Isaac Haxton Leaves Team PokerStars Online over SNE Benefits Flap

Prominent US-born poker player Isaac Haxton has announced his disassociation with online poker giant PokerStars, effective immediately.  Haxton was one of the most prominent member of Team PokerStars Online, and cited as his reason for separating from PokerStars the site’s recent decision to slash, also effective today, the earned “VIP” benefits for the site’s most dedicated players, who have reached the site’s now-discontinued “Supernova” (SN) and “Supernova Elite” (SNE).

ike-haxtonRoughly 2,000 of the site’s players, largely from the high-volume SN and SNE ranks, today also began their second sit-out protest aimed at Stars and its corporate owner, Canada’s Amaya Group.  The coordinated sit-out follows a brief three-day sit-out in early December and is the second of four such protests designed by the site’s protesting players.  The sit-out’s long-term purpose, per its organizers, is to inflict noticeable revenue variations within Stars’ short-term results, thus forcing corporate investors to question the company’s operation and thus lower Amaya’s share price, with that in turn designed to force Amaya to restore some or all of the player-loyalty benefits that PokerStars slashed in November.

While some of the sit-out group’s demands smack of irrationality and self-entitlement, the abrupt slashing of the benefits that many players spent most of 2015 pursuing is the key point in the dispute.  Amaya and PokerStars remain beset by a heavy debt load, increasing international regulation and significant legal hurdles, such as a bizarre $871 million judgment issued against Stars and its owners by a delusional Kentucky judge.  Though that case is poised for a lengthy appeal, its mere existence is one of several existing drags on Amaya’s current share price and business outlook.

It all means that Amaya may have fiscal reasons to reverse itself on the VIP cutbacks, if not necessarily ethical ones, and its that claimed ethical deficiency — essentially a “bait and switch” that has the site’s dedicated grinders in a continued uproar.  Haxton put it bluntly, stating, “I believe PokerStars is behaving unethically.”

Haxton, popularly known as “Ike” throughout the global community, posted a brief blurb via Twitter: “I have resigned from PokerStars in protest of the changes to the Supernova and Supernova Elite programs.” Haxton also linked to a longer statement on a poker forum where, in his spare term, he has served as a moderator for several years.  Haxton castigated Amaya’s decision-makers roundly, despite not naming names.

Wrote Ike:

Resigning from PokerStars

As of today, I am sad to report that my PokerStars Team Pro Online contract has expired and I have made the decision not to renew it.

In November, as I’m sure most of you know, Stars announced a number of unpopular changes to their VIP program (details here, if you’re not familiar: http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/28…-club-1568814/). There have been times when I have not seen eye to eye with PokerStars. I have vehemently opposed certain changes that were made or lobbied strongly in favor of changes which were not implemented. At the end of the day, though, I have always respected that those decisions were not mine to make and remained enthusiastic about endorsing the brand. This time is different. In the past, when I have disagreed with a PokerStars decision, it has been on practical matters of which goals are most important and which policies most effectively advance those goals. This time my disagreement is simpler, and deeper. I believe PokerStars is behaving unethically.

There’s a lot not to like about these most recent changes and the way they’ve been communicated, but there’s one aspect that I just can’t accept. Announcing in November that players who earned Supernova and Supernova Elite status in 2015 will not receive the benefits they had expected in 2016 strikes me as dishonest and unfair. As a four time SNE, I know what it takes to rake 1M VPP in a year. It’s a tough grind. For most of the players who do it, it is an all-consuming commitment more intense than most full time jobs. Many of them have relocated far from their homes and families to pursue it. Finding out, just as you approach the finish line, that your efforts will not be rewarded as you expected them to be is brutal. I cannot in good conscience continue to endorse a poker site that treats its players this way.

This is a difficult day for me and I’m truly sad to be parting ways like this with a company that I once held in such high regard. In 2012, when I first signed with PokerStars, it was one of my proudest moments in my career as a professional poker player. The PokerStars brand was beloved by the poker community and had a well established and well deserved reputation for treating its players well. I felt thrilled and honored to have my name associated with it. And for the most part, my time at the company has been a true honor and it has been an experience I’ll always be grateful for. I’ve learned a lot about how the poker industry works, I’ve made good money, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with incredible people, both other sponsored pros and PokerStars employees. I’m proud to call many of these people my friends and it hurts to know that I won’t have the chance to work with them in the same way again.

I am, however, happy and relieved to now be able to speak candidly about the recent changes. I have every intention of responding to questions and I’m excited to join the ongoing conversation. Unfortunately, as I’m going to have to actually earn my living by winning at poker this year, I’m on the next flight to Manila. Please be patient with me if my responses come slowly and at irregular intervals. Happy new year, everyone!

Haxton was one of several hundred US-based online pros who chose to move to other countries to continue playing on PokerStars following the site’s Black Friday-induced exodus from the US market in 2011.  He was also one of the most prominent, and was quickly added to the site’s Team PokerStars Online roster.  Haxton is not the only member of that sponsored-player club to part ways with the site in recent weeks, though he is the most prominent.

As he noted, Haxton’s departure from Team PokerStars Online coincided with the end of his existing contract, and his statement does not specifically state whether or not Stars had indeed made an offer to renew.  (Update: Haxton wrote in a follow-up post that PokerStars indeed offered to continue his contract with no reduction in compensation.)  Stars and parent company Amaya have been rumored to be considering cutbacks in the Team PokerStars Online ranks, as the company shifts toward mainstream and celebrity endorsement opportunities.

Haxton’s departure was met with widespread support on social media and the poker forum he most often visits, though his audience in large part corresponds to the same Stars SN/SNE players affected by the cutbacks and participating in the ongoing sit-out.  Support was not, however, unanimous; David “Bakes” Baker, for example, took the opportunity to castigate Haxton’s announcement as being self-serving, following Haxton’s alleged failure to out Brian Hastings over multi-accounting allegations.  Haxton and fellow Stars-sponsored player Jason Mercier were among several Stars-backed players who have been accused of knowing about Hastings’ alleged cheating — not the first time Hastings has been accused of skirting a site’s TOC — and failing to properly out the purported behavior.

In any event, Haxton’s exit plants yet another puffy bruise on a PokerStars corporate visage that has suffered plenty of pummeling in recent weeks.  As the site hopes for a standing eight count, the hits show no sign of easing any time soon.

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