Creating New Ways for Online Poker Players to Win

Online poker rooms have a problem: Customers who win are more likely to continue playing at the room than customers who lose. But only a small percentage of a typical room’s total player pool (somewhere in the 5 to 10 percent region) will actually be winners—and rooms rely on the other 90 to 95 percent for a massive slice of total deposits.

The solution to this problem is simple: Turn the losers into winners.

Now, you could develop all sorts of convoluted models and dynamic lobbies that seek to match weak players against other weak players in an attempt to boost your total percentage of winning players. Or you could take the easier route and just convince losing players that they have, in fact, won.

There are a number of ways to do this. All are aided by the basic fact that most people want to believe that they are winners and are willing to ignore evidence to the contrary if given just a bit of affirming evidence. I want to focus on three simple strategies that allow online poker players who lose at the tables to still self-identify as winners at the site: 1) fair price, 2) once a winner, and 3) substitute victory.

Fair Price

This is a concept with which casino management is already intimately familiar. Many casual gamblers have an (often unspoken) formula to magically transform a loss to a win in their head that goes something like this: If money lost/time spent is less than “x,” then I have won.

Obviously, “x” is different for every player, but the concept remains the same. A good chunk of the recreational gambling market has resigned themselves happily to losing, as long as the loss falls within their expected range. They regard losses within their threshold as a fair price for the experience they’ve had, allowing them to view the experience positively. From an operator’s point of view, that’s a winning player.

The clear takeaway is that poker sites need to do what they can to keep losing players in the fair price zone. In broad terms, that means taking every opportunity to mitigate the natural variance of online poker for these players. There are a number of tools operators have on hand to advance this goal. Table and stake limits, shallower satellite structures, basic educational material for players, and an absence of bad-beat jackpots (along with other side games) are four that come quickly to mind.

Once a Winner

What defines a winning player? Is someone completely new to the game who stumbled their way to a big tournament score (and a big positive balance) more of a winner than a long-time grinder suffering through a downswing? There’s a lot of fuzziness involved in the term “winning player,” and online poker operators can use that ambiguity to their benefit.

Take the above example and reduce it to the scale of a single player. If a player deposited $50, had a balance of $60 at some point and then drops down to $40, will that player consider themselves a winning player? Would they feel more like a winner in that scenario than if they deposited $50 and immediately dropped down to $40? I think the answer on both counts is yes.

Even though the end result is the same—a balance of $40—a player who was once a winner is far more likely to continue to view themselves as a winner even when they’re losing. Operators need to take this phenomenon into account when designing promotions and bonuses. Why not build bonuses tailored to individual players that focus on the critical inflection point of their starting balance? For example, instead of using a $10 bonus to reactivate a player once they’ve gone broke, why not use that same $10 bonus when they drop below their starting balance?

Designing one-size-fits-all bonuses and promotions feels efficient, but it robs operators of the chance to exploit this psychological quirk of customers. If you can make a player a net winner, even for only a brief time, the chance of them continuing to view themselves as a winning player (and therefore continuing to deposit and play) increases dramatically, even as their results tell a much different story.

Substitute Victory

The human brain is a flexible, messy thing. Most of all, it wants consistency of thought. A brain torn between two competing truths in a single moment is a brain under duress. To relieve that stress, your brain is willing to accept somewhat-sketchy evidence and reasoning—a process that often resolves without our notice.

Let’s take Cybill, for example, who logs on to play online poker a couple of times a week. Cybill reads books about poker, has tried a few training sites, and occasionally participates on poker forums. In short, she does many of the things that winning players do. But her results at the table are, at best, uneven. While some sessions result in wins, most end with a loss, and her overall chart is in the red.

This is a problem for Cybill (or anyone in her situation). She’s caught between the image she has of herself as a winning player, buttressed by her extra-game activity and the conflicting image generated by the stark truth of her results.

You can’t change a player’s results. So what can you do?

Enter substitute victory. You just need to give Cybill experiences that resemble winning. Give her enough such experiences, and her brain will do the dirty work, using the faux wins to cancel out the hard evidence of her losses. That allows Cybill to resolve the internal conflict (she’s winning overall, so she must be a winner), and allows operators another clean shot at the magic trick of turning a losing player into a winning one.

Following are a few quick examples of substitute victory.

VIP Treatment

This is perhaps the quintessential casino strategy for transforming losing clientèle into repeat customers. A player might lose at the tables, but then “win” a suite, a meal or preferential treatment, etc. The customer’s brain fuzzes up the math, and the overall experience is recorded as a win.


Whether it’s access to advanced customer support, online hangouts with site pros or just a backstage look at how the room operates, any sort of exclusive-seeming access is a powerful tool. For one, people generally love the feeling of being included in something exclusive. More importantly, access is almost impossible to put a price tag on, allowing players to assign it whatever value they need to in order to feel like a winner.

Training Games

Mini-games attached to the site can accomplish a few goals at once. Even simple training quizzes that get players up to speed on the basics of poker can at once reduce variance as well as provide a substitute victory. Add a scoring and public ranking system to the games, along with a few incentives for excelling, and you’ve got a tidy way for players to win money playing online poker while still losing at the actual tables.

I want to wrap up with two miscellaneous points on the matter. The first: I think it’s important to design player rewards that have an intermittent component. If players can unpack the precise values of promotions and clearly see the path from play to reward, it starts to feel more like “earning” a bonus as opposed to winning something. That’s a missed opportunity for operators looking to pile up as much weight in a player’s mental win column as possible.

The second is to beware the trap of only rewarding losing players when they’re losing. That strategy becomes transparent quickly, and it also motivates some players to take a more rational look at the whole exchange—something you’d prefer your losing players to not do if at all possible.

Turning losing players into winning players sounds like a riddle of sorts, but the answer is just to take advantage of the definitional flexibility of “winning.” Once you rewrite the rules of what it means to win, getting more of your players to participate at the room as if they were winners becomes a far less perplexing, and far more profitable, endeavor.

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