In April of 2010, the Cake Poker Network was one of the first to drop the bomb on short stack scum when they raised the minimum buy-in from 20BB to 30BB in an effort to stop pro players from getting a mathematical edge on the competition. The network had healthy cash game traffic that supported daily NL400 to NL2000 games, yet the day following the change, games above the NL200 stake barely ran, and even those often had a hard time filling.
While I was happy to hang on there for a bit and adjust to 30BB play, the lack of games running meant it was time to seek out greener pastures, despite the fact that I was getting an extraordinary rakeback deal. I moved on to Full Tilt and enjoyed making a boatload of cash there, happily short stack grifting games up to the $5/10 level over the remainder of the year. As one of the market’s top players, they could sit and wait before deciding on how to handle their own short stack problems, but they eventually instituted their own changes in early 2011. They created “shallow tables” with a buy-in range of 20BB to 40BB, while raising the buy-in on “standard tables” to 40BB. Perhaps just a coincidence, but their standard buy-in traffic immediately took a nose dive as well, with noticeably fewer games running and a considerably higher reg to recreational player ratio. At the same time, the new shallow tables seemed to be unjustifiably popular and teeming with easy money.
Though the FTP changes caused a bit of grumbling by unhappy regs who were now finding their games of choice more difficult to beat, no one really sat up and took notice until Stars decided to make their own buy-in changes. As the market leader, they could view how the changes affected each network before implementing their own unique solution. In an effort to please full stack and short stack players alike, they created 20BB CAP tables and raised their standard table buy-in to 40BB.
Be Careful What You Wish For…
The resulting changes were a memorable disaster in the minds of full stack players who thought that a sandbox full of shorties with significantly reduced edges would quickly choke itself to death; the opposite effect was achieved. These new CAP games not only survived, but soon eclipsed the popularity of standard tables. Most frustrating of all, it appeared that not only did recreational players choose to sit in these games; they seemed to prefer them over what higher buy-in players referred to as “real poker”.
In the following months, the forums erupted in backlash over the CAP tables in an effort to eliminate them, despite the fact that their creation was hailed as a victory by those very same people just months before. The masses had spoken, and it appeared that they had cast their vote on what buy-in they actually preferred.
Or did they???
Since that time, I have played at three other networks that had chosen to raise their buy-in to combat short stackers (oftentimes just myself and a few other players), and each time, the exact same thing happened: a healthy ecosystem of mid to high stakes games failed to run immediately following the change and never managed to recover. This clearly was no longer a coincidence, and it turns out, it had nothing to do with anyone’s preference.
Rather than delving straight into the forces at work, let me start with a scenario that you might be familiar with:
Your weekly home game is a $20 buy-in NLH tournament that draws an average twelve players. Teddy, the host, who just so happens to be the best player in the game, decides that since he is making a consistent profit, he wants to double the buy-in to $40 to make some extra cash.
The next time on game day, Teddy is surprised when only six people show up. After making a few phone calls, he finds out that four of the regular players can’t make it because they are short on funds and can’t scratch together the $40 buy-in. A fifth player would have been happy to play, but he always gets a ride from a sixth player who just plays for fun and doesn’t feel like blowing $40 for entertainment.
As it turns out, four of the remaining six are the most skilled and intense players in the regular game, so rather than just a fun outing, it is now just a table filled with frequent raising and heads up pots. Thus, the two weakest links decide that they no longer want to play. The following game, the best four players show up and decide that they don’t want to swap each other’s money, and the game breaks permanently. While each player’s reasons for ditching the game in favor of some other activity may vary slightly, it’s clear that it revolves around one single variable: the buy-in increase and the domino effect it causes.
Higher Buy-ins = Higher Barrier of Entry
It’s not relevant that the blind structure within the tournament did not change…it is simple mathematics. Let’s take that situation back into the online world and see how this works in practice.
