s Daniel Negreanu, perhaps PokerStars’ most recognizable player.  Here’s what “DNegs” had to say in a post over at 2+2:

I’ve seen a lot of talk about the poker ecosystem and what kills games, etc. Do you know what kills games and destroys the poker ecosystem above and beyond all the things mentioned? Winning players. Yup, you guys lol. The winning players as a whole win a lot more money than the company makes each and every year. Yet, oddly, they still offer VIP programs to the very people who are essentially “killing the games.”

If Spin N’ Go’s deterred pros from playing, that actually HELPS the poker ecosystem immensely, it just may not help YOU personally. I love, love, love, and love this concept and if it helps to level the playing field a little bit, while allowing rec players to stretch their dollars a bit further than before, I think in the end that is a win for everyone- even the winning players who are upset about it now.

You guys don’t even want to know what I would do to the VIP programs if I was in charge! I would focus on giving bonuses to the LOSING players exclusively. They’d play more, last longer, and the pros would get the money in the end anyway. I think it’s overkill to not only have pros crushing all the rec players, but then also giving them the majority of the bonuses on top of that?

The mindset of some pros is backwards. You think they need you, when the reverse is true. They would do better as a company if pros didn’t play at all. They need the rec players, THEY should be the priority, not the pros. If you lose rec players, then pros don’t play anyway. If the rec players continue to deposit and play, then the pros will be there to get that money.

Look at it this way, PokerStars provides a service that allows some of you to make a living. You are not employees, and they are not your boss. As with any service, if you don’t feel it’s worth it to use, then you are free to choose a different service. That may seem harsh, but I get a sense that some people have entitlement issues that aren’t warranted.

There’s quite a bit of truth in what Negreanu posted, along with a couple of laughers as well — in particular the bizarre assertion that “winning players as a whole win a lot more money than the company makes each and every year.”  That would be true only under a format of very creative accounting that tallies only the gross win, not the net.

Negreanu, however, was perhaps injudicious by posting his comments in the one place where it would antagonize those hard-core grinders the most — in the middle of a protest thread launched by said grinders on the 2+2 forums.  (That led to a secondary protest thread demanding that Negreanu either resign or be fired by PokerStars for daring to speak out against the “SNG grinder” sub-community, a thread that was soon locked by those with cooler heads.)

Most of what Negreanu wrote, however, was true.  PokerStars exists to offer poker games to a wide variety of players, and their Spin-&-Go games, as with the lottery-format SNGs found on other sites, are initially successfully precisely because they do not appeal to the type of hardcore rakeback grinder that’s come to dominate the online game.  Those players open as many tables as possible (at Stars, that’s 24), use seating scripts and HUDs unendingly, and because of playing so many tables, take the maximize amount of time to make decisions, which when combined with other elements makes them massively unenjoyable to other types of players.

Whatever game these grinders are playing online isn’t quite poker as it’s historically known, but because these players have proliferated, they’ve endangered the traditional poker ecosystem on virtually all online sites.  The introduction of the lottery-style SNGs is all part of the same battle that includes things such as Bodog’s introduction of its anonymous-player model and the segregated-player models introduced at PartyPoker and elsewhere.

That’s what’s funniest about the protest threads at 2+2 and elsewhere.  While a couple of true points have emerged, the majority of the arguments made amount to a massive case of misplaces entitlement — the mistaken belief that PokerStars and other sites provide -only- the types of formats and games that provide these players with the maximum amount of fish (recreational players) to further their own goals.

No online poker site has that responsibility to its players.  Sites can change the mix of games they offer at any time, and players are free to go elsewhere.  Other than for the twin mandates of providing a fair game and ensuring the security of player bankrolls, online poker sites have no other requisite obligations to players.

One quibble raised by the protesters is that the new Amaya-owned Stars implemented the changes late in the calendar year, and thus made it tougher for these grinders to reach certain player-incentive goals.  The argument holds little water: Conditions on any network or site can change dramatically over the course of a calendar year, making such goals either easier or more difficult to obtain.  And if a grinder did not leave enough margin in his grinding rate to account for market changes, that’s sort of on him.

The one protest point that does appear to hold water is the accusation that Amaya is squeezing extra rake out of the new format.  The following table was posted by 2+2 member “Gramps,” showing that the Spin-&-Go tourneys, which run with three players each, appear to be over-raked relative to other “hyper” format SNGs:


The 3-max Spin-&-Go’s, if raked in line with other hyper SNG formats, should fall closer to the “HU” (heads-up, or 2-man) hypers; instead, they actually parallel the 6-max hypers in rake taken.

Estimates that this represent roughly a 50% rake increase, if scaled according to the other formats, appear accurate.  It’s instructive that a Stars rep posting as “PokerStars Baard” in a related thread clipped off the HU Hyper rake column from his version of the above when attempting to defend the point.  That’s disingenuous, and tends to prove rather than disprove the allegation.

By and large, however, the Spin-&-Go format is succeeding because it’s appealing to a different segment of the player population.  To the extent that that player population aligns with what the SNG grinder community believes is their population of fish, it’s really too bad.  Both formats, as well as many game choices, remain available at Stars and many other sites, and every player is free to play the game of his choice.

Spin-&-Go SNGs don’t appear to be the best value available on PokerStars or any other site offering a similar lottery-SNG format.  But if some customers enjoy playing them, that’s all that really matters.

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