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Phil Galfond Proposes Tons of Changes to Online Poker

Phil Galfond is one of the most successful online poker players in the world, and his opinions on the poker industry are widely respected. This week, he wrote an article on his blog discussing several issues in online poker that he feels must be addressed.

Galfond encouraged other sites to re-post what he wrote, and as we believe you guys will be interested in his thoughts, we've decided to do just that.

Please note that the opinions expressed below do not necessarily represent those of Rakeback.com. Without further adieu, here is Phil Galfond's blog post, "Let's Make Some Changes", in its entirety:

Let's Make Some Changes

The online poker landscape has changed over the last few years. Unfortunately, for the most part, things have changed for the worse.

As edges (and the regulars’ bankrolls, it seems) have decreased, extra edge-seeking has grown and grown. In my opinion, it’s now past a reasonable level. It’s gotten to the point where I think the overall quality of the games is suffering.

Game selection and seat selection are part of the soft skills that make a professional, along with tilt control, bankroll management, and all other kinds of work ethic. I thoroughly respect and endorse playing within your means and your comfort zone. I have no problem whatsoever with people who choose only to play in great games. It’s starting to go much further than that, however.

As soon as a “spot” leaves a game, zero to one hands are played. It literally instantly breaks. It’s worse when the player hasn’t even left the table, but has simply busted his stack, or clicked sit out. Everyone sits out with him, and when he reloads, everyone sits back in. How would you feel if you were playing poker for fun, just lost a $10k stack, and the 5 people at your table instantly sit out? Takes a little bit of the fun out of poker, I would think. I know that I personally would go from being annoyed that I lost a big pot to being completely embarrassed that this whole table and waitlist full of people think that I’m so bad that they are all only there because of me, and wouldn’t even play a single hand of poker with each other had I not been there.

Some of this issue stems from people having an unreasonably sized fear of playing in a –EV game. Ignore for a second that playing with tough players will make you a better player yourself, or that poker is a sport-like game that you were attracted to because of your love for competition. How many BBs will you lose in EV playing 30 hands with a few regulars? Are you really that much worse than all of them that it will cost you greatly?

-2bb/100 is a pretty high loss-rate for any regular in a game of regulars. So if you stayed another 30 hands, you’d lose two-thirds of a BB EV at most, if you’re the worst Reg at the table. If you can’t afford that risk, you’re playing above your bankroll.

The next problem that seems to have caused this is a trend that made its way over from the limit games: Button wars. I believe that there are plenty of games that would normally continue running after a weak player leaves, but everyone INSTANTLY sits out due to their fear of getting buttoned. I don’t honestly know how much EV I’m losing by trying to keep the games going, or how much people are making by rushing for the button. I just know that it’s causing the games to run less often, and the casual players to be more forcefully humiliated.

The poker community as a whole usually decides what’s acceptable, ethically, and what’s not – and it’s ever changing. Nowadays – sitting at a HU table and playing only your button = bad, Multi-accounting = bad, datamining = questionable, HUDs = cool, PTR = ???? etc.

Things like instantly sitting out when a game breaks, or 3 people sitting at a table but sitting out (waiting for someone specific usually)… they haven’t been fully condemned or approved yet, it seems.


Yes, I was annoyed enough to take a screenshot.

In addition to the sit-down-sit-out problem, we’ve had the Heads-Up lobby problem for a long time: 50 people waiting alone at HU tables, 95% of whom won’t play a hand with anyone but an absolute fish.

As much as the poker community can frown upon something, there’s only so much they can do to stop individuals from doing it. I believe that it ultimately, for changes to occur, it will have to come from the poker sites themselves taking action.

I’ve heard plenty of ideas about how to deal with certain problems, and I’ve come up with some on my own. I wanna take a minute and share my thoughts on how I think we can improve the games.

Before I dive into some, we should start with what this even means: “Improve the games”

Improving the games will look different for some players than for others. For instance, it would benefit me if they created a rule that when you sit down to play at a table, you’re locked in for 30 minutes, regardless of who comes or goes, unless you get stacked. I would get more action from the bumhunting regulars if a spot left games. This, of course, isn’t good for everyone, and isn’t something we should all accept as good for the games. Another example that would benefit me is making all tables anonymous… no screen names when everyone sits down. Again, this is something that many would disagree with (and something I’ll revisit later).

In determining if a rule or feature is “good for the game,” I believe the goals are as follows:

  1. Make playing poker an easy and fun experience for both pros and recreational players
    - Should be self-explanatory. Let's not scare anyone away
  2. Close loopholes that allow unethical players to gain an advantage over those who choose to be more honest
    - Don't punish the good guys
  3. Promote the play of more hands
    - In addition to more regular games being good for players, it's obviously something that poker sites have major financial incentive to do. We need their goals to be met as well as ours.

Okay, now that we have something to work with, let’s dive into the ideas/problems (These are not necessarily my ideas, just ideas I’ve heard and my opinions about them):

Databases/HUDs/Tracking Sites

I’ve heard differing views on these, whether they are good or bad for the game.

