“The Poker Economy” and Why Your Bottom Line Isn’t a Moral Barometer

(It seems fitting that I make my debut in the blogosphere with a tl;dr rant that’ll probably piss some people off. I’ll probably be writing some less tl;dr rants that’ll piss fewer people off here fairly regularly, so if that’s the sorta thing that appeals to you, stay tuned or whatever. I’ll try to post on twitter when I make a new blog post.)

People in the online poker world are becoming increasingly obsessed with talking about “the poker economy”.  Lots of things are accused of being “bad for the poker economy”–Bumhunting, being a douche to casual players, cheating, and talking strategy at the poker table are pretty much universally considered problems for this noble cause, and some people also mention HUDs, training sites, various forms of legislation, running it twice, short stacking, PTR, public discussions of problems in the poker world like cheating and shady sites, various types of tournament structures, and a ridiculously long list of other things. But WTF is the poker economy?

I don’t really think most people who use the term know what it is–I think they’re more concerned with how they can protect it from the ridiculously long list of threats to its life than they are with knowing WTF it is in the first place.  That’s because it doesn’t really have a definition.  The poker economy is an undefined abstract concept that people use to justify their own opinions. Not coincidentally, people typically mention it when they’re trying to argue for something that would help their bottom line or to justify their own actions. It’s actually quite similar to a strategy that homophobic assholes use when they say weird nonsensical crap like “The strength of America is in its families and homosexuality threatens that”, or when racist assholes say that they’re “preserving their heritage” or something similarly stupid. Basically, it’s a cheap way to make it sound like there’s some moral imperative behind a position. I hope people will start pointing out these empty arguments more often.

But, just because people make terrible arguments doesn’t mean that their positions are wrong.  So, I wanted to discuss some of the specific things that people think “hurt the poker economy” and see which ones people are justified in complaining about. Obviously being a douche to casual players obviously isn’t ok–Not because it “hurts the poker economy” or “is bad for the game” but because being a douche is never ok. Similarly, cheating isn’t ok. It’s not that cheating isn’t ok because it scares fish away or disrupts the beautiful flow of money from fish to pro or anything like that; cheating is simply unethical all on its own. I’ll devote more time to some of the others:


There are two things that are widely considered to be bumhunting that I don’t have a problem with at all: Some player sits at a 6-max table with a player that everyone thinks is a fish, the fish leaves, and he leaves with him, or some player sits at an empty HU table, a player that he thinks is better than him sits too, and he sits out and says no thanks. What the hell is wrong with that? I guess some people think that players should have to play in games that they don’t want to play in if they want access to games that they prefer? That’s just completely absurd. I think this idea sprung up from a weird combination of some stronger regs wanting to shame weaker regs into playing them, some weird sense of honor in being willing to take -EV gambles, railbirds wanting action to sweat, and a ton of people wanting something to get on their high horse about who are somehow incapable of latching onto the numerous perfectly acceptable alternatives. Throw in a clever word to replace the term table selecting, and you’ve got yourself an angry mob. Anyway, this position is incredibly stupid, and I hope people start pointing out how stupid it is when people criticize other players for not playing poker when they don’t want to play poker.

There are, however, legitimately uncool things that also fall in the category of bumhunting. The most blatant example is probably the guys who fill up all but one seat at high stakes tables on Stars and all sit out, waiting for whatever rich casual player has been frequenting those games lately to sit.  That’s douchy because you’re exploiting the way the software is designed to fill up the lobby with tables to intentionally make it hard for that player to sit anywhere else. I basically feel the exact same way about people who sit at significantly more HU tables than they plan on playing just to make it more likely that a casual player happens to open up their table, but I have a little more sympathy for these people since they’re sort of stuck in a tragedy of the commons where they have almost no chance of getting action unless they do this because everyone else is. (Note how that argument said nothing about the fact that these people are trying to take money from fish without paying their dues to the cool kids who are willing to play anyone. I see no problem with that; I just think they’re going about it in an inappropriate way.) In both instances, however, I don’t really think what these people are doing is THAT bad. It’s just classless, but I don’t think it’s anywhere close to unethical. It really falls on the sites to fix these things, and they have pretty obvious solutions: Restrict the number of empty tables that a player can sit at and limit how long a player can sit out.

