The Problem With an Online Poker Rating System
by Dusty Schmidt | Published: Nov 09, '11
I want to preface this blog with a statement that I am A. Opposed to HUDS, B. Opposed to “fish tracking software” and C. opposed to the selling of hand histories which aid people to make decisions against people using information gained from hands in which they were not involved in.
Much has been made in the recent deliberations in congress about the concept of a rating system. What some consumer protection people (as good as their intentions may be) seem to be advocating is for a rating system for poker players much in the same way online chess rates players. An analogy that I feel is flawed was recently used saying something to the effect of recreational online poker players will be logging in with no information available to them which would be the equivalent of a guy looking to play a pickup basketball game and not realizing he is playing a bunch of NBA players.
Another point that was made was that in poker, the consumer has no idea what they are spending (in terms of EV) on their entertainment. For example, if you know a slot machine pays back 90% and you make $1,000 worth of bets, then your entertainment costs you $100. The fear is that in poker, the consumer has no idea what their entertainment costs. Since it is impossible to quantify how bad they will get their money in, this presents an unknown in terms of what their entertainment costs. That is their case anyway.
I will detail below my response to these analogies that are flying around.
Here are my concerns:
• The first concern that I have is how do you create a fair and equitable rating system? Poker has a tremendous amount of variance associated with it. I have perhaps one of the largest sample sizes of hands played of anyone. I have played nearly 10 million hands in my career. At identical stakes, I have had periods in the prime of my career where I have played 100,000 hands of breakeven poker and 100,000 hand stretches where I have won close to $200,000. If I were to start my career on the new licensed and regulated poker platforms losing money in my first 100,000 hands what is that doing to help the average consumer? On the flip side, if I were to be very lucky for my first 100,000 hands, how does this benefit the consumer?
While I think it is a huge unknown how a strong rating might affect a good player’s ability to play against weaker opponents, it is reasonable to expect that some with high ratings might not want that to be known publicly. Might that encourage some to commit fraud and create accounts in the names of friends or relatives so that they can obtain a fresh account? Obviously the aim of licensed and regulated poker should not be to incentivize players to engage in fraud. The opposite result is what we all crave.
I think that it is also very difficult to determine how exactly we are rating players over time. What if someone’s skill deteriorates? Are we just rating the last 10,000 hands? 100,000 hands? 1M hands? The life of the account? I think it is very tough to come up with a fair way to do this. If it is for the life of the account, then we run into the same problem of how to rate people in the first place. If it is for the last 10k or 100k hands, once someone’s rating got very good, then they are just going to play 24 tables at once at micro stakes and in a matter of days or weeks, turn their rating to something horrible and then rinse and repeat.
I think it is also important to look at the situation from the perspective of the weaker player as well. After all, that is who a consumer protection agency is mostly protecting anyway. How will a weaker player feel if they want to go to a table and play for $500 or $1,000 dollars and the first thing everyone sees is how awful their rating is? Many people like online poker for the anonymity of the whole experience. Many do not like to play at a live table where they might make an embarrassing play and feel ridicule. With a rating system, they are going to feel embarrassed the moment they sit down. In fact, seeing such a poor rating is going to cause everyone with a good rating to immediately flock to the table to try and sit with the poor player. Now the poor player is actually going to spend EVEN MORE money on their entertainment because they are now competing against competition that would far exceed how strong the table they sat at might have been if his results were unknown and the better players hadn’t been so wise to prey upon them!
This is of course the opposite of what we want to achieve. I see a rating system in this case to have essentially the same effect as the “fish finding programs” many pros use to find weaker players. With a rating system, this information is now made immediately available to everyone scanning the poker lobby which I think is counterproductive to the cause.
• I strongly believe that online poker should aim to emulate the experience of brick and mortar poker as much as possible. When I walk into a poker room, I do not have any information on my opponents unless I personally recognize them. Why should I be automatically given a wealth of information about my opponents when I play online in the form of a rating system? If I know I am sitting with someone who has a top level rating, I will know literally hundreds of things about that opponents game right off the bat. I know that almost all great players check raise the flop between 14-20% of the time. I know that they will almost always play approximately 25% of their starting hands and raise approximately 20% of the time. I know that after they raise before the flop, they will bet the flop between 60-75% of the time. They will also follow through with a bet on the turn approximately 45-50% of the time. I will stop there because I think you get my point. A rating system does not achieve emulating actual poker.
One of my big points with disallowing HUDS is that I want to emulate the experience of playing actual poker as much as possible. In live poker, I am not spoon fed information on all of my opponents through the form of a heads up display like I am online. Which is why I would like to see HUDS completely outlawed (which will also mean that the only way to effectively enforce this is to eliminate the ability for players to retrieve their hand histories in the manner they do now) or as a 2nd best option, HUDS provided to each and every customer upon signing up for an online poker room. I think a rating system brings with it many of the same problems that a HUD does.
