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Full Tilt vs. the Bumhunters: A Closer Look

As expected, today’s announcement by Full Tilt Poker that it was implementing a sweeping series of changes designed to re-balance the online-poker playing field drew plenty of interest from poker’s playing community.  Full Tilt’s stated intent of making the site’s games more enjoyable to “recreational” players includes two key crucial elements among five or six broad changes in the site’s latest update: Removing heads-up poker in its entirety, and removing the ability to “table select,” which in online poker’s modern incarnation generally refers to using automated seating scripts to quickly identify and sit optimally against weaker, newer opponents.

full-tilt-logo-newThese “bumhunters,” as they’re often referred to in the online-poker world, have had an increasingly disproportionate impact not only at Full Tilt, but at virtually every online poker site in existence.  Today’s drastic moves by Full Tilt illustrate this, and that the site has voluntarily turned off a complete segment of the poker market — heads-up (HU) poker — and walked away from the incremental revenue those games provide is a huge development.

It’s highly, highly unusual for an online poker site to simply walk away from a game variant where it already has an established presence, where it’s actively being played, and where the coding to provide the games to players has long since been done.  And yet Full Tilt has done just that.

How heads-up poker and bumhunting are tightly intertwined is something that’s not always apparent to casual poker players.  That includes some of the very same new, “recreational” poker players and first-time depositors that Full Tilt is seeking to protect, while not resorting to the market-segregation or “anonymous player” models implemented at a handful of other sites.  All of these various strategies are attempts to find a way of neutralizing the bumhunter / seat-scripter edge, and how well Full Tilt weathers the implementation of the changes the site is making bears close watching.

So you have an interest in playing heads-up poker on Full Tilt?  What you would have found was actually a mini-version of a problem also affecting Stars, which means that, as one forum poster described it, Full Tilt may indeed be serving as a “lab rat” for future PokerStars changes.  At Full Tilt, in the heads-up area, you’d have found several dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of half-occupied heads-up tables… but relatively few actual HU games being played.

All those half-filled HU tables… those were the overabundant sharks waiting to pounce on whatever stray fish, or newbie player, might wander their way.  And since all these non-playing tables were visible in the main lobby, it was a terrible, terrible advertisement for action on the site.

In blogging today about the removal of the heads-up games from the Full Tilt lobbies, Full Tilt Managing Director Dominic Mansour wrote this:

“… We’ve decided to remove Heads Up tables from our ring game offering. We’re doing this for two important reasons; firstly, Heads Up games were being adversely impacted by the minority of experienced players who targeted ‘weaker’ opponents rather than take on all challengers, and secondly, new players who tried out the Heads Up games found it intimidating and confusing (asking themselves ]Why are all these guys not playing each other?’).”

Why indeed?  And combined with the seat-selection issues, it made heads-up all but unplayable for the casual player.  Heads-up poker has always been something of a bumhunter’s paradise, to the point that at least one major site has now declared the format unworkable in the online sense.

Mansour further stated that fixing the seat-selection problem wasn’t enough; the HU tables themselves had to go.  As he wrote, “Unfortunately, these table selection changes didn’t fix this problem so in Heads Up we had no choice but to remove them altogether, as we know the more new players that play it, the less likely they are to return and keep playing.”

Exactly how “less likely” those players were to return, once having been skinned at HU, might have been stunning.  Mansour didn’t comment directly on that, but Full Tilt’s marketing director, Shyam Markus, was more explicit.  Posting at 2+2, Markus wrote:

“Our data shows that the more a new player in their first month plays heads-up, the less likely they are to return in their second month. Dramatically so. This would not have been fixed with the [other] ring game changes.”

If there’s one thing that all online poker operators know, it’s that the true long-term survival of online-poker is based on a steady (even better, increasing) flow of new depositors’ money coming into the site.  New players who sampled HU were being skinned so fast and so thoroughly that they weren’t even bothering to try to redeposit on the site or try other formats.

There may have been a psychological factor at work as well.  In a full-ring game, it’s easy to write off a few bad sessions to a handful of bad beats or to an opponent or two just going on a heater.  But head-to-head, if a new player is being consistently outplayed by the same sharks over and over again, it quickly becomes evident that a skill gap is at work.  There’s nowhere to hide, and for most of these players, if one interprets Markus’s words, they just chose to stay away.

Heads-up poker, according to Markus, was killing that all important depositor cycle.  If a business process costs so much of a loss to long-term revenue that the immediate revenue can’t overcome it, that business unit has to go.

It’s a tough business decision, but saying goodbye to heads-up is likely the correct one.  Only the bumhunters and script jockeys are going to be upset by today’s changes, anyway.  Should they depart the site in mass, as many have threatened to do, Full Tilt’s short-term revenue may take a hit.  But if HU’s removal results in more new players staying longer and redepositing, it’s a trade well worth making.

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