It’s with a lot of pride and relief I have watched the online poker industry turn and head for greener pastures during the second half of 2011.

As discussions very relevant to me and the future of the game have flared up, died down and found new fuel again, I have preferred to step back and listen while leaning comfortably on opinions previously voiced in this blog. But that certainly does not mean I don’t have anything new to say about the trends sweeping the industry.

It’s an awesome feeling to follow topics that once only caught the attention of a few people like @billrini now being approached from many different angles and essentially be the talk of the town. Across the blogosphere. On twitter. On the floor of gaming conventions.

A part of me, now that I have a genuine shot at realizing some of my own ideas, is also worried. The industry never lacked smart people. It just lacked the insight into whom the smart ones were. So I obviously fear that I have somehow played into the hands of future competitors. But it’s an irrational fear. I’m better off trying to compete in a functional market than a dysfunctional one. So in the spirit of constructive instead of destructive competition, I’ll keep blogging about concerns, ideas and thoughts I have regarding the future of this great game. Granted with a couple of topics now effectively off the table. One that isn’t, however, is the topic of data and the industry’s obsession with numbers. And I’ll use it to provide my take on why I think some companies have and will fail to turn theories about the importance of catering to recreational players, the value of winning and the impact of 3rd party player aid tools into practice.

First a general comment.

When discussing player value it is vital to separate “winning” from “incentives” and “rewards”. These are entirely different elements of the online poker playing experience. It is definitely relevant that certain loyalty schemes now use “winning” as one factor when determining the loyalty reward privileges of individual players. But sound discussions on the topic of player value need to be careful not to mix these these up. Sound sites will not be out to limit or take a piece of winnings. But they are perfectly entitled to incentivize and reward players as they see fit. A dollar means a lot more to someone who’s busted than it does to Phil Ivey. Has nothing to do with discrimination or unfairness.

I make this point because it touches upon two of the key issues I have with many of the arguments presented in various articles that discuss the three topics outlined above. They fail to properly understand what makes an experience. And they get trapped in numbers.

I can’t help to wonder when I read articles arguing for or against the importance of catering to “recreational” or “casual” players and find the arguments based mainly on concerns over sites’ finances or over recreational players’ losses. People crunch numbers, invent models, build automated systems, present optimization theories and seem to fail to realize that what you just figured out, if anything, should tell you that making online poker into a numbers game perhaps isn’t such a great idea.

If concepts like “win rate” is foreign to your most valuable customer groups, why then does it play a vital part in the discussion aimed to improve the experience for such players?

I’ve repeatedly, in this blog and elsewhere, spoke up against what I consider a reckless use of terms like “winner”, “losers”, “sharks” and “fish” in the industry discourse. These are labels based on outcome instead of intent. Result instead of motivation. And they define customers using states that are inherently volatile.  You can be fish one day, shark the other.

“Recreational player” is often equated with a “losing player” and “losing” in that context is defined by a player’s net result. Is that obvious? Is a winning player automatically not a recreational player? Of course not. Is a negative net result automatically the tell tale sign of a loser? No. Are there other ways to brand a player as a losing player without peaking at his or her bankroll? Most definitely so.

By default, since depositing is the bloodstream of the game, the numbers will never be in the favor of your most valuable customers. And while I too back certain initiatives put in place specifically to balance the equation a bit (I did help create them after all), these measures, like banning 3rd party aid tools to reduce the speed at which some players will be losing, don’t address the real problem.

Playing around with numbers never will.

When I hear ecology related topics discussed and read articles being for or against things like data mining, anonymous tables and weighted contributed rake the language used continues to be the language of  number crunchers where the “recreational players” are these alien players seemingly not concerned about  winning. The normal attitude towards playing is still one heavily affected by the grinder mentality.

“Recreational players deserve more rewards”.

“By doing this recreational player will lose more slowly.”

“This is just a move ensured to make the site more money.”

The idea that players are comparative to pre-configured bots that you’ll be able to squeeze the optimum out of if you can just get this or that equation, loyalty program, table balancing or payback rate absolutely right is horrendously one-dimensional.

In reality, players are driven by different ambitions, motivations, financial strengths, social situations and personal characteristics. They change, grow, learn, unlearn, lose their jobs, inherit millions, get drunk, have vacation and join new social circles. They are anything but one-dimensional. 
Creating an experience that best caters to the largest group of valuable players needs as much study of psychology and game design as it requires a degree in statistical analysis.

I understand that it’s comforting to work in an industry with so much data available. I know how addictive it can be for top managers positioned too far away from the pulse on the floor. But what you are dealing with is not a primarily a hard value problem. It is a soft value problem.

Last time I looked there was very little to find in an excel sheet about emotional engagement.

It’s great that the industry is coming to terms with a reality where eight table grinding isn’t at the center of product, marketing and customer valuation. It never should have been. But without a radical change of mindset, discourse and approach to the experience at the heart of revenue generation I doubt it will do much good. The answers simply aren’t in the numbers.