Online poker liquidity in regulated U.S. markets is certainly nothing to write home about, but I’m of the opinion that it’s not really as dire as people portray it.
Frankly, it is what it is. And until the situation changes, and more (hopefully large population) states legalize online poker and enter into interstate agreements, we’re stuck with what we have. What we have, in both New Jersey and with the combination of Nevada and Delaware is, in my opinion, workable.
Online vs. brick and mortar
Right now, New Jersey is capable of averaging 350-400 cash-game players spread across two networks, with peak traffic of 750 or more.
For example, if we compare the numbers of the top online poker network, 888 and WSOP.com, in New Jersey[i] (200 average cash-game players and peak traffic of 400-500 according to PokerScout.com) to a typical brick and mortar poker room, what we have is a fairly busy poker room. A brick and mortar poker room with 20 or so tables running all day every day, and as many as 50 tables at peak hours, is considered a top-tier poker room.
Most brick and mortar poker rooms would kill to have these types of numbers. And this doesn’t even include tournament and Sit & Go traffic.
So why, if there traffic is comparable to some of the busier poker rooms in the U.S., is online poker liquidity so maligned in the legal U.S. markets?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
The answer is two-fold.
In addition to players having false expectations based on their previous experiences with the borderless online poker sites they frequented pre-2011, I’m of the opinion that the lobby contains so many options that the enormous number of empty tables gives the perception of the site being dead, and only serves to further spread the player base too thin. Having a thousand empty tables and games that never run isn’t attracting players, that’s for sure.
Going back to our brick and mortar example: If a poker room contains 250 tables and 40 of them are in use, the room looks slow. On the other hand, if the room only has 40 or 50 tables, it appears hopping.
The solution seems simple enough, and is something I’ve recommended in the past, but paring down an online poker room’s offerings also runs counterintuitive to one of online poker’s greatest perceived assets: the ability to run an unlimited number of games at any stakes, with any conceivable structure, due to unlimited virtual space.
For a global site like PokerStars this is a massive strength, but for an online poker room in a small market that is facing serious liquidity constraints, this strength can turn into a weakness. This is why I’m a big advocate of sites trimming down their options, but I also realize that to avoid angering current players, this reduction will require a deft touch.
Because they have space constraints, brick and mortar poker rooms have been dealing with the issue of which stakes to offer since time immemorial. Quite frankly, if the poker room is run properly, it doesn’t really matter what the price of entry is. And if the poker room is terrible, it doesn’t matter how much you reduce the stakes or what games you offer.
If a restaurant is dead, adding 200 seldom ordered dishes to the menu isn’t going to solve the problem.
The same holds true online. While you don’t want to turn away customers, turning away the guy who is only interested in depositing $5 once every six months because you don’t have penny stakes games isn’t going to bankrupt you, especially if he can still play with that $5 at a table with slightly higher stakes.
When I first started playing online the micro-stakes didn’t exist. In 1998, Planet Poker began with a single $3/$6 Limit Holdem table, and even post-poker-boom, Party Poker’s lowest stakes were $.50/$1 for limit games, and $.10/$.25 No Limit and Pot Limit games.
This lack of micro-stakes games didn’t prevent Party from being the largest online poker room. And it also didn’t prevent people from depositing $10 and trying to run it up by sitting short-stacked in the lowest stakes games offered.
That being said, times have changed, and it would be imprudent to eliminate micro-stakes games altogether in 2016. But that doesn’t mean we can’t eliminate a lot of the current games and stakes available at many online poker sites, and at the same time make sure people with limited funds aren’t frozen out. This is accomplished by setting the minimum buy-in – a term I think should be eradicated and games should simply say, “Buy-In $x – $x.” – at 20BB’s.
After a lot of thought, here are the stakes I’d like to see site’s in small U.S. markets offer:
No Limit and Pot Limit games
- $2-$10 buy-in; blinds $.05/$.10
- $5-$25 buy-in; blinds $.15/$.25
- $20-$100 buy-in; blinds $.50/$1
- Other stakes: $1/$2 : $2/$5 : $5/$10
- Starting buy-in $1; blinds $.05/$.10
- Starting buy-in $5; blinds $.25/$.50
- Starting buy-in $20; blinds $1/$2
- Other stakes: $3/$6 : $5/$10 : $10/$20 : $20/$40
Notice that anyone with $2 can play No Limit games, and anyone with a single dollar can still play limit games, as well as Sit & go’s or tournaments. If I’m correct, all of the players who were spread across the NLHE tables with stakes ranging from $.01/$.02 – $.05/$.10 are now consolidated at a single stakes.
And because there is an overlap between the maximum buy-in at one level and the minimum buy-in at the next highest level, people in between can decide which is the right fit for them, and if they want to short-stack a table or not.
Furthermore, if it were up to me, all tables in these low-liquidity markets would be eight-handed across the board. The reason I selected eight-handed tables is because it still looks like a full ring game, but plays close enough to six-max to not piss off those players too much. It will also keep the hands per hour up. More importantly, because there are one or two fewer seats than a typical 9- or 10-handed table, there will be more tables running.
For instance, if a site normally spreads 16 nine-handed tables, reducing the max seats to eight adds two additional tables. More tables means more rake generated, and more options for players.
Introduce an interest list
I have one other suggestion to help offset reducing the number of game structures and stakes players can choose from, and that’s the introduction of an interest list column. If a player logs into the lobby and doesn’t see the game he wants to play, running the software could provide an “interest list” that allows players to select games and stakes from a drop down tab, and also asks them to enter the minimum number of players they require to sit.
By doing this, players won’t say, “Well, I want to play Omaha 8 but nobody is sitting there so I’ll just go play Holdem and check back later,” or worse, “I’ll log out.”
Instead they can say, “Well, no Omaha 8 tables are running right now, but there is an interest list of three players for a $1/$2 game, I’ll add my name to that and start an interest list for a $.25/$.50 table too, and go play Holdem while I wait to see if the game goes.”
Since there are now far fewer games offered in the lobby, this could be displayed prominently. Instead of showing what games are running, I’d like online poker site to also show what games people are interested in right in the lobby.