• How can we effectively create a rating system? Is it from total money won? Or is it from your win rate? If it is from your win rate, then what is to prevent someone from simply losing purposely at low stakes games to artificially lower their win rate and rating? If it is from total money won, then it could possibly unfairly penalize consumers who happen to be lucky the times they feel like playing higher stakes games and give them high ratings undeservedly. One MAJOR point is that if someone is rated highly, then why should their income essentially become public knowledge? If we are basing it on money won, then people will know what they make. I don’t think that poker rooms should be making this information public. Publicizing how much a consumer wins seems counterproductive to wanting to protect the consumer.
• How will a rating system protect the consumer anymore than they are already protected through being able to choose what stakes games they play? I can’t imagine too many people will actually be protected by this. It is virtually common knowledge amongst anyone who understands poker (and who would actually be willing to deposit a meaningful amount of money on the poker room) that the higher the stakes you play, the better the competition is. I don’t think there are going to be too many people who deposit large sums of money expecting it to be as easy at high stakes as it is at low stakes games.
• A rating system will do nothing for the most popular form of poker anyway. Tournament poker is the most played form of poker to my knowledge. When someone enters the event, they are paired at random with others. A rating system for these players would dramatically alter the nature of the competition itself if people were to be paired up at random and then be spoon fed information on how well their opponent plays. Not to mention, how does this protect the consumer? If they see a bunch of very good players, it is against the rules for them to quit the tournament and be refunded their money if they choose to quit. I think having tournaments with buy ins of as little as $1 and as high as $10,000 (like what currently exists on Poker Stars) is adequate enough “warning” for the consumer. Any reasonable consumer should know that the more money you compete for, the better the competition will be. I think this is common sense.
• While this is not necessarily a new point, I think it deserves mention that part of the skill in poker is to deceive your opponent. It is the nature of the game itself. Deception is essentially a skill that every poker player aims to improve at all times. To try and remove deception as much as possible and provide clear cut choices for the protection of the poker consumer is just not feasible in this specific game. In chess, a rating system makes sense for many reasons. People want to play against people with similar skill sets in most cases. There is not money involved in online chess. With poker, people sign on to play a game where deception is one of the fundamental components to the game itself. There is a reason we don’t turn our hole cards over for the table to see! Deceiving opponents into thinking in a way about your play that is contradictory to the way you actually play is fundamental to the game itself. To essentially have your results publicized unwillingly gives away information about your game that takes away from one of the fundamental skills in poker.
• What are the goals of a rating system? I am a believer that poker is viewed by most as not only a form of entertainment, but also a sport that perhaps one day they can become skilled enough that they can do it for a living. Over 100,000 people have read my book, Treat Your Poker Like A Business (which is now 50% off using code DUSTY) presumably all of which did so because they either already make poker their career and want to improve, or would like to make poker their career one day.
I don’t think people want to play poker for the same reasons they play a slot machine. So while empowering them with informed decisions makes sense, as a whole, poker has become very much a sport and one in which anyone; no matter how short or tall, skinny or fat, poor or rich, can legitimately work at and hope to one day realize their dreams of becoming a professional poker player. This is one of the strongest things the game has going for itself. The more we can create a level playing field, the healthier the sport becomes and the more legitimate a career in poker is perceived. I don’t believe that we should try and treat poker exactly like a slot machine, a lottery or any other comparable form of gambling. Poker is a game of skill. I believe that the primary goal should be to preserve the integrity of the game itself. I do not believe a rating system does anything above and beyond the protections offering stakes as low as 1 cent 2 cent and incrementally increasing to as high as $500/$1,000 already does. I think it is common sense that the lower stakes you play, the weaker the opponents will be.
Alternative suggestions to protect the consumer:
• I think what we can do instead is give consumers information suggesting that they play limits that best reflect what limits they should play. Perhaps a test could be given (for which they could opt out of taking if they don’t care to take the test) that would indicate what limit they should have a reasonable chance to profit from.
• Perhaps the poker rooms themselves could publicize how much money a typical player with the skill set they have (based on their test score) typically loses per every 100 hands they play? This would help the consumer make more informed choices. I thought Kurt Eggert made an interesting point in his congressional testimony when he said slot machines sometimes pay out 98% and sometimes as low as 85% (and probably lower in some cases). So effectively the consumer does not know if $1,000 worth of wagering costs them $20 for their entertainment or $150. I get that point. In poker, it is obviously impossible to accurately inform the consumer what they are spending, but perhaps some historical data from players with similar skill sets might better inform them than a rating system.
• Setting deposit limits, stop losses and times of the day their account will not let them log in (to protect people from playing drunk on weekend nights when they do not want to) would be tremendously beneficial to them. None of this should be mandatory in my opinion, but allowing the consumer to set these settings on their account and not making effective any changes they make to their account for 48 or 72 hours (to protect them from changing their settings automatically) would make a lot of sense.
If I were to make one point and one point only about the subject, I think the strongest is that the hierarchy of stakes ranging from .01/.02 blinds to $500/$1,000 blinds and everywhere in between does the best job of protecting consumers I can think of. I don’t think anyone would feel surprised to find out that the competition gets better as the stakes increase. I think that the wide variety of stakes does a great job of protecting the consumers and a rating system is too convoluted and does nothing to protect the consumer.