Two years ago the world’s all-time live poker tournament money leader Daniel Negreanu bore witness to perhaps the first ever walk-off WSOP bracelet victory when Daniel Colman defeated him heads up for the 2014 Big One for One Drop charity event championship and $15.3 million.
Negreanu — already established as the headline Team PokerStars Pro — didn’t seem to mind the $8.3 million consolation prize. Yet as he strolled in front of the cameras that Tuesday night, he was awarded with an unforeseen opportunity to strike a significant blow against the interests of high volume, winning poker players.
During this time, online poker operators had become increasingly bold in their “skill-based segregation” methods (as outlined in this May 2014 pokerfuse feature: The War on Winning Online Poker Players). Poker pros were continuously finding themselves on the business end of poker site criticism ranging from an overblown sense of entitlement to creating an unpleasant environment for inferior players.
This vilification was punctuated just a couple of weeks prior to KidPoker‘s One Drop score, when PokerStars released Team Pro @Daleroxxu Dale Philip after he was caught celebrating a goal on camera during a site-sponsored event in Marbella.
So Daniel Negreanu, known throughout the community not only as a poker ambassador but also a controversial social media personality who “speaks his mind,” had every opportunity to step up to the mic and lay some profound rancor on Colman. Yet instead he opted to gracefully compliment the new celebrity, and then posted a blog entry on FullContactPoker.com 48 hours later which mostly defended the 20-something phenom.
The response from KidPoker was a far cry from past attacks which singled-out contributing members of the poker community. Could it be that despite his strained relationship with the world’s largest poker forum, TwoPlusTwo.com, Negreanu had grown into his role as ambassador and extended an olive branch to the game’s most vocal minority group — winning high-volume players?
The true test of Daniel Negreanu’s mettle would come nearly two years later when he joined Joey Ingram for a highly-anticipated Poker Life Podcast episode.
Years of Goodwill Pissed Away
It took about 16 months for PokerStars’ stance on high-volume, winning players to become crystal clear to a critical mass of the community. When last year’s PokerStars VIP Club Changes were leaked, Alex Weldon of PartTimePoker called the act a relative Declaration of War “against pros in general.”
With the changes, an overload of high-volume player goodwill towards the PokerStars brand (which had accumulated for a decade) was summarily squandered by the world’s largest poker site. The unannounced removal of legacy benefits for the following calendar year had finally culminated in defining a clear rivalry between the site and its largest rake contributors.
Throughout November 2015, the PokerStars Public Relations team (led by Eric Hollreiser and corporate-jobber Lee Jones) shared their wisdom on social media… repeatedly letting high-volume players know just how silly their arguments were.
The bile among contributing members in the official TwoPlusTwo PokerStars VIP Club Changes Thread had become so great that posters were pleading for any straight-forward feedback from Amaya-Stars.
It was then that poker’s leading social media icon was contacted by Poker Life Podcast host Joey Ingram. At the very least, PokerStars players affected by the “poorly communicated” changes needed a response to the tough questions and counter arguments put forth by Dani Stern.
Negreanu agreed to join Papi for an exclusive Podcast shoot on November 30, 2015 — already aware that he was in a “no win” situation — at virtual spearpoint in a live setting. His most recent talks with former PokerStars CEO David Baazov and Amaya upper brass hadn’t been positive for the plight of professional players.
It looked like the removal of Supernova Elite benefits was going to stick, and there was nothing DNegs could say — despite spending a considerable amount of time back-channeling with Stern and other pros — that was going to receive cheers from players who were already threatening to boycott the site. Hollreiser & Co were losing their minds on Twitter, and PokerStars higher-ups had obligingly ensured their paid spokesperson had as little room to maneuver as possible.
Negreanu Steps Up to the Plate
For our newer subscribers and readers here at Upswing Poker, it’s worth pointing out that personalities with 410,000 Twitter followers aren’t necessarily threatened by significant negative feedback. Hang around RealKidPoker’s Twitter Account long enough, and he’ll make a believer or a hater out of anyone due to the polarizing nature of his published views on a wide range of topics.
