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It's Time To Clean Up Poker (Part 1)

by Dusty Schmidt |  Published: Apr 26, '11


Over the course of the next week or so, I am going to release a few blogs that aim to start a discussion on what we need to do as players to get poker ready for legalization. I feel it is important to take a hard look at our industry and look for things we can do to help the public’s perception of our industry as a whole. Here is my first installment of what I believe we need to do as online poker players to clean up the game of poker:

Given the recent events in online poker, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what the game should look like if and when it is legalized in the U.S. — and I do believe it will be legalized eventually.

To the outsider, today’s online poker must look like a patchwork hodge-podge with no hierarchy or obvious rule of law — the Wild, Wild West essentially (or an unregulated market run amok). It’s no one’s fault, as poker rooms and related businesses have filled obvious market needs.

But what’s worse is that when someone attempts to come in from the outside and join our community, they quickly surmise that they are in a caste system with insiders and disadvantaged outsiders (or high school run amok). Between our insider knowledge and vicious comments at the tables, we may be the only industry that actively discourages new customers.

All of this is to say that we desperately need a governing body. I’m as free-market as they come, but we need some organization to provide us with a sense of order. In the same way that kids secretly crave rules, I believe we (consciously or unconsciously) want a governing body. When a site acts in predatory fashion, what method do we have to sanction them? When a player behaves dubiously, how are they investigated and punished? A twoplustwo post?

How we arrive at a governing body will be the subject for another day, but I feel its first job should be to even the playing field, democratizing online poker so that everyone has the same shot at the brass ring. This may feel like socialization, but it really is good marketing. Yes, in the near term, an insider profits by having access to software and the like that a newcomer might now know about. But in the long term, the real money is in the sheer growth of the player pool, which can only happen if we attract and retain new participants.

In the business world they call it “churn.” Churn is the percentage of your customers who leave after trying your product. If for every one customer you add, you lose one customer, you’re just standing still. Poker rooms spend millions marketing to new customers in the interest of growing the player pool. Unfortunately, other mitigating factors are causing players to leave as quickly as they’re showing up.

Most people get their introduction to poker by either watching poker on television or playing in a home game with some friends. Since poker is such an awesome game, most people who give it a shot actually continue to play. I would bet the conversion rate for people who try out poker with their friends and then report back they like the game and would play it again in the future is astronomically high relative to most other games and/or products.

Many will want to learn more about the strategy of the game and how they can maybe make a few bucks if they can improve. For most, it isn’t a passion, but they like the fact that they are competing using their cards and their mind. And because most don’t live around a casino or know enough people interested in poker to get a regular game, they’ll make the natural progression to the online game.

That’s when things get ugly.

The online-poker industry has had a way of catering, perhaps not intentionally, to those who are “in the know.” The average poker player logs on and is looking to play a few hands. He simply wants to enjoy the game. Little does he know the myriad ways he is at a disadvantage to the sharks around him. More than likely, he will log on and play without the following:

1. Tracking programs that statistically break down hand histories
2. Buddy finding" programs that find and direct the user towards weak opponents at the tables based on their poor performance on the saved-hand histories that sharks have.
3. Memberships to data-pooling websites that track all hands played across the various online poker rooms that tell players about opponents they have never even played with.

The player logs in completely oblivious to all of this, and is at a disadvantage to many of the players around him who are “in the know.” Once this person realizes he’s being preyed upon, he is often going to be inclined to tell his friends that he’s been ripped off (even though that’s not entirely accurate). This is obviously not good for online poker.

Heads-Up Displays (HUD), hand history based tracking software and other for profit data pooling websites need to go

A HUD overlays stats on all of your opponents directly on the tables at which you’re sitting. As someone who’s used a HUD on and off over the years and has seen the evolution of various hand-history-based tracking software, I can say unequivocally I don’t like their presence in the game. While the recreational player isn’t literally being cheated, I believe that theoretically he is.

Now I know many people will disagree with this and cite that the major online poker rooms allow them and everyone has the same access to this technology. That is true. But the existence of this software — in fact, the necessity of this software — is not made apparent to the novice until it’s too late and he’s had a negative experience. Even if he becomes aware of it, he’s nonetheless disillusioned to find out that the practice of playing winning poker has been more or less automated. It’s far less a game of mind and skill than he imagined.

It wasn’t that long ago that one of the biggest impacts on your win rate was how pleasant of a time you could create for recreational players so they would be willing to come back. The late, great Chip Reese, who was famous for entertaining the fish, looked at himself a lot like an actor in a play. Give the people looking to sit down and be entertained a bad time, and they wouldn’t come back to see your show again. Make them feel at home, give them some laughs and they will come back for a good time in the future. That is the way it should be.

After all, the incomes of pros come exclusively, either directly or indirectly, from recreational players pumping money into the poker economy because they want to enjoy themselves. We really aren’t a whole lot different than any other person in the entertainment industry. And you know what, right now our show sucks.

In addition to the amateurs, do you know who else is being cheated? The best pros.

For several years now, as the popularity of these programs and websites have shrunk pros’ win rates by at least 50% on average. The programs are aiding players so much in the decision-making process, it has tremendously reduced the amount of skill needed to play the game. The programs practically scream the answers out loud to you. Some very mediocre poker minds have enjoyed quite a bit of success at the tables simply because they spent some time understanding their HUD.

In all sports, skill rather than equipment needs to be determining factor in winning. Look at how baseball regulates bats, golf legislates club making, and NASCAR monitors new technology in its racecars. As Michael Crichton wrote in “Jurassic Park,” “Just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should.” A sport in which one player can’t distance himself from the competition is a sport that’s doomed to fail. If success in poker is merely predicated on who best deciphers the sea of information that’s out there, we might as well be day traders.

Now, can you imagine if it was up to baseball players to legislate themselves? It’s safe to say that a democratization of the playing field would be slow in coming. And what if the only way they had to sanction a cheating player, or to affect any change in their industry, was to post on an online forum? It would be anarchy.

Practically speaking, the changes to online poker really need to come from a one overseeing body. The poker rooms themselves will never disallow this software and here is why: the fear that regulars who start games and create action (and therefore rake) will leave and go to sites where the programs and websites are allowed. In fact, any site that has either limited or prohibited the use of any of these programs has never had much success. It is far too risky business for any one online poker room to disallow these programs, and as a result, the recreational player will never be able to log on and play in the type of environment that he is expecting.

We need to make the online game more like real poker where you actually need to pay attention to the players around you and let your mind work on how to exploit what you saw at the poker tables, not some hand-history tracking program.

I discuss this issue further in my upcoming podcast which you can be on the lookout for here: Leatherass on Poker Podcast

Dusty Schmidt is the first ACR elite Pro at Americas Cardroom as well as an author and lead instructor at Dusty is also the author of the books “Treat Your Poker Like A Business” and “Don’t Listen To Phil Hellmuth.” In his eleven-year online-poker career, Schmidt has played about 12 million hands and won over $5,000,000. He is a former Team PokerStars pro who for two consecutive years held the highest win rate at 5/10NL on Pokerstars. He is currently an active streamer on Twitch where he streams his play at AmericasCardroom and provides commentary on the hands as well as insight into the game of poker.

Any views or opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the ownership or management of