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PokerStars Heads Up Sit and Go Lobbies Dominated by Third-Party Software Add-on

(Note: The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of FlushDraw.net or its owners.)

If you are a PokerStars Heads Up Sit and Go player, you will probably be very familiar with a program called “Sharkystrator.” This single program has a stranglehold on every PokerStars Heads Up Sit and Go lobby above the $30 buy in level, and it’s all controlled by a single man.

SharkyStrator, owned by a Croatian programmer named Marko Šimurina, has achieved dominance in high-stakes HUSNG on PokerStars.  [Note: Šimurina’s full name was not known to the author as of the original publication of this piece.]  The program is designed to allow a player to join a semi-private sit-‘n-go queue run in conjunction with the SharkyStrator client, while highly automating the table-selection process.  Implied, but not directly stated, is that the program is an assist to so-called “bumhunters” by allowing table-selection options that help avoid other regulars, including other SharkyStrator clients.   At first, this program was only used by a few high volume grinders, making their grinds a little easier by automating their game selection and still managing to play as many tables as possible.

As time has gone on, however, the program has become a “must have” for any player hoping to get even reasonable volumes at Heads Up Sit and Gos. Getting a game without the program is difficult, and it’s nearly impossible to game select (a requirement for anyone to be a serious winning heads-up player) unless you are running it, due to its automated speed and live-time monitoring of the PokerStars HUSNG lobbies. Sharkystrator also appears by default preference to sit its owners against “unknowns” (which means against players not using the software), putting anyone without the program at a big disadvantage.  [Note: This corrects the original version of the editorial, which stated that the program auto-sat against non-users of the program, which may be implied but is technically inaccurate.]

PokerStars LogoThe costs of Marko’s program are also not exactly small, with the “Low Stakes” version costing $35 for 6 months, and the “Nose Bleed” version costing $540 for 6 months (there are three other levels available as well). It doesn’t sound like a massive cost compared to the buy-ins being played, but I think that it is priced a little high as players are not in a position that allows them to not use the program if playing Heads Up Sit and Gos is their profession.

Should a third-party program be allowed to achieve such a dominant market position?  Similar to the long-running “HUD” argument, is SharkyStrator really in the best interests of players?

Here is where it really starts getting concerning to me. Šimurina, in my opinion, currently holds the keys to the kingdom of PokerStars Heads Up action, and he’s not afraid to wield a ban hammer, blocking access to his software, for the slightest of perceived slights. Back in July 2013, a thread appeared on 2+2 from “Ph33rox” about how Marko had just banned him from using Sharkystrator. His crime? He suggested improvements to the program, as well as mentioning that the pricing may be a little high considering this program is now a requirement to play any volumes.

If this had been any other piece of poker software, “Ph33rox” could have shrugged it off and bought one of the competition’s packages. The problem in this case is, there is no competing software. Šimurina has engineered the way Sharkystrator works to preclude another program from taking any of his business, by building a subset, a semi-private club, of SharkyStrator users who readily know each other at the tables and who are effectively grabbing “first dibs” against unknown players who try their hand at middle and higher HUSNG stakes.  [As above, this update replaces a statement in the original version describing the software’s implied “auto sit” application against non-SharkyStrator users, which appears to be a technical error based on incorrect information. — ed.]

A Heads Up SnG on PokerStars

A Heads Up SnG on PokerStars

Following the “Ph33rox” banning, 2+2’s marketing manager, Bobo Fett attempted to get some questions answered in the Sharkystrator support thread on 2+2, regarding how Šimurina had handled the situation. Šimurina was aloof, and refused to answer the questions with comments such as:

“Unfortunately it looks as (if) i need to repeat myself here, everything about this subject I have already said.”

Šimurina was posting as “msim” on 2+2, and with his lack of any real response to Bobo’s questioning, the thread was closed by 2+2. This was a two-edged sword. While it illustrated the unwillingness of many 2+2 members and SharkyStrator users to support Šimurina‘s attitude, it also effectively ended public-forum discussion by Sharkystrator customers regarding the product and its issues.

I have spoken to several members of the Heads Up Sit and Go community, and while some of them do use the program, none of them are happy with the current situation with Marko being the gatekeeper to being a winning Heads Up player. They have asked me to keep their identities under my hat as they fear retribution for speaking out about this situation.

What they were able to tell me was actually rather surprising. Following the “Ph33rox” banning, PokerStars had started to talk about developing a new “Battlenet” style system for the Heads Up Sit and Go queues to remove the monopoly that Marko had developed, and in the eyes of many, was abusing.

Because of the significant downsides of this style of system for the Heads Up community, including creating massive “Reg” on “Reg” violence, many of the better known members of the community openly campaigned to keep the current system in place.  PokerStars, perhaps fearing a decline in HUSNG traffic, may have stopped working on the concept, or at least has done so without additional consumer input.  The pro-SharkyStrator players also did their best to calm the growing dissension in the community following Marko’s comments about his customers, as several posters were calling for Marko’s virtual blood.

SharkyStrator-logoThis campaign saved Šimurina‘s business by seeming to cause Stars to rethink its Battlenet plans, so you would have thought he would have been appreciative, and maybe even thankful. That’s what the community members who had just publicly supported him hoped as well, but that hope was in vain. Marko remains in sole control of all aspects of his program. Several suggestions have been made by community members to improve the software, all of which have been ignored, if not outright refused. If I was going to illustrate to someone how not to run a business, this would seemingly fit the bill quite nicely.

So, what has PokerStars done about this monopoly? Not much to date. Apart from suggestion a solution that was largely rejected by the Heads Up community, which more than any other poker format, depends on identifying and exploiting weaker and unknown opponents, there hasn’t really been much coming from PokerStars Towers on the Isle of Man. Sharkystrator is on the list of PokerStars approved programs, and there isn’t much chance of it being banned anytime soon. One possible explanation is that the program apparently uses a basic scripting language that would mean PokerStars in blocking it, could affect similar scripts in other programs, or would have to attempt to detect the use of SharkyStrator via alternate means.  Both options could have secondary impacts that could affect players who mass multi-table.

The current situation surrounding PokerStars Heads Up Sit and Gos is very messy, and it can’t continue on in the same vein indefinitely. One person and one third-party program having such market control over so many poker players is bad for the game, and with Šimurina‘s less-than-cordial attitude towards his customers, the problem is magnified. I don’t know what the solution to this issue is, but the sooner PokerStars starts talking to the Heads Up Sit and Go community about a new solution the better.

I’d like to thank the members of the heads-up community who were kind enough to provide background for this piece, and hope that the game you play is fixed soon.

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