Grassroots Players Not Playing Online

The Recreational Player

‘Grassroots players’ or ‘recreational players’ are terms that have been thrown around by poker writers, online poker room operators and industry ‘big-wigs’ for years. But what are they alluding to with these terms? Typically, the grassroots/recreational player is considered to be a low stakes player; online, in the pub, in a league, at home with mates or in a small casino tournament.

I wanted to write about how I feel the online poker rooms fail to engage these players, in fact, they are overlooked. Yet, these players form the largest untapped market for online poker operators. All poker players are born ‘recreational’, some never leave that state. For the purposes of this article, I have put players into groups as I see them. I describe how the operators are working to acquire players with live tournaments, how I think they are going wrong and offer some thoughts.

Player Groups

Recreational Player – A player who generally knows his opponents, at home, the pub or casino. This player can take it or leave it, he or she will generally not play online, they prefer live play. The majority of recreational players cannot or do not want to spend £100 – £300 to enter a tournament.

Social Player – I reckon this player is happy wherever the poker is; online, pub, home game or casino. The majority of the social players may well enter low buy-in tournaments (under £100). The term ‘Social Player’ is generally a reserved term in the industry for players on poker apps like Zynga’s (free to play). I don’t mean them, so if you have 3 years of industry experience, please don’t get in touch informing me of my error.

Player – Plays mostly online, lower stakes cash games, tournaments and satellites. Plays online tournaments with prizes that are packages comprising of travel, accommodation and entry fee to major live tournaments. These are the ‘bread and butter’ for online poker operators.

Grinder – This player plays only online, he or she may be supplementing their income from their full-time job or even making a living entirely from online poker. The operators kind of need the Grinder, but generally they are thought to be expensive in VIP payments or rake-back.

Serious Player – This player has had some success, live, online or both. Typically, they will have cashed in a tourney which they had won a satellite to. They then used those winnings to buy-in to more live tourneys. This player group makes up the most of the £500 plus entries to live tournaments

Pro Player – I do not need to explain this one, except to say that this is the level where the majority of poker players aspire to be. The professional players are mostly seen on TV,  they are the guys in the poker news. They are the heroes that hit ‘pay dirt’. They do not have regular jobs or have won one tourney in the past 5 years.

Player Acquisition

To understand why the recreational player is ignored by the online poker industry or why players fail to engage with it, we should understand how the operators acquire players. For many years the affiliates ruled the ‘roost’. Poker affiliates are typically websites that review online poker rooms, strategy websites and poker news site. Affiliates in the past have introduced the majority of players to the online poker rooms.  A Poker players clicks on a banner advertisement on a website and registers to an online poker room . The operator assigns this player to the affiliate that brought them there and they (the affiliate) will then earn  25-50% commission of the rake generated by the player, which is revenue.

The problem for these types of affiliates is that they can only attract the players that have an interest in websites with poker content. In our table above that would mean the majority of the ‘players’ group upwards and a small fraction the ‘social players’ group.

Operators such as PokerStars produce tournament coverage for TV and advertise in the breaks. Therefore, they will reach some of the ‘recreational players’. ‘Bricks and mortar’ casinos that have online poker rooms can market to their member database. Online casino and slot operators (even some bingo operators) that also operate poker on the same platform can cross-sell product.

Operators Targeting Live Poker Players

Without doubt, where ‘recreational players’ and ‘social players’ gather, is where the online operators need to harvest players. This is player evolution, it is where new players enter the market, from where they fall in love with the game. Over 70% of poker players have yet to play online, many of them are playing in our lower two groups.  I wrote here about the recent rise in live tournaments provided by the online brands. There has never been so many live tournament organised by online operators, ever. Alongside the major tournament brands are lower buy-in tourneys which the operators believe will reach the grassroots players, thus driving acquisition. However, I believe the buy-ins are still too high to acquire players in our lower two groups. Therefore, online players are getting more live poker, great for them, not so great for operators’ revenue.

You Copycat You

Poker operators follow trends. Online poker is relatively new and a lot of the operators’ management have just a few years experience in gaming. When one marketing team gets it right, others follow suit. Winamax poker invented a lottery style SNG game 2013, practically every online poker room copied it.

I have previously written about PartyPoker and Rob Yong at DTD (Dusk Till Dawn Casino and Poker Club, Nottingham). They are working really well together and other operators are copying them. Online players are signing up in the thousands to PartyPoker in order to take part in online satellites to excellent value and highly professional live tournaments. The tournaments are targeted towards ‘the player’ (in our groups above) upwards. They have lower direct buy-in (Grand Prix events are €340) and players need an online account to enter. Recently, PokerStars (the largest online poker operator) announced changes to their live tournament offering and have included the ‘PokerStars Festival’ brand, a lower buy-in live event.

