In my last blog I introduced the concept of the Story Gap (required reading!) It’s only recently that I’ve begun framing some of my thoughts around this concept, but the ideas and findings that led me to adopt such a view go back four to five years. In 2008 (maybe 2007, can’t remember) I and Daniel Svärd (Betfair) introduced a concept called “Pruning the apple tree” at a poker conference in Malta.  It is an operational strategy derived from a Story Gap mindset and a belief in the importance of the exploring poker player.

I’ve spoken about this strategy several times since, but it merits being brought up again within the context of the recent skill gap debate. It will help to further showcase how an adoption of the Story Gap mindset should influence an online poker room’s strategic and operational decisions.

In a recent interview Pokerupdate.com did with Pokertracker’s head of marketing Steven McLoughlin, he says the following:

“Where we disagree is the “sharks” category. This is a fictitious concept that the industry has embraced, and players misunderstand. For the average poker room, winning players represent only 5-to-6% of the player pool. If these sharks are removed from the equation then nothing will change; all we will see is a new group of sharks emerge. The percentage of winning players will remain roughly the same.”

This, although I am wary of game theorists hanging me for it, is similar to what I often argue. It’s a fairly common argument among pundits. But my version of the argument does not end there. There will always be players that are better than the rest; who will dominate the game and withdraw a ton of money the sites would prefer to keep in circulation. The average skill level will vary, and the maximum skill advantage will vary from player liquidity eco system to player liquidity eco system, but a few will always dominate the many. At least in poker’s current form (game theory disclaimer!).

So far we’re in agreement. But here’s the kicker:
If sharks are removed from the equation something will happen. Something valuable.
There will be a transition.

Previously in this blog I’ve discussed the need to look at poker eco systems not as full of static player types but rather as full of various player states that a player can “be in” and transition between.

The shark state, as explained in the Story Gap post, is one of the possible end-states of a player’s journey through the game. And as I argued in that piece, the shark state fills a role (action, stability and story confirmation), but the players specifically filling it really don’t. Their journeys have come to an end. 5-6%, to borrow Steven’s numbers, of players will always be in this state no matter what. And will likely be very happy about the prospect of playing poker. So whatever activity level they had before they turned into this state, it is likely to grow.

What “Pruning the apple tree means” is that you actively run your online room in a manner that clears the path for players to go on their all important revenue generating journeys.
Just like the process of crown thinning is used to prevent tree canopies from blocking out all the sunlight and hamper tree growth as a whole, pruning the top of the liquidity ladder will generate upwards momentum within the liquidity base. This transition is a catalyst for revenue generation. Firstly, because fluctuation and flow inside the poker ecology can sweep players into new states. As they do so, players experience a new facet of the game which increases engagement. Secondly, because players in transition are less expensive in upkeep. Any change of state, be it because of a change in activity, a change in skill, a change in monetary status (winning does not equal being more skilled), a change in game or stake etcetera often has such an impact on the player’s experience that it overshadows any effect of loyalty rewards, bonuses and such.

Pruning in this context does not imply say banning players or preventing  them from playing certain games. But what it does mean is for example that you don’t “spend” a dime more than necessary on retaining a specific shark player. And it means that you take full control of the means players employ to increase their edge.

Pokerstrategy.com CEO Dominik Kofert has called this argumentation “discriminating against winning players”.

“However, there is a line that should never be crossed, and this is when poker rooms treat players worse because they are winning or winning too much.”

I agree in that it is a fine line. A fine line companies have been known to cross in sports betting. And it’s been crossed by some poker sites recently as well.  But in general the line is not even on the horizon. And it needs to be. To design retention programs and game progression without factoring a player’s type of gameplay and its outcome somehow simply isn’t viable. When one player’s actions can have a huge effect on other players’ spending capacity you need to consider that effect.

If you want the story you’ve attracted players with with to generate the maximum of entertainment and consequently revenue, you have to influence it. You have to create a play environment that facilitates the exploration of the story.

Unlike what some people may think, I am not out to “get” winning players because they withdraw a lot of money and in doing so reduce the revenue capacity of a rake based game. They play an important role by legitimizing the story I’m telling in order to grow a poker business. But they are not the stars of the show. And there are infinitely many of them. So they should not get special treatment.

If you like them apples, that is.