PokerStars Targets Ratholing Tactics by Players in Pending Update
In an effort to curb an unethical player practice known as ratholing, PokerStars has announced the introduction of a new series of programmed player restrictions collectively called the Buy-In Obligations system, designed to deter players from removing poker winnings from an online table during play.
According to Stars reps posting on public forums, the new system is set to go live in a little over a week, on March 3rd.
Ratholing, an online and often multi-tabled variation of the old live-game angleshot of “going south,” is the practice of taking a significant portion of one’s table stakes out of play, while continuing to participate in the game. Both the live and online versions of ratholing have the same intent: to deprive other players of a square chance of winning back a large amount of money after a big win by the would-be ratholer. By taking the winnings off the table, the ratholer than deprives the other players of a chance to win back much of what had just been lost, thereby violating the old poker principle of table stakes.
In online poker, ratholing has taken on a second and even more pernicious aspect — the ability to take money off the tables by shifting from one table to another, all at the same stakes. The vastness of an industry-leading site such as PokerStars, where many dozens of tables can exist at the same stakes, thereby served as a giant feeding ground for ratholers, who simply shifted from table to another after winning a healthy-sized pot.
The issue has long been a bane to both the player population in general and to PokerStars, which had long been aware of the protocol-violating practice and had promised a year ago, in March, to find a fix for the issue. However, the complexities of tracking the practice and developing a method to block it took much longer than Stars had initially anticipated.
According to PokerStars Ring Game Manager Nick Williamson, posting publicly on several prominent player forums, the new series of protocols will be implemented first at the site’s predominantly popular full-ring $1/$2 no-limit hold’em tables, and will be expanded to other stakes and game variants — including Stars’ new and popular “Zoom” format tabled — if the rollout is both technically successful and popular with players.
The following 2+2 post by Williamson explains the new system in more detail:
On March 3rd, we will be deploying our new Buy-In Obligations feature to Full Ring $1/$2 NLHE. Assuming we see no issues, we will quickly expand this to cover our entire Big Bet Ring Games offering.
A similar rollout for Zoom will follow.
Players impacted will be those who frequently:
- 1. Buy in for less than the maximum allowed buy-in
- 2. Play some hands
- 3. Leave the table with a larger stack than they originally brought to the table
- 4. Sit down at a similar table with a smaller stack size than they had when they left their prior table
Players currently must attempt to repeat this behavior at similar table types more than eight times in a 20-hour period in order to be restricted by this feature. Such players will be required to buy in for a higher minimum when sitting at certain tables; they will not be impacted in any other way.
Buy-In Obligations are a mechanism that limits the number of times you can leave tables after winning money only to re-join other tables with a smaller stack size. Currently, players are limited to re-joining eight times during a rolling 20-hour period.
When you pass the limit, your minimum buy-in will be replaced by the stack size you had previously left a table with. This is the reason this feature is titled “Buy-In Obligations” as leaving a table with winnings creates an Obligation to re-join future table with that same stack size.
Buy-In Obligations apply to all tables that have the same buy-in range, as measured by the range of big blinds players are initially allowed to bring to the table, such as a 40-100bb range. Therefore, Obligations created at a $0.05/$0.10 (40-100bb) NLHE table will also apply to a $5/$10 (40-100bb) PLO table. However, Obligations created at $0.05/$0.10 (40-100bb) NLHE tables will not apply to $0.05/$0.10 (100-250bb) NLHE tables. Instead, 100-250bb tables will have their own Buy-In Obligations.
It’s also important to note that this in no way restricts players from buying in for the minimum buy-in on as many tables as they wish when they have no active Obligations. The Obligations will also never require you to buy in for more than the default maximum buy-in for the table you are joining.
While most players will never be directly affected by Buy-In Obligations, the introduction of this feature aims to decrease table breaking and seating “meta games”, as well as to discourage players from moving too many times. This will allow players to focus on playing poker, rather than on continuously finding new tables to play.
The first of the four points brought up by Williamson actually points to a second player tactic often held in disfavor by players but actually separate from the ratholing problem, that of shortstacking. Short-stacking is the practice of buying in at a table for much less than the maximum buy-in that the table allows.
Players who buy in for the maximum revile the practice of shortstacking, because shortstackers — especially if multiple short stacks are present at a single table, can alter the balance and strategy of a cash-game by implementing simpler poker strategies. The one- or two-move poker practiced by many shortstackers places more of an emphasis on pre-hand play and hand selection than it does on complex post-flop poker play, and is part of why the practice is held in disfavor by many players.
However, the shortstacking practice (and fix) is technically a separate issue, and could be addressed via alternate means such as the creation of online tables where minimum buy-ins are raised relative to maximum buy-in allowed. Online sites including Stars, however, have been loathe to address shortstacking complaints in such a manner for fear of negatively impact the total rake generated from the tables.
PokerStars’ attempted fix for the situation, as one can see above, only goes into effect after such ratholing is done eight (8) times in a single 20-hour period. That’s an attempt at balance in the move, trying not so much to punish casual players who may be intimidated by deep table stakes as it is an attempt to dissuade committed grinders from the ongoing practice.
Player response was generally favorable but distributed widely, including concerns over implementation and possible loopholes in the system. However, only a full-scale rollout is likely to determine if the new “BIO” system is effective in its intent.