It’s my opinion that result tracking sites are bad for everyone. For the recreational player, it could be embarrassing for their losses to be publicly displayed. For pros, it’s led to an increased level of bumhunting… much less action, which is bad for the poker sites as well.

Personal DBs and HUDs are a bit different. No one’s results are public, which takes care of a lot of my issues with tracking sites. That said, databases and HUDs put the recreational player at a greater disadvantage than they already are. Sure, they’re allowed to use a HUD as well, but that’s a dumb argument. I am not saying DBs and HUDs are UNFAIR… only that they hurt the recreational players further.

What’s more important, by far, is that they are scary. If a recreational player saw what your screen looked like while you played against them, how much less would they be excited to play? And some may not understand what a HUD is… some will talk about how the internet pros use programs that play for them or cheat, and use that as a reason not to play online. Obviously, that’s not what we’re doing, but we can’t prevent people from thinking that.

I personally don’t think the sites should ban HUDs. (I do think they should shut down tracking sites however possible)

The main reason I’m against banning HUDs is that it’s unenforceable. Players will still be able to “illegally” use HUDs and gain a large advantage over those who abide by the rules. If they could actually stop them, I’d be all for it, but that’s just not a reality.

The best way to slightly level the playing field, and to derail tracking sites, is with screen names.

1. Screen Name Changes

Some sites already allow you to change your screen name every so often. Some sites don’t, and they punish multiaccounting as best they can. Some are very lax with opening new accounts on different skins.

The main problem with the sites that don’t allow screen name changes is that some people will multiaccount and not get caught. This will give them an unfair advantage over those who choose not to multiaccount. In a perfect world, multiaccounting (or name changes) is either completely allowed, or it’s strictly enforced. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for a site to catch everyone. For this reason, I tend to lean towards allowing screen name changes as a solution to this problem.

Downsides of allowing SN changes:

1. More difficult for the public to uncover collusion or other cheating

2. Railbirds don’t get the enjoyment of following their favorite players

Upsides:

1. No one gains an unfair advantage

2. Tracking sites and DBs become less accurate/usable (much better for pros and recreational players)

With any decision, there will be pros and cons. None of these issues I cover will be a slam dunk. I’m sure many people will disagree with my views for the above reasons or for some that I haven’t considered. With all of this, my goal is to start discussion. I’m not assuming that I have all the answers.

My suggestion for the screen name issue is as follows: Sites allow players to change their screen name every 2 months. Players will still have a main account name (where you send transfers to, that they login with). At stakes 50/100nl/plo and higher (and equivalent limit games), players account names will show at the table. At stakes 25/50 and lower, only their screen name will. (I firmly believe player notes should NOT be carried over when one changes SN, as it defeats the purpose and encourages real multi-accounting)

This system is mostly the normal screen name change system, but it has a loophole so that people can still rail the high stakes games. Under this system, sites should be very vigilant in going after those who multi-account at high stakes. We also should have faith in the site’s security, as we’ll be more dependant on them to stop collusion rings and other potential cheaters.

2. Anonymous HU tables (or 6m tables)

This idea has been thrown around a bunch, and used sometimes.  The benefits and risks are very similar to the above section (changing screen names).  I personally believe that SN changes accomplishes the same thing, but better.

Players won’t all of a sudden start playing more games because they’re anonymous.  If anything, all of the game selectors will be overly frightened that they’ll be playing an elite pro.

I’m not opposed to offering some Anonymous HU tables as an option, in case people want it, but I don’t think it solves much, and certainly not anything that SN changes wouldn’t already solve.

3. HU Tables/Lobby

This is a tough one. I’ve heard many players debate the two most common systems for HU tables:

1) Infinite HU tables – Whoever wants to create and sit at a HU table is allowed to. Lobby displays all of the tables.

2) King of the Hill – A specific number of (non-full) HU tables are allowed at any point. This means that those willing to play anyone will end up “holding” the tables, as the only way to take it from them is to play against one of them until they leave.

I probably will tiptoe a bit on this one, as I am clearly biased. A King of the Hill situation would be very profitable for me. I’ll do my best to be objective, and hope that this can spark some good discussion.

I believe that something HAS to be done to the current system. A lobby of 25 players sitting alone at HU tables is ridiculous, and bad for the game, in my opinion. As much as no player deserves priority over another, it’s clear that someone who gives action is better for the game and better for a poker site than someone who doesn’t. That said, someone who chooses to exclusively bumhunt is well within their rights, and should be allowed to do so.

The problem with Infinite tables is that it discourages action, both amongst regulars, and between regulars and recreational players. I truly believe (though I have no data) that many recreational players have been turned off enough to stop playing by the way that games form around them, and ONLY around them. All of the players sitting alone looks awful.

King of the Hill (from now on: KotH) encourages action between regulars and makes online poker less intimidating and embarrassing for recreational players. It gives priority to stronger players, and those who give action. (This could be considered a good or bad thing, but certainly is good from a sites perspective, as it encourages players to give action)

A major downside of KotH is that it could prevent some games from occurring. If average reg A and average reg B would be willing to play each other, they no longer have a chance to, since neither will claim a HU table, and neither wants to play Tough pro A, B, or C in order to get that table. This was a very good argument against KotH structure four years ago. It doesn’t totally hold water today. It’s very rare that these HU matches are taking place. That said, it still would be bad to prevent them from happening, should things ever change and people start playing poker again.

