Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Future (of Online Poker) Looks Scary

This is part two of the “Future” series (and there will be a part three).  This time, knowing that online poker – legal, for real with money online poker – will be a reality most likely by this fall, albeit in only one, two, or maybe three states (NJ, DE, and NV, all of which has legalized it as of this writing),  There may be a few others who join this select group soon (CA, MD, IA?), but it’s doubtful they can set up all the protocols necessary to get their state games up and rolling before 2014.  But who knows?

I mentioned before that the jockeying for licenses and a presence in online poker in the US is fierce, with many established gaming houses joining forces with established gaming technology companies to earn a place at the (poker) table.

Then there is the 500 pound gorilla – PokerStars.

And it’s 1600 pound cousin – Zynga.

Make no mistake, the two monkeys listed above know better than anyone just how much is at stake here, and, as of this writing, both see a similar path to glory.  Kinda.

You know PokerStars – biggest online real poker room in the world now, and savior (and now owner) of Full Tilt, the SECOND largest.  PokerStars, vying for US legitimacy by playing ball with the government to avoid any Black Friday scandals AND also trying to prop up flagging New Jersey casinos…by buying one.  And despite all that, they cast their eye to the undisputed social gaming leader, Zynga.

So we must look to the big Z to see the “future” of gaming online, and of online poker.  And if you’ve ever played poker at Zynga, you know it ain’t pretty.  Zynga is first and foremost a social gaming construct.  Poker is just one of many amusements, like Farmville, Bubble Safari, and Mafia Wars.  Winning is secondary to being involved and having fun with your friends.  Many Zynga poker players play at the tables similarly to how they play every other game on Zynga.

And that ain’t poker.

Because it’s free and you can get more chips just by breathing (you can buy millions, but…why?), players tend to not play like “normal” poker.  As in – just about every game, just about every hand, some clown goes “all-in.”  And, most likely, MANY do likewise.  It’s only a game.

Obviously, if it were for real and real money was involved, it would be doubtful (but not impossible) to take such a cavalier attitude towards the game (though I saw a lot of that crap in the small stakes cash games on PokerStars back in the day).  Some might go that way and make some cash, many will try it and fail miserably…and never return, going back to the cheap thrills of Chefville.

Zynga has great faith in their social gaming platform (it might be fine for amusement, and the single table format is OK for phone users, but…that’s about it).  Worse yet, PokerStars now had a Facebook interface ala Zynga that allows you to sign up and play (for free) just like Zynga via Facebook.  It even had some of Zynga’s gimmicks like player levels, experience points, earning free chips and rewards for special challenges (most having to do with other players and your friends – very social).  I’ve tried the PokerStars FB format, and it’s OK – partly because it hooks into your regular PS account and the regular PS setup, and most of the games and your opponents are part of the PS network and NOT Facebook (making getting those social credits difficult).  The poker playing interface is sooooooooo much better than Zynga, it’s not funny.  Still, you can see where they’re going with this.  Too bad

If the future of online poker is destined to mirror the social online gaming experience, I foresee this as a major blow to poker.  There is no “World Series of Diner Dash.”  Poker players spend hours at the game, learning, improving, and trying to get better.  They read about poker to educate themselves to play better.  To my knowledge, there isn’t a library of good strategy books on Mafia Wars.

If poker must go the way of Zynga and its ilk, poker will no longer be the game we know and love.  Fortunately, I don’t think that will happen.  Part three of this series explains why.

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