The risk Negreanu ran that evening was antagonizing Ingram’s viewer base to the point where they no longer cared what the PokerStars headline pro had to say one way or the other. But when the cast went live, Negreanu didn’t balk at any of Papi’s questions. He didn’t sugarcoat the obvious shortcomings in the site’s communication with players, or its fundamental lack of understanding as how to best “protect” recreational players from predatory practices. And he didn’t mind discussing the issues live on-air with one of the PokerStars brand’s staunchest critics.
The answers Daniel Negreanu gave were clear, authoritative and easy to interpret — making it possible for PokerStars players to draw their own conclusions with a sense of transparency on where the world’s highest profile player stands. The $32.5 million live poker tournament winner has always bragged about sharing his genuine views openly, and that’s exactly what he delivered on ChicagoJoey‘s show.
Does Negreanu’s vision align with that of high-volume PokerStars players? That depends on the specific topic… but either way there won’t be any communication errors or subliminal face-slaps to fret over.
Daniel Negreanu Responds (Timestamps)
(Note: I’m not a fan of bogging down an editorial with globs of quoted material, but there is an element of community service ahead since the following are transcribed answers that wouldn’t be available for public consumption in written form otherwise.)
Poker Life Podcast: November 30, 2015
YouTube Ratings: 53,600 Views / 337 Likes, 24 Dislikes
(3:25) PokerStars communication with players since October 2014
“The communication has been — for lack of a better word — absolutely freaking horrendous.”
“Our communication with players has been nothing short of junior high.” (23:10)
“I think we’re better off having an open and honest dialogue.” (24:50)
(4:00) Did players receive sufficient warning of changes?
“My response to that would be, what if somebody signed up in February, went on our website, looked at what Supernova Elite is and said, ‘Oh! This looks like a good promotion. Let me try this.’ They weren’t warned. I mean, how can you argue that they were adequately warned?”
“In terms of this being what it is and calling a spade a spade. If [PokerStars] continues with this, and it doesn’t get reversed, it is a broken promise. ‘Do x in 2015, you’ll receive y in 2016.’ Up until November 5th or 12th I believe, it said so in plain English on the website what value you’d get. So to not honor that, is a broken promise.”
(6:00) Which PokerStars execs did Negreanu discuss changes with?
David Baazov: (then-) Amaya Inc. CEO
Eric Hollreiser: Amaya Inc. VP of Corporate Communications
Séverin Rasset: PokerStars Director of Poker Room Operations
(7:10) Were changes necessary?
“Something had to be done. My issue is just honoring a promise. Listen, if they said, ‘In 2017 January 1, we’re discontinuing the VIP Program entirely.’ I feel like okay, you don’t have to like it. You might think that’s not fair and the games are unbeatable. Sure, you can make that argument but it’s honest and it’s fair in the sense that if you don’t like it, you don’t have to play.”
(10:20) Would changes paint Negreanu into a corner and compromise his ability to represent players as an ambassador?
“PokerStars is still the biggest and best online poker site that exists so from a players’ perspective, would they be better off if I was no longer in the role that I was? If that helped them… let’s say for example me leaving would guarantee that we could get these changes delayed for a year and could make that sort of impact, that would be a much more reasonable solution or possibility.”
“I don’t know the answers to those questions but those are definitely some questions that come in.”
“Ultimately I don’t make the decisions. I’ve been with PokerStars since 2006. I don’t like every decision they’ve always made. Some of them I like, some of them I don’t but typically most of them I go like, ‘Okay I disagree but I don’t make the final decisions.’ It’s not a big enough issue for me to say, ‘boycott.’ This issue, I feel like for me it’s not about a decision or direction because again — I’m fine with the direction — I like the direction they’re going in. What really is ripping me inside is the broken promise.” (26:50)
(11:40) PokerStars as a publicly traded company
“When a company becomes public, there’s one number that matters that didn’t matter before, and that’s the stock price, right? And if you’ve noticed in the last little while it’s been going the wrong way. There are shareholders now. It’s not like it was in the past when it was a private company where decisions could be made based on what the top guy thought. This is something that [CEO Baazov] has to think about more than just the players themselves but the actual stock price. That’s something that creates a different environment as far as what a company needs to look for.”