My proposal is: Maximum of 5 HU tables that aren’t running. Infinite running tables, of course. At a 6max or full table, you can right click on anyone, and choose ‘play HU’ in a drop down menu. They are NOT notified of this. If each of you click it for each other, a button pops up that says “Create HU Table with xxxxx?”. Assuming you both click yes, you get a HU table created for you (and you can always add more HU tables).

The reason I think people shouldn’t be notified is that everyone will challenge the weak players, and it will get embarrassing and annoying for them. They may feel pressured to play HU to ‘not back down’ even when they’re uncomfortable with it. Sure, you can both decide in chat that you want to, but I think that system won’t be any worse than the current system… people still try to steal weaker players from a game in chat.

What I like about this solution, is that the lobby won’t be full of HU tables, but anyone has the opportunity to play HU. You can have a HU table when you are ACTUALLY going to play someone HU.

It gives a small advantage to the players willing to play anyone, who will get to hold the static tables, however I don’t think that’s unfair. Hopefully it will encourage some action to fight over those spots. The down side of this, mainly, is that it’s a little bit complicated. I just thought of this, so I haven’t worked out the kinks, and I hope people will discuss it and perhaps come up with some cleaner solutions.

I’ve also heard it suggested that anyone at a HU table should be forced to play 10 hands if someone sits with them. While I understand the value in this, I like my proposed solution much more.

4. Round Robin Tables/Games  (Similar to Rush Poker)

The idea here, basically, is that rather than joining a table of 5 other players, you join a group/lobby of, say, 30 players. You’re randomly seated at a table of 6, and that table changes. Rush Poker had it change every hand. Maybe it could change every 10 hands, or 30 hands.

The point is, many more games will run off of fewer ‘spots’.

I like some of the merits of this idea, but I’m not 100% sold. I do feel strongly that it shouldn’t replace the normal poker table system, as table dynamics and history are a very important and interesting part of the game. One major downside here is that we split the player pool at each limit.  Half may choose to play at Round Robin tables, and half at traditional tables. This could potentially lead to fewer games running.

5. Must Move Tables

This is the idea that I feel most strongly about. It’s worked in cardrooms around the world for years. Why do we not have it online??

Must move tables are pretty self explanatory. If over 4 people are on a list for a game, a must move game is started with them. I believe that no one should be forced to play HU in a most move game. I think 4 players is a good minimum, though perhaps 3 could work.

Clearly, this would lead to at least twice as many games running at higher stakes. (especially with must moves into the must moves)

Do I really need to expand upon this? Guys, Pokerstars? Can we please do this?!?!

6. Rewards/Promotions for Game Starters and Hands Played

This is really a couple of random ideas. The first is simply that sites could hold promotions every week, day, whenever. “During the hours of 6pm and 10pm EST today, whoever wins the most BBs and whoever plays the most hands wins $5000 each” (and other prizes, you can be creative) Obviously, this needs to only count at 6max or full ring tables, to avoid friends chip dumping. This doesn’t solve any huge problems, but seems like an easy promo to get people to play more (and more tables) which is something the sites want. I assume the extra rake generated will pay for the prizes easily. This seems to me like a more exciting and more tangible replacement for ‘Happy Hour’.

The 2nd has to do with VPPs, rakeback, whatever else sites can offer players. I believe that players who start games are more valuable to a poker site. If you played 300k hands this year, but only when a massive fish is at a table, sure you raked $ for the site, but you didn’t really make them anything. Had you not been there, someone else would’ve sat in your seat and played. The poker site would have made the same amount of rake. They shouldn’t value you, to put it bluntly. I don’t think they should punish you, of course. I just think that they should go out of their way to reward the players who are bringing value to the site.

If I’m a recreational player, and every time I sit at 25/50, I can start 3 games from nothing, I think I deserve more in rewards than the players who flock to me. If I’m a reg who’s willing to take on anyone, who is the first to sit and the last to sit out, I believe I deserve more rewards as well.

The rewards will never be big enough to change the way games are started/played at high stakes, but they could make a difference in the smaller games, and to be honest, I think it’s just more fair. Those who create games should be rewarded. (by the way, I don’t personally create many games, so I’m not talking about myself)

7. Addressing the Button War Problem, Games INSTA-breaking

Guys, this one has me stumped. I could use some help. The way that everyone rushes for the ‘sitout next BB’ button as soon as someone leaves the table (or even sits out) is so horrible for the games. It’s embarrassing, honestly.

I can’t for the life of me come up with a solution, though. Sure, you can force two hands to be played when it breaks to HU, but then everyone is just buttoning the last two players rather than the last one. I’m not sure if this can be fixed with rule changes, but I don’t have much faith in the community to change it on it’s own. As much as I believe it really doesn’t hurt anyone to play an extra 20 minutes at a tough table, I know that most people don’t see it that way. As long as everyone has a fear of being buttoned, they’ll continue to button each other.


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