Although PartyPoker and DTD are successful in acquiring players from other brands, they are not acquiring a massive number of new online players from our ‘recreational’ and ‘social’ groups above.

The ‘Other’ Online Poker Players

There are many ‘free-to-play’ online poker companies, the biggest of which is Zynga. Over 12,500 people install Zynga every day and these players generate $28,000 a day in revenue for the company. There are also many subscription-based online poker rooms. The online poker operators have sought to capture these players with lottery style poker games or free-to-play, stand-alone brands, without success. This kind of proves my way of thinking on how the industry tends to follow trend. The poker operators see massive amounts of players online at Zynga and spend millions trying to win them over, yet again they are ignoring the live recreational and social player. These groups have the largest number of poker players who have yet to play online. So, why do they not play online?

“I Don’t Play Online”

I hear this said so often at Grassroots Poker events (our poker league is called “Grassroots Poker) and is usually followed with one of the following:

“I’m not a cash game player”, “I’d rather play live”,  “online poker is rigged”. Or as our Tommy (one of our older pub players) put’s it, “I don’t feckin even ‘ave a mobile phone, feckin online poker, feck-off!”

Whilst we cannot turn Tommy around to the joys of online poker, it is possible to do something about the trust issues. That will be for a later article. For now I want to concentrate on the  first two quotes.

“I don’t play cash games”

Many players who have yet to play online, assume that the majority of play is cash games and they see that area of poker as potentially volatile with regards to their bankroll. We need to promote the multi-table tournaments (MTT’s) and the single table games or ‘sit and go’ (SNG’s). Potential players need more information about satellites (SAT’s), which are smaller buy-in tournaments with entry to larger buy-in tournaments as prizes. However, online operators make such a large proportion of revenue from cash games that they sometimes view; MTT’s, SNG’s and SAT’s as ‘padding’ for their online poker room or as acquisition tools. The operators will use massive guaranteed prize money to advertise their MTT’s and ‘festivals of poker’. But, again, that news will only reach ‘the player’ upwards (in our groups above).

 “I’d rather play live”

I think this applies to many players. Live tournaments in the UK are largely only available in casinos or poker clubs due to the restrictions by the UKGC (United Kingdom Gambling Commission). Live tournaments organised by the online brands can have prohibitive entry fees. The tournament offering in casinos isn’t that great, for example;  a £10 or £20 tourney can have a registration fee of £5 or higher. Therefore, a £15 buy-in with 100 players will only be offering £1,000 in total prize fund and £250-ish to the winner. Not great.

With only the above on offer, the recreational player may as well go down the local pub and pay £5 with a greater chance of a prize of £50, £30 or £20. If the pub is registered with a poker league like Grassroots Poker, the player can also win a seat to the quarterly tourney. This tourney is held in the local casino with a £3,000 prize fund and £1,000 to the winner (1 in 4 league players get a seat). How many of these players are there? Let’s have a lookie-see..

Making Up Some Numbers…

There is no industry data on this, I am doing a little ‘guesstimating’, UK only. The pub poker league in the UK is an industry, it makes money for the top few league operators. Redtooth Poker is the largest in size, fans of this brand (no official figures available from the company website) say it has over 1,000 pubs. I am not so sure, so, erring on the side of caution, I am going to say 700. Hi5 Poker is probably second (210). Champions League (84) and Live Pub Poker League (72) are roughly in third. These are only estimates guys, don’t all start getting your willies out! There are many smaller leagues such as the one I work with (Grassroots Poker League) that operate between 10 and 20 venues each.

Number of Pub Poker Players in the UK

I can say with a degree of certainty, there are at least 1,500 pubs taking part in poker leagues, weekly. There is no industry data on the average number of players per pub. I have taken the data from our league and put this at 20 players per pub per poker night. Again this figure is conservative and you can see our pubs averages here.

There are as many pubs that have poker nights not connected to the leagues.  The numbers here tend to be smaller and are estimated at just 12 per pub. We should also consider pubs that play more than once per week, members clubs and snooker halls.

Therefore, my most conservative estimate would have to put the average number of people in the UK that played poker last week in pubs and clubs at 70,000. This is an average number who played last week, the actual number of pub/club players will be higher.

And, we haven’t even considered the home games……

A Message to the Poker Operators

The Golden Egg

You, the online poker operator have had it too good, for far too long. As we have tried to prove above, you are all going after the same customers who are already playing online. The poker boom isn’t over, it is just that you have nothing original anymore. You were happy raking in the $billions this past 12 years or so. You need to take a look at the recreational players, nurture them, give them a reason to engage and register with your product. Some of you will close-down, some of the networks have already closed. The poker writers and industry experts are telling you the market is shrinking. No, it isn’t, we are waiting for you, for the next generation of poker. We, the recreational poker player, represent a massive market. Now, which of you are going to capture our attention……….


Andy Power