“Nobody buys a company and thinks, ‘let’s just keep it status-quo.’ They always look to grow it. The danger is do these changes or these types of moves alienate the people that were loyal to you for the 10 years that they were with the company and then create a contraction of the number of players rather than expansion.”
(14:00) If PokerStars cares so much about recreational players, why don’t they lower rake in small-stakes games?
“That’s one possibility, right? But then you’re talking about reducing revenue there. Clearly what we’re looking to do is we’re trying to increase profit not reduce profit.”
“By lowering the rake at the micros those players may stay longer but that would also decrease the revenue that they need to keep Supernova Elites’ budget up. For example, if you pull in $240 million in deposits every year, and Supernova Elites pull out $254 [million], you have to pay for that somewhere. So lowering the rake at the micro-stakes probably makes those games a little better and those players last a little bit longer, but from where the company sits, and all the other new factors that matter now in terms of increasing both volume and revenue… it’s not typically a practice that other [poker sites] are into.”
“If somebody could do this with lower rake and do this responsibly and actually spend all the money they do on marketing and continue to build the site, then why isn’t it being done?”
“From a company’s perspective, you can’t guarantee a game is going to be good. For example, any rake at some point could become too big to beat. So if you say $100 or $200 NLHE, if everybody was playing GTO optimal where everybody’s winrate was infinitesimal. Lowering the rake would be one thing to potentially make some of it beatable but I don’t know if any site could guarantee that whatever rake structure they put out, the game’s going to be beatable.”
(37:20) PokerStars rakeback elimination in cash games $5/$10 and higher
“I agree with [Ingram] in that I think it will create less reg-on-reg action because there’s a lot less incentive to even play. It just doesn’t make sense for me.”
“I would call it like a slap in the face to some of our most valued customers but it’s different in the sense that it’s not a broken promise.”
“Fifteen to 25 percent of a lot of players’ winrate comes from the [now-altered] VPP Program. I think [PokerStars’] goal in terms of what they’re trying to accomplish… they may not understand that this route doesn’t accomplish it. For example, the issue of a table being full because there’s a bad player and you have a 40-player Waiting List. Then as soon as he leaves the game breaks…
Will these changes help that? No. Everyone who understands how poker works knows that this will make it worse because we won’t have as many games running with regs-on-regs. They’re basically going to be exclusively bum-hunting.”
(47:40) Lost Value – VPP conversion into Stars Points
“I get why people would not love that part of [the changes], but of all the things that are going on that’s like bottom of the barrel in terms of concerns for me at this point. As much as it is not the ideal way — like you should give people more time — they still are giving people time to cash them out.”
“If you look at the gravity of the other things, you have to pick your battles.”
(57:00) High stakes pro and PokerStars player organizer Dani “Ansky” Stern joins the Podcast
* Many opinions are rehashed in this portion of the show. The main talking points revolve around:
(a) Negreanu and Stern agreeing on criticism of Stars outlined above
(b) Differences between Negreanu and Stern on Stars’ changes aside from the broken promise, communication errors and slap in the face to its largest rake contributors
Your Thoughts Welcome
Daniel Negreanu and Joey Ingram got together seven months ago to bring the poker community a unique perspective on the hot-button poker industry issue of 2015. Does a retrospective look at the show shed a positive light on the Las Vegas resident’s poker ambassador efforts (as this article suggests)?
We welcome your feedback in the Comments section below and on our official Upswing Poker Twitch Channel.
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David Huber (known as “dhubermex” online) has been involved in the poker industry for more than a decade. He currently assists several poker and gaming entities as a researcher, writer, and consultant. Former Editor-in-Chief & Head Moderator of online tournament rankings site PocketFives (2006-2011).