Online poker's meritocracy has been a wonderful thing: how the hardest-working and most skilled players, over a long enough time period to reduce short-term variance, almost inevitably rise to the top. But as the industry matures, this close correspondence between talent and results is in danger. Many players point the finger of blame at the wealth of videos, books, and other instructional material on the market today. In this article, I'll argue that other factors, such as legislation, unfair rake schemes, and the sites' increasing market power, are at fault.
Although there are now more ways than ever to learn about poker, this trend is nothing new. Herbert Yardley's The Education of a Poker Player is one of the earliest strategy books, dating back to the 1950s. There are now books and videos which cover nearly every form of poker commonly played and skill levels have risen dramatically.
Though, it's not clear whether the books that are available always represent the state of the art strategies that the best players use. Where once a novice could read only one book and expect the strategies inside to provide them with a sizeable edge over weak opposition, now such a player might have to spend a great deal of time learning a much wider range of skills. Just playing tight might not cut it alone. In fact, you could argue that selling these educational materials is an important way for the best players to capitalize on their skills. These players might not be able to always get sufficient action at their desired stakes, so becoming a coach or an author is just another way to profit from their knowledge.
Furthermore, this probably misses the most important aspect of learning: imitation. Players have always learned by observing and adopting the strategies of those who seem to win the most. It happens in every game, and the cumulative effects are probably more significant than all other learning put together. This is also something that we're powerless to stop.
Online-specific aspects of poker, such as database programs and heads-up displays (HUDs) are also often blamed for the worsening state of online poker. Although these tools help winning players beat the fish faster, and perhaps help discourage some fish from re-depositing, this misses some important points. The cumulative aspect of the rake, taking money out of the online poker economy with every hand played, shouldn't be underestimated. Banning HUDs would help the fish lose slower, but it would also mean that more of their losses end up in the hands of the sites. It might be the case that removing these tools from online poker would help none of the professional players if any increased deposits end up in the rake. These tools are in fact part of the skill element of online poker, and skill is the only thing that keeps some players consistently winning. At the extreme, removing all skill aspects of online poker would reduce it to other forms of gambling, such as roulette, where nobody wins in the long run. Aspects of the game such as learning cutting-edge strategy and using these programs more efficiently than others are what keeps poker a profitable career for the best players. We wouldn't want to change that.
Legislation has been a major factor in recent years, with some countries segregating their player pools and restricting them to regulated sites. Other countries enacted full-scale bans. Not only does this prevent many losing players from accessing the sites, but it also disrupts the player pool on other sites as skilled players are much more likely to leave their country of origin to continue playing.
When a country segregates its player pool, this endangers poker's meritocracy in two ways. A professional might start winning more not because they're one of the best at their form of poker, but because they're lucky enough to live in a country with below-average players. This disrupts the close correspondence between skill and winnings which makes poker fair. Segregation also almost inevitably leads to higher rakes, either in the form of new government taxes, or through regulated sites realizing that they no longer need to keep rakes down to stay competitive.
At low levels, I'd argue that less generous rake schemes are the major problem that online poker faces. Actual rakes haven't changed much, but effective rakes have greatly increased as bonus, rakeback, and incentive schemes have been scaled back. I remember being able to receive roughly 100% rakeback on one site playing $1/$2 limit hold 'em some years back. When the rake is so high compared to the betting limits, this makes a real difference, compared to the roughly 50% which only a very high volume grinder might be able to receive in those games today. Also, the effective burden of the rake is much higher now that skill levels are generally higher and before-rake winrates subsequently lower. A combination of high rake and the need to fund living costs is surely preventing a number of skilled players from moving up and achieving their full potential.
Rake is a much less significant problem at high stakes, but there are still problems at these levels of the game. These games will always surely always get harder due to the high rewards on offer and the weak worldwide economy, but even so the status quo seems problematic. These games are facing a collective action problem, where nobody wants to play unless a known fish is in the game. This means that many fish who'd be happy to jump into a running game are disincentivized from joining. Furthermore, when these games do run they often end as soon as the fish leaves or sits out, making their predatory nature even more obvious. Unfortunately, this problem is very difficult for the professionals at these limits to tackle directly, as any costs of starting or maintaining a game are localized while the benefits are spread among many. It's so easy to free ride on the good work of others that any attempt to tackle the problem is bound to unravel. It's a classic tragedy of the commons. As I've argued elsewhere, I believe that this problem could be most easily addressed if the sites gave players the proper incentives to provide the common good of starting and maintaining games.
At the end of the day, the sites have to realize that online poker is fundamentally changing, and that they should recognize these changes to return online poker to its early days. Although there's nothing they can do to directly address legislative issues, there are many ways that they can make the game fairer, restoring the association between skill and earnings. This might not seem to be in their short-term interest, as it would surely lead to lower rake collections, especially at small stakes. But it may help their long-term profits, as having professionals starting games and playing at all levels could lead to more rake being collected over time. As I've tried to argue here, pointing the finger of blame at books and HUDs is missing more fundamental issues. The danger is that, as there's now less competition between sites due to legislation and shrinking player pools (increasing the market power of the few biggest sites), they might ignore this opportunity to improve the common lot.
Philip Newall is the author of The Intelligent Poker Player, and you can follow him on twitter.