Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Online Poker’s Hot Stove League

Online Poker’s Hot Stove League“When might Americans, who invented the freakin’ game in the first place, be able to play it again on the Internet?”

So writes James McManus at the conclusion of his new piece over on Grantland, “Full Tilt Boogie: The UIGEA and You.” In his lengthy feature McManus recounts the last eight months or so of online poker in the United States -- including the whole Full Tilt fiasco -- a prelude, it appears, to a series of articles he’ll be writing for the site.

Some of us Yanks are still playing online poker, actually. Sort of.

I’ve mentioned here how I’ve won some freerolls on Hero Poker and Carbon Poker, thereby earning myself some modest real money rolls on both sites. Had sort of an interesting series of exchanges with support over at Hero Poker over the last week or so which I thought I’d share, if only to pass along an actual anecdote related to playing online poker. (Remember when we used to share those all the time?)

One aspect of Hero I have liked is the fairly frequent awarding of tickets for sit-n-gos and tourneys (all micro stuff) as well as the occasional bonus. The more you play, the higher you rise through the various levels they have on the site (Farmer, Recruit, Barbarian, etc.), and I believe you earn some sort of small something each step of the way. (Here’s a page describing it all, if you’re curious.)

In late November I tripped over one of the levels and was given both a play-through bonus worth $15 (i.e., I had to play a certain amount to earn it) and an instant bonus of $10. As is my custom, I recorded the instant bonus in my daily ledger along with other info about my play for that day, and pretty much forgot about it.

About two weeks later I played a short session and won a few bucks, then when I went to record my balance noticed I was down a little from when I started. The discrepancy was exactly $10. Not much, although unfortunately ten bucks represents a decent percentage of my roll at the site.

So I sent an email to support. Hero is a small site, but they do quite well getting back to you quickly whenever anything arises. Sometimes, though, the promptness of the replies aren’t exactly matched by clarity. I got a quick response which said the money was deducted “because on November 23rd you were credited with an instant cash bonus twice... by mistake.”

Fine, I thought. Kind of uncool just to take money out of my account without any sort of heads-up, but at least I understood why. But when I looked back at my records -- as well as the “Player Admin” they have for you there at Hero (a fairly handy feature) -- I could see on 11/23 that I’d only gotten the bonus once.

Hero PokerTo make a long story short, we ended up exchanging several more emails before someone was finally able to explain that I’d gotten an instant bonus for $10 way back in early September and the latter one on 11/23 was awarded erroneously. Also, there apparently had been a bulk email sent out regarding the error and correction, but I had never received it.

Along the way one of the emails had instructed me both to “disregard the email” I had just been sent as well as to “please just use the very last email.” In the same sentence. Like I say, the responses come in a timely fashion, though they aren’t always as lucid as one would like.

All of it reminded me of PokerStars and how they, too, always rapidly responded to any support requests. And clearly, too. I also thought about how they’d handle a situation such as this one -- how Stars would likely allow me to keep an erroneously awarded bonus. But Hero is a small outfit and if they did issue even small bonuses to all of their players by mistake, I can see how they wouldn’t be able to handle the loss as easily as Stars might.

The future of these relatively small U.S.-facing sites has to be tenuous, I’d think, at least as far as their continuing to serve Americans goes. That said, I assume a number of these sites (Hero included) probably couldn’t really continue without the continuing to serve the U.S. -- the only part of the world where they currently can compete and Stars cannot.

We’re definitely the minor leagues here in the U.S. right now as far as online poker is concerned... not even Single-A ball, but Rookie league. Worldwide, PokerStars is the only big league left. In fact, “big” isn’t a big enough word for them, given their overwhelming dominance of the market at the moment. Party, iPoker, Ongame, and 888 we might call Double-A, but then so are Stars’ own French- and Italian-only sites. Then come the Merge guys, Bodog, Cake, and the rest.

I suppose the baseball analogy sprang to mind here because like poker, baseball is an American game. McManus’s piece and particularly his anti-UIGEA arguments are further tempting me to refer to our online poker game as currently mired in the “Bush leagues” and pun on the name of the person who signed the UIGEA into law.

The Hot Stove LeagueBut while that action was certainly central to the story of online poker’s fall in the U.S., it was hardly the only contributor. Really, the better baseball metaphor for online poker would be to say we’re amid a kind of “hot stove league” -- i.e., an off-season during which we are having to be patient while awaiting the return of our favorite game.

Will be interested to see where McManus goes with his Grantland articles. And, of course, what will happen with online poker in the U.S., too.

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