May 03, 2019
5 Biggest Challenges Facing Online Poker Today
By RTR Dennis
Online poker definitely isn’t at the peak it was over a decade ago. Traffic has gradually declined, and the industry has consolidated into fewer sites. But does this mean that internet poker is doomed to keep shrinking year by year?
Not exactly. In fact, the industry could start growing again if the right things happen. The only problem, though, is that the game has some distinct challenges facing it right now. Here are five obstacles that online poker must overcome to get back on the path towards growth.
Bots, which are programs that can play online poker for the users, were once looked at as a novelty in the game. They could play poker 24/7, but they weren’t usually good enough to win.
Fast-forward to now, though, and these programs have enhanced skills. We need only look back to Libratus crushing a group of elite poker pros to see what artificial intelligence is capable of.
Most bots still aren’t on the same level as Libratus. However, they’re good enough to beat low and even mid-stakes games today. That said, online poker rooms must continue to watch for odd playing patterns and root out AI.
Nobody wants to play at a bot-infested poker site. Therefore, the future of internet poker depends upon minimizing this threat as much as possible.
Internet poker used to be something of a Wild West, where unregulated sites served players from all over the globe. But governments got tired of watching potential tax dollars float away to Caribbean-based sites and took action.
Many countries now feature online gambling regulation. The UK, Denmark, France, Italy, Spain, and Sweden are just a few of the countries that feature regulated internet poker on a national level.
Unfortunately, this regulation is also dividing player pools up across the world. Many of the same nations that have legal online poker have ring-fenced their player pools. These isolated markets prevent players from competing in the same pool and creating larger tournaments and cash-game action.
Other countries have limited regulation across certain states. The US, for example, only offers legal internet poker in Delaware, New Jersey, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. The latter state doesn’t even have their market up and running yet.
The point above has caused another problem in that online poker has lower liquidity than ever. The growing number of ring-fenced markets have separated poker to the point where big high-stakes games and frequent huge tourneys are a thing of the past.
Some of the tournament events by PokerStars, 888, and partypoker still draw lots of players and offer multimillion-dollar prize pools. However, we’re not seeing as many of these big events across the board.
Online poker used to feature more marquee high-stakes cash games too. Players like Tom Dwan, Patrik Antonius, Phil Ivey, and Viktor “Isildur1” Blom would battle for pots worth six and occasionally seven figures.
Part of the reason why these games are a distant memory is because the poker boom died down. However, the nosebleeds have no chance of returning when numerous countries with 5-10 million people have ring-fenced poker markets.
Regulation is a good thing for poker from an overall standpoint. After all, legal online poker markets can advertise freely to mainstream audiences. But more of these countries/states need to start sharing liquidity.
4. Online Poker Rewards Aren’t as Good
Rewards used to be a much-bigger part of online poker. Sites routinely offered 30% rakeback deals or better, which excited players when they were paid back big portions of their rake.
Unfortunately, poker rewards have gone downhill in recent years. Some of this was to be expected, given that the industry was strangling itself in the race to offer bigger and better rakeback than the competition.
However, a large reason for the decreased rewards is simply that online poker traffic falls slightly every year. Poker sites can’t afford to give players generous deals when they’re not seeing the same return.
Some poker rooms, like PokerStars, claim that they’re redistributing rewards from the top to recreational players. This was the reasoning behind getting rid of the coveted Supernova Elite level in 2016. However, they went away from this supposed plan in 2019, when they reduced rewards for all MTT players.
The fact is that poker needs to make some headway on the first three points discussed in this post. If traffic begins increasing again, sites will feel more incentivized to offer better rewards.
5. Competition Has Increased
Games used to be much softer before Black Friday. However, the competition has ramped up due to fewer recreational players and more strategy materials available than ever before.
Even the average recreational player spends plenty of time watching Twitch streams, subscribing to training sites, and/or reading strategy articles. Fish are fewer and far between now thanks to this widespread strategy availability.
Of course, it’s not like anything can be done to reverse how good the average poker player is becoming. Players sharing strategies with each other over the years has accelerated the game’s collective skill level.
But this increased competition is still a challenge to the industry, nonetheless. Recreational players are more apprehensive about sticking with a game that’s extremely difficult to beat.
Poker sites have taken some steps to remedy this, introducing anonymous rooms and banning seat scripting. Both of these moves help prevent predatory players from stalking fish.
Perhaps these moves will help level the playing field and make recreational players feel more comfortable. However, the competition will still be intense due to how many good players there are today.
Can Online Poker Rebound?
Internet poker may never retrace to the height of its boom years (2003-2006). It also may struggle to reach the popularity of the pre-Black Friday years (2007-2011). But that’s not to say the game doesn’t have room for growth.
Imagine if online poker could break down the current regulation barriers to a point where most of the world is sharing liquidity. What if they improve their ability to catch bots to the point where these programs rarely have an effect on the game?
The room for improvement is there. But the online poker world needs to collectively overcome the previously described challenges so that it can start growing again.