Player Segregation in Online Poker: Fad or Future?

PartyPoker ignited quite a debate by introducing segregated cash game lobbies in late February 2013. Players and pundits took to forums, blogs and Twitter to jeer or cheer PartyPoker’s decision, the most sophisticated attempt to date by a top-tier operator to separate players based on skill or results.

The specifics of PartyPoker’s player segregation policy remain unclear, and it’s too soon to tell what impact segregation will ultimately have on the room’s ecology. But even at this early stage, U.S. operators can extract critical insights from PartyPoker’s experience to refine their own thinking on the matter.

I want to discuss both those insights and the broader issue of player segregation by first detailing potential drawbacks of segregating players, then proposing a few alternatives to full-blown segregation and finally exploring a twist on the segregated lobby that may offer poker operators a superior solution.

Potholes on the Path to Player Segregation
Any benefits of a results-based system for segmenting your lobby must be weighed against the drawbacks, so let’s quickly survey some of the flaws and fallout sure to accompany the launch of segregated players’ pools at an online poker site.

The PR Problem
Let’s forget for a second that the word “segregation” itself is pretty noxious on face value and especially toxic in the United States. Even if you coin a more appealing label for player segregation, you’ll still be facing a nasty dilemma. If you make the formula entirely transparent to players, you invite manipulation of the system. But if you don’t tell players how segregation works, their imaginations are left to run wild.

Exacerbating the PR problem is that online poker players are especially sensitive to any hint of interference by the room. While segregating your cash game lobby is obviously worlds away from stacking the deck, those distinctions can easily get lost in the fray of online chatter—especially if a competitor decides to use your segregation policy as a marketing cudgel.

Math Is Hard
How do you define a “strong” player for the purposes of a segregation policy? How many hands do you need to feel confident in your assessment? And how many hands would a contrary trend need to span before a strong player is downgraded to “weak” status? What if a strong player is just running way below expectation? Or, alternatively, what if a weak player is crushing their critical all-in coin flips?

Those are just a few of the sticky questions involved in developing a player segregation policy. A common response by proponents of segregation is to eschew all of that complexity by simply protecting new players. But new players are simply new to your site, not necessarily poker itself. They can be quite skilled and more than capable of decimating the players you’re trying to protect, and cutting off your existing players from the stream of new players seems like a great way to ensure your retention numbers plummet.

What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You
The concept of player segregation is not new. But as far as I’m aware, PartyPoker is the first major room to implement a player segregation policy. That means U.S. operators have a total lack of hard data regarding the impact of segregation on liquidity, rake, player acquisition, etc. Online poker rooms are fairly complex systems, so large changes are likely to generate unintended consequences.

Can You Achieve Similar Goals Organically?
The core goal of player segregation is to throttle the amount of interactions between players likely to be of significantly different skill levels. The hope is that doing so increases the amount of play less-skilled customers get from their deposit. With such a straightforward aim and so many potential drawbacks to segregation, it’s certainly worth asking if less radical cures are available.

I believe they are. Here are some structural strategies and promotional strategies to reduce the number of interactions between strong and weak players with far lower levels of hassle and risk than full-blown segregation.

Structural strategies
● Forced table seating: At live poker rooms, players are seated when a seat opens at any table in the pool of tables running the game and limit the player requested. Changing from one table to the next (even from one seat to the next) is a bit of a hassle. Bringing a similar system to online poker rooms would dampen the edge skilled players realize through superior table selection.
● Limit number of tables per player: Capping the number of seats players can occupy helps to ensure a more natural balance between strong and weak players. While allowing players to run double-digit tables at once may seem like a quick way to boost liquidity, it also allows strong players far more shots at inexperienced opponents.
● No heads up cash games: Keep heads up games exclusively in the tournament lobby, and you’ll remove one of the most dangerous points of contact between strong and weak players.
● Limit big-ticket satellites: Multistage satellites to large buy-in tournaments put weak players in tournaments they generally can’t afford against competition that tends to be tougher than what they’re used to.

Promotional strategies
● Incentivize participation/absence from games: Online poker rooms have long incentivized players to start games. So why not extend that approach to joining existing games—or even leaving them? For example, strong players could be offered a carrot like a multiplier on their comp points to stay below a certain threshold of total open tables. Weak players could be encouraged to join games more appropriate to their skill (or bankroll) levels with similar incentives.
● Loss-responsive bonus systems: Most bonuses are directly tied to rake and released in a linear fashion. But if one of the goals of segregation is to give weak players more bang for their buck, doesn’t it make sense to explore bonus systems that release in connection with key dips in that player’s bankroll?

The Unique Potential of Fast-Fold to Balance Player Pools
Anyone who has read to this point can be forgiven for thinking that I’m vehemently opposed to player segregation. I’m not. I just think there have to be more elegant and effective ways to introduce segregation than arbitrarily dividing your lobby.
One area where such an alternative might be found is fast-fold poker. Introduced by Full Tilt with Rush Poker, fast-fold explodes the traditional concept of an online poker room by creating new tables for each and every individual hand from a pool of participating players. Once players fold a hand, they return to the pool where they’re immediately used to create a new table for the next hand.

In many (albeit not all) ways, fast-fold poker inherently protects weaker players. With no fixed tables, the game-selection advantage of superior players is erased. With position and other dynamics that generally confer an edge on stronger players constantly shifting, the skill gap between the best and the worst is diminished.

But fast-fold also offers an environment more naturally suited to complex player segregation policies than a lobby stuffed with static tables. Instead of restricting access to certain sets of tables, rooms can execute their strategy at the more granular level of the table itself. Individual tables can be composed from the pool via a formula that distributes seats according to whatever ratio of strong, average and weak the room finds most effective. And players can move fluidly from one classification to the next without ever realizing that a classification system is even in place.

If nothing else, this discussion highlights how early in the game we really are when it comes to online poker as a consumer product. If the first 10 years of online poker were marked largely by the maturity of the industry on the regulatory front, I expect the next 10 years to be marked largely by its maturity on the development front. Player segregation will remain a part of the conversation as rooms continue to wrestle with the question of how much intervention is required to achieve an optimally balanced site—if such a feat is, in fact, achievable.