Verdict In: PokerStars Spin & Go Tourneys Good for Online Poker

PokerStars’s new Spin & Go hyper-SNG tournaments are back in the news this week, following the awarding of the first-ever million-dollar prize to a lucky Russian player as part of PokerStars’ ongoing $1 Million Spin & Go promotion.

The popular offering, which began in late December and runs through the month of January, has certainly rejuvenated the hyper-SNG format.  But is it good for online poker and the health of the game?

That’s a question that’s been at the top of the watchlist regarding the new format since it was rolled out last year.  The concept was developed under the old Rational Group operational regime at PokerStars, then allowed to continue in development and, eventually, a rollout, following the company’s sale to Amaya Gaming last year.

Intentional or not, the success of the new Spin N Go format was going to be a significant factor in how well the company performed in the short term, post-sale.  As with many other major online sites, PokerStars has been challenged by the maturing of the market and an ongoing segmentation between levels of players, from the very experience and tech-savvy to the very new.  A healthy poker economy depends on a reasonable distribution of prizes and the way they are awarded, and that’s a truth of the poker economy that all responsible operators recognize.

Last October, I wrote for publication here at 4Flush a two-part examination of the rollout of the new Spin & Go format (Part 1 / Part 2).  In its own way the new format has been quite controversial, and it certainly wasn’t guaranteed to succeed.

stars-spin-n-go-logoNow, however, and pending an interruption in some jurisdictions should legal concerns ever arise over the format’s sweepstakes-style payouts, it’s fair to say that the concept is a winner, rejuvenating interest in online poker in general and fast-paced SNGs in particular… among new depositors and casual players — the exact type of players that PokerStars or any site must cater to in order to succeed and profit.

Last October, as some readers might recall, PokerStars’ spokesman Daniel Negreanu went into something of an attack mode when applauding and defending the new rollout.  Negreanu cited the same poker-market imbalances that I’ve referenced above, where a small but active minority of very active players collectively skews the poker landscape.

Here’s a part of what Negreanu wrote, last year:

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.

Some characterized that as a case of Negreanu biting the hand that feeds him… referring to profitable online players who generate a lot of rake.  What Negreanu and PokerStars understood, however, is that all the rake that those winning players pay to the site actually comes not from the pockets of the winners themselves, but from other losing players.  Therefore, finding ways to cater to those losing players, offering them increased entertainment and — if necessary — a random shot at a big, big payday, is a necessity.

That’s exactly what Spin & Go’s are about.  It’s also why the format has been so very successful.  Negreanu isn’t always correct in his frequent arguments (and when he’s wrong, he’s wrong in a loud and painful way), but this time out, he understood correctly the rational for the format’s rollout.

As for the million-dollar jackpot that was won, here’s the details.  Russian player “sss66666” (who has not been identified yet other than his screen name), was one of three players who paid $5 each to enter one of the special $1 Million Spin & Go tourneys.  Once filled, the prize-randomizer that’s an integral part of the format hit big, connecting on a 3-in-10 million chance of awarding a collective $1.2 million to the hyper-SNG’s three entrants.

“Sss66666” went on to defeat the other two players, a Belgian and a Bulgarian.  The promotion awards consolation prizes in the rare instances where the jackpot multipliers pop up, so even in losing, the other two players won $100,000 each, just for being selected.

Anecdotal evidence emerging on poker-discussion forums suggest that the unknown Russian player dabbled on the site at only the smallest stakes, playing freerolls and popping into a few nickel/dime cash games and micro SNGs before trying his chance at the Spin & Go promotion — changing his life in the process.

Part of the allure of poker itself is recreated in this latest episode.  It’s the chance that an unknown can parlay a few pennies or a few dollars into a major, existence-altering score.  It’s the basis of the dream that’s referred to as the “Moneymaker Effect,” which is given a lot of credit (perhaps even too much) for the meteoric rise last decade in poker’s popularity.

The new Spin & Go format has succeeded despite attacks from PokerStars’ clientele of dedicated SNG grinders, who play 20 or more of these tourneys at once, use massive software aids to identify and exploit newer and weaker players, and otherwise add very little to the poker environment.  Collectively, these players are a negative to online poker, which is something that Negreanu recognized in his post from his last year even if he was a little harsh in his phrasing.

Yet, the proof itself should always be determined by the numbers themselves, and anecdotal evidence suggests that casual players prefer the new Spin & Go format to the old regular-dominated lobbies of the turbo- and hyper-SNG worlds.

No truer evidence of that exists than in the traffic numbers and recent changes in rake structure relative to these games.  When Spin N Go’s were launched, traffic surged, while casual players abandoned the reg-dominated hyper-SNG lobbies.

Not long after, Stars implemented rake increases which affected both the new Spin N Go’s and the older hyper- and turbo-SNGs.

Stars has since rolled back the rake on the older SNGs, albeit in conjunction with a promotioal offering that promotes those mega-grinding regulars to play against each other if they wish.

Meanwhile, the heightened rake remains in effect for the new Spin & Go’s.  And the casual players who flocked to the format have shown that they’d rather pay that increased rake and accept a longshot chance at a lottery-style, “sss66666”-type payday than battle what they perceive to be a tilted playing field: a reg-dominated battleground where new players and fish are quickly slaughtered.

If a poker player is going to lose, he ought to be able to lose in the manner which he finds most enjoyable.  For a lot of players, that’s in the new Spin & Go format.  PokerStars should be applauded for offering the new format and for catering to a more casual audience.

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