Columnist, commentator and successful poker player Vicky Coren-Mitchell has this week announced her resignation from PokerStars’ Team Pro following a spat of changes since the Amaya takeover earlier this year. Many users have become increasingly disgruntled with a number of changes since 34-year-old Israeli businessman David Baazov spearheaded an audacious takeover and immediately began playing with the concrete formula in place. This has led to many unhappy faces at the tables and, with the introduction of chance-based casino games, Ms Coren-Mitchell has released a statement indicating that enough is enough.
“On Friday night, PokerStars.com announced that it will be rolling out online casino gaming alongside its internet poker. As a result, on Saturday morning, I terminated my endorsement contract with them,” Coren-Mitchell began on her website.
“I cannot professionally and publicly endorse it, even passively by silence… I’m always careful to explain the difference between the essentially fair nature of poker, where we all take each other on with the same basic chance, and those casino games at unfavourable odds which can be (especially online) so dangerous for the vulnerable or desperate.
“I have had seven wonderful years as a proud member of Team Pro and I wish it wasn’t over. This is a very sad and regretful day for me.”
It is a strong statement, sabotaging her own lucrative contract with the company quite literally overnight, proving that she is willing to stand by her conviction. It is also a damning assessment of PokerStars’ current direction, despite of her insistence that the site is still the leading online poker room. Many will see this moment as the definitive separation between the PokerStars many have come to know and love, and the new vision led by Amaya. This is, after all, hardly the first major change since the takeover.
Since Amaya bought out Rational Group and secured two of the world’s leading poker rooms in PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker there have been a host of changes made, the majority of which have upset certain camps in the poker community. Coren-Mitchell may have left on her own accord but this was not the case for Marcel Luske, Alex Kravchenko, Joe Cada, Jose “Nacho” Barbero, Angel Guillen, or Humberto Brenes who all received their marching orders recently.
Over at Full Tilt, Gus Hansen and Viktor Blom have also had their professional ties to the company severed. This is of particular note as Full Tilt not only prided itself on a strong partnership programme but also engrained them into the very fabric of the site, with an image of Hansen the first thing users would see upon loading the software. Tables of pros – their names highlighted in red for ease – would become crowded with railbirds and in MTTs there was a bounty for anybody skilled (or lucky) enough to eliminate a sponsored Full Tilt pro. This new line represents a complete change in the philosophy of the site, a point reinforced by a statement from Full Tilt’s official spokesperson.
“Full Tilt will celebrate the excitement, fun, and intrinsic enjoyment of playing our poker, blackjack, roulette, and slots games,” said their spokesperson. “A new TV campaign will launch imminently, representing this new approach. There will be more news on this later in the week.”
Changing a winning formula is always a risky strategy, especially when you could potentially upset some of the most famous and influential names in the business. But dropping the professionals is not the only shift in the Amaya landscape, with day-to-day running of the sites also affected.
One thing that separated PokerStars and Full Tilt from other gambling websites like Paddy Power or 888.com is the fact that they purely focused on poker. The addition of casino games was therefore met with trepidation by some sections of the websites’ users. It is worth noting that plans to introduce casino games were in place before the Amaya takeover was mooted, yet they have undoubtedly gained more prominence under the current regime and the line between poker and casino games has even become blurred with the introduction of Jackpot tournaments.
Proving immensely popular, Jackpot tournaments involve just three players with very short stacks sitting down at a table with stakes of $1-$50. Once the three are seated a reel is spun, much like a regular slot machine, to determine how much the three will play for. This can be anywhere between 2 and 2,000 times the stake, although the vast majority of the time it will only be double which represents astoundingly poor value for money. Turning a game of skill into a game of pure chance has upset many users who have not hesitated to speak up about what they perceive to be a lottery, which could threaten to “dumb-down” the community.
Jackpot tournaments do not require rake as it is built into the prize pool, but for traditional games there has been an increase in rake. For both cash games and tournaments, the company announced rake increases across the board. Minor rake increases are to be expected from time to time but with the loss of the professional affiliates combined with casino games and Jackpot tournaments, it is difficult to see how the company can justify this as a necessity. Not only that, but a 2.5% fee has been added to investments and withdrawals, as well as deductions from the rewards already in place for frequent players.
Amaya appears to have a stranglehold on a huge proportion of players and is utilising that to exert maximum profit with small increases and big cuts across the brand. With professionals such as Cohen-Mitchell now publicly declaring they are unhappy at the developments, Amaya will do well to steady the ship and refrain from making major changes for the foreseeable future.