Your personal decision to play a $5/10 cash game is a combination of variables that includes the skill level of yourself vs. your opponents, your tolerance for variance, and your bankroll concerns with risk of ruin. These concerns are legitimate, of course, but overlook something that is painfully obvious to anyone who doesn’t think that a bankroll of 30 to 100 buy-ins is necessary to play a given limit. Having $6,000 loaded into your account to play NL200 has perhaps blinded you to the fact that any random old schmuck needs to have at least $400 to play $5/10 with a 40BB minimum buy-in, and being just one penny short means that he no longer has the option to sit in that game.
However, the problem doesn’t end here, because that only takes into account a single table. Even if that recreational player can manage to pull together $400 to play, what happens when he wants to multi-table? If he has $700 in his account, he can play the one game with 40BB, whereas with the previous minimum buy-in of 20BB, he could happily sit with the minimum at three tables, or even just one with the option of busting and buying back in two more times and maximizing his play time.
Since the so-called predatory nature of the game is no secret, if vicious regs are waiting on the sidelines for this hapless victim to sit down before they all join in and sit out the moment he goes bust, the table breaks and it is game over for everyone. You may be inclined to counter that this guy could just hope to move down in limits and get lucky before moving back up to his preferred stakes, so let me just put that idea to rest right now.
With that same $700 starting roll, if our hero busts his $400 and is forced to move down to $3/6, he may tolerate that for some time, but he can still only afford to play one table with a minimum buy-in of $240, as opposed to two tables with 20BB. If he sits down and loses a mere $60.01 before calling it quits, the next time he logs back in, he can’t play any higher than $2/4. Sooner or later, he will reach a point where he is no longer able to scratch his gambler’s itch and may decide to just cash out what is left of his balance and play somewhere else with a lower buy-in or simply blow it off at the blackjack tables.
This is precisely how this seemingly small change ripples down through the stakes, and it happens rapidly. As players can no longer afford to sit in high stakes games, after busting a small stack or two, they quickly run out of funds to sit in lower and lower games until the action is no longer of interest to them. That is why you may recall logging in to your favorite site one day and scratching your head as to why only small stakes games are running, when just the previous day you had a cornucopia of games and limits to choose from. It simply got too expensive to play!
Is There an Effective Solution?
If you think I am simply arguing this point from the perspective of self-interest as a short stack specialist, then you would be only partially correct. While I do long for the days of 20BB heaven, even more so, I long for the days of having the option to play in mid-stakes games that run frequently and are not all populated with the same regs duking it out for rakeback table scraps.
I do believe that sites should have the power to take measures to ensure not only the longevity of their cash game traffic, but also to ensure that their games are enjoyable. For this reason, I would like to point to an overlooked solution that is sure to cause some controversy, as it already has for the sites that have (ab)used it: the ban-stick.
That’s right. If certain players are creating a game environment that is unenjoyable or otherwise hostile to recreational or regular players, it should fully be within a site’s rights to be able to simply cash that player out and send him on his merry way. Provided, of course, that the criteria for banishment is known and outlined in the terms and conditions ahead of time. In so doing, it will also put other higher buy-in players on notice from exercising their own antagonistic tendencies, such as belittling players in chat or merciless bumhunting, particularly when said players may, themselves, be contributing negative value to the site. Brick and mortar casinos have been doing this for ages with advantage players and seem to have lost nothing of value as a result. Maybe we should learn a little something from them?
This is not just a problem that affects recreational players. If you have ever been forced to watch helplessly from the rail while two whales were busy gutting each other in a $25/50 game, you know what I mean. Ponying up the minimum $2,000 was too rich for your blood, but you may have taken a shot at them for just $1,000. Lower than ever further to $500, and it’s easy to imagine that this table would not only fill up instantly, but there would be a waiting list long enough to form another game. On the other hand, if that same table had a minimum buy-in of $10,000, then it’s very likely that neither of these two whales could even afford to sit down, let alone have the stomach to gamble for that much cash. Even degenerates are forced to play with a budget, as even a nickel slot machine will drive away the old folks if it only accepts hundreds.