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The Online Poker Katamari

by Jennifer Mason |  Published: Mar 01, 2010


Online poker software options in the 21st century can now be divided into those which still welcome U.S. players, and those which don’t. You’d be forgiven for thinking that because the majority of European players have a free choice of sites that their options were vastly wider than those of their American counterparts, but actually they’re shrinking, as the “Katamari” phenomenon increasingly condenses liquidity into larger multi-skin hubs, and the big U.S.-friendly sites get slicker, richer, and more promotion-savvy.

Katamari, for those who skipped the PlayStation 2’s more esoteric game range, or who don’t have an iPhone, is a bizarre game in which the task repeatedly set is to roll an adhesive ball over everything in sight, gradually accumulating larger and larger items until it can absorb the sun. It’s odd, addictive, and strangely satisfying to start with a couple of paperclips and end up with whole towns stuck to your Katamari, and apparently a lucrative model to follow in a business which is still dominated by a few brands which got going in time to catch the crest of the poker wave.

The same phenomenon appears to be happening in the world of European poker sites. Slowly but surely raising numbers on software which either absorbs previously independent smaller sites, or grants white labels to new skins, leaving the idea of an entrepreneurial start-up with its own proprietary software nearly impossible to actualise. There have been exceptions to this rule that “new + independent = small and possibly soon merged” though, like PKR which launched for real-money play in August 2006, and the Cake network which started in the same year and now hosts 51 skins.
Laptop and Cards
Other sites have given independence a go before moving to an existing hub which provides the traffic needed, or changing software a number of times before sticking to the largest Katamari in the hope of there being one less thing to worry about.

A good example of one which looked like it had the tools (that is, money and profile) to go it alone but ended up on the iPoker network is Mansion, which started out with apparently unlimited bankroll, offering in the New Year 2007 “100k a day” guaranteed tournaments which ended up proving attractive to overlay-hungry players but not in the numbers necessary to creep close enough to making the guarantees.

Mansion moved to the Ongame Network, but after just a year hopped over to iPoker where it remains in good company with acquisitions William Hill (previously Cryptologic) and Victor Chandler (previously Tribeca Tables, software which was bought by Playtech, owner of iPoker).

Incidentally, of all the larger items of online poker furniture absorbed into a Katamari, Tribeca Tables seems to be the one most mourned by its prior players. Unique software, a hard core of loyal players who even sometimes made real-life friends in the lobby, and reasonable traffic meant that the change to unfamiliar surroundings left some of them wondering why the software had been, in the words of former user and poker journalist Rod Stirzaker, “Quietly taken into the barn and shot and everyone relocated to a new bigger farm.”

I was initially surprised to learn that so many poker brands operate with only a handful of different online software providers. One reputable online monitor lists only six independents (Party, Full Tilt, PKR, PokerStars, Betfair, and Everest) and only 10 other aggregated networks, and of those there are really only a couple of large ones, made up of a staggering number of skins. iPoker has been listed as having 65 skins in 2008, and must be in three figures now.

Basic software options might be more limited than they at first appear, but that doesn’t necessarily mean players are getting a raw deal personally. Given that their near-identical site is going to have the same pros and cons as any other on the same software (for example at the time of writing resizeable tables are still in development on iPoker, so it doesn’t matter whether you struggle to multi-table on Titan, bet365, Betfred or BlueSquare) the rewards, bonuses, and in some cases rakeback deals individual skins can offer will be the magnets attracting people to their version.

However, they have to tread a fine line between offering something their host software disallows (exceptionally good deals on rakeback etc…) and something which lets them stand out from the host of competitors. Recently, more underlying problems with being a small piece of a continually growing poker Katamari were revealed as skins like NoIQ and Blondepoker were given their marching orders for (as initially published) giving “overly competitive player rewards” and having a poor shark-to-fish ratio respectively.

In the first case, joining a multi-skin hub puts the individual sites in the position of having to adhere to rules, and lots of them. In the second, simplistically put, small overall numbers combined with winning (that is, withdrawing) players puts skins in the red in a deposit-to-withdrawal ratio. If the Katamari can be seen as a ball of money rather than players, with many parts to its skeleton, then removing pieces of the framework which decrease the size of the ball is an understandable, if player-alienating, business decision.

In 2010 new skins will continue to pop up, I imagine, and old ones network-hop as they have done in the previous years, looking for the golden combination of ready-made traffic and less tight regulation. The only thing which will halt the piece-by-piece growth of the poker Katamari’s, or at least send them spinning in a new direction, will be the relaxation of U.S. anti-gambling legislation, which I also tentatively predict will eventually come about. Until then, true competition online is not between poker players at the virtual tables but between the big and the bigger networks vying to attract them. Spade Suit

Jen Mason is a part of She is responsible for its live tournament coverage in the UK and abroad.