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PartyPoker Protected Tables Reversal: Genuine Mea Culpa or Cynical Marketing Strategem?

bwin-party-logoAmong the more interesting happenings in recent days was the announcement by PartyPoker’s new Chief of Poker Operations, Jeffrey Haas, that Party Poker would be discontinuing its controversial “Protected Tables” policy, effective immediately.

We checked in on the controversy just two weeks ago, when mounting evidence suggested that Party’s tables, designed to offer a learner’s atmosphere and softer games to newer and less-experienced players, were instead being systematically exploited by numerous players, largely from Eastern European countries.  These players were using large quantities of new, “throwaway” accounts to repeatedly register on Party, take advantage of the soft games, and then re-register with other new accounts when their excessive win rates caused the earlier accounts to be blocked from the soft tables.

The exposure of the manipulation by unscrupulous players and the previous unwillingness by Party to address the situation had resulted in active poker-forum posters and players calling for a boycott, which had been threatened to be held on November 1st.

The October 30th announcement by Haas of Party’s reversal — and acknowledgment that the manipulation of its protected tables was real and ongoing — forestalled the mass sitout that players had planned.  However, it’s hard to say whether it was the threat of the boycott itself or the fact that several poker news outlets, FlushDraw included, had picked up the story which motivated Party’s brass the most to address the situation.

In any event, the situation needed fixing, and we’ll excerpt some of the announcement to examine how much of the move is a genuine response to an unfair situation, and how much is marketing machinations.  It’s a little bit of both, to be sure.

Haas listed nine points about the protected tables, which are also commonly referred to as segregated tables.  The filters that prevented more experienced players from viewing these beginners-only tables had already been removed by the time Haas made his post and sent missives to select outlets, though Haas himself also mentioned the long history that these tables had had.  The protected tables, as they have been recently employed, weren’t the first such instance used by Party: Way back in the pre-UIGEA days, 2006 and earlier, Party also used beginner tables for its newer players, allowing new registrants to access these tables during their first 30 days of action on the site.

That old history of Party’s has been overshadowed by the shift in the last year or two by several sites to try to find a way to balanc the poker ecology, where poker fish have become increasingly threatened by the scope of software and skill that veteran online players can employ at the tables.  The Revolution Network implemented its so-called “Fair Play” technology, the iPoker Network has implemented similar segregation and ring-fencing, and even Bodog’s Anonymous Player Model was implemented to address the same core imbalance between weaker and stronger players.

Among the highlights in the points Haas raised:

  • An acknowledgement that poker-community outing of the player cheating, and the follow-up pressure, induced Party to make changes;
  • A confirmation that Party still would offer some form of protected/segregated games to its customers, once the site had found a solution that could not be compromised by unscrupulous players;
  • A promise that Party — generally not viewed in the top tier of sites when it comes to customer service and player complaints — would be more open and interactive with the player community;
  • An assertion that the site wouldn’t be “hostile” to grinders or veteran players, along with a gentle chiding that certain categories of anti-social grinders didn’t necessarily add anything to other players’ online experience;
  • A somewhat superfluous assertion that “For Bwin.Party, the game of poker is not just a numbers game.”  (Well, if it’s a business, it’s always a numbers game, and there’s no way around that).

If there was meaty section to Haas’s long-winded statement, it was probably this paragraph, which defined how Party viewed and intended to continue to implement its protected-tables system:

Protected environments for some players have existed within the online poker industry for a long time. Many poker rooms have had ‘shark tanks’, multiple ‘tiers’ of a network, a ‘welcome lounge’ and ‘beginner tables’ or for other reasons separated or ring-fenced players that technically and theoretically could play each other in order to give similarly-skilled groups of (usually new) players the opportunity to compete against each other in a relatively-safe (from sharks) environment while they learn the game, gain some experience and improve their skills. This could be seen by some more-experienced players as disingenuous, setting false expectations about what poker is like in the ‘real world’ outside of these environments, but the fact is that if new players don’t have a good experience playing then most just leave after one session and never return. So it’s in the broad interest of poker itself, and certainly our own poker room specifically, to ensure players have a good experience in at least their first few sessions.

In other words, according to Haas, newer players need some protection.  When one considers the overall online-poker environment, it’s difficult to argue otherwise.  It’s also true that no online site has yet perfected and implemented a learning environment which offers a true learner’s curve to all involved, while protecting against the sort of manipulation that caused the player backlash in the first place.

So PartyPoker will try again, looking for a system that works.  Perhaps in the process Party itself will improve, undergoing some of the changes the site needs to undergo to return to its market glory decades of a decade ago.  If Haas’s words prove true, then new players and veterans alike will be better off in the long run.

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