There’s obviously a really long list of things that are also considered bumhunting that I didn’t touch here. I think the correct stance on all these issues is pretty obvious if you just remember that “You have to play in games that you don’t want to play” is not a strong moral argument. For example, using observer chat in another player’s HU game to try to goad some fish into playing you HU is uncool; sitting out when a fish sits out is perfectly understandable and acceptable, though it is a nice gesture to wait until he leaves before you sit out to avoid embarrassing him. So, yeah, just use common sense.

Sharing Information: Training Sites, Talking Publicly about Cheating, and Other Stories

(Full Disclosure: I’m a coach on DC, though I haven’t made any videos or coached for a while now.)

There’s a ridiculously long list of things that professional poker players would prefer that other people didn’t know. The simplest example is just how to play poker well. (If all of my opponents didn’t know the rules, for example, I’d be a very rich man.) Most of the arguments about this stuff centers around training sites and in particular whether or not training sites are “good for the poker economy” or “bad for poker economy”. In the blue trunks, you’ve got the people arguing that training sites teach bad players to be better, which hurts their bottom line A.K.A the poker economy. In the red trunks, you’ve got the people arguing that training sites encourage more people to play poker, new players are bad in general, and that more than makes up for the dent in the “poker economy” that these players’ new found skills makes.

These metaphorical boxers are both wrong because they’re asking the wrong question. The question isn’t “Will teaching this help professional poker players?” It’s “Is there anything wrong with teaching someone how to play cards better?” To me the answer just seems to obviously be no. Why would there be anything wrong with providing someone with information that causes them to lose less of their money to someone else when they play a game that they enjoy? It’s obviously totally acceptable. With that said, if you personally don’t want to help people get better because you think it hurts your bottom line, that’s perfectly reasonable–Just don’t expect everyone else to share the same view.

There’s one particular aspect of this that really makes me angry, and that’s when people say that people shouldn’t talk publicly about cheating/scandals/the shadiness of various sites because that type of talk “hurts the poker economy”. Some people actually argue with a straight face (and without evil Mr.-Burns-style hand gestures) that informing casual players about the fact that they might get robbed playing online poker might cause them to make the informed decision not to play or to play on a different site, which might hurt professionals’ bottom line, so it shouldn’t be done. This is obviously an entirely selfish argument, and that’s annoying in its own right, but what really angers me about this is that we actually have a moral imperative to do the opposite. If you know about a thief preying on tourists in Times Square, you should of course tell somebody. The same is true when you know about cheating in the poker world. People who are not only keeping this information to themselves but also actively discouraging other people from revealing it are going out of their way to help people cheat, and that is blatantly unethical. I hope people besides me will start calling people out for doing this as it’s an incredibly ugly practice that has become pretty standard in our community.

(I plan on setting up a site that takes the initiative on getting this information out there, FWIW.)


Again, the standard argument against shortstacking is that it’s “bad for the game.” I guess the idea is that being a winning shortstacker doesn’t take much skill, so shortstacking is interrupting the sacred flow of money to the most skilled poker players. And again, I think that once I put that argument in those terms, it just sounds selfish and silly.

There is a legitimate problem with shortstacking, though. It’s that the presence of short stacks at the table forces everyone to play their game to some extent. If five players at a six max table are playing 100 BB poker and a 20 BB stack sits, suddenly all of them have to worry about all the 20 BB dynamics that don’t exist at deeper stacks, like resteals. Plus, the shortstacker has an inherent advantage in this spot (and in every spot in which stacks are uneven at a table). So the other players at the table have to either leave and find a new table or agree to play a game that they presumably didn’t want to play with an inherent disadvantage. That’s obviously not fair. However, this isn’t the shortstacker’s fault; it’s the site’s fault for spreading a game with such a ridiculous range of stack sizes.

FTP has a solution that I think is pretty close to perfect–They have shallow tables with 20-40 BB stacks and regular tables with 35-100 BBs. In reality, i think the perfect split probably doesn’t mix 40 BB stacks with 20 BB stacks because those two stacks play pretty differently. Stars’s solution of 20-50 BB tables and 40-100 BB tables is a lot worse because 50 BB stacks play very very similarly to 100 BB stacks and very very differently from 20 BB stacks. So the 20-50 BB tables have pretty much the exact same problem that the original 20-100 BB tables did.

However, again, the standard complaint about what Stars did is silly. A lot of people have been complaining that Stars’s split is unfair because the 20-50 BB tables are actually pretty popular and the 40-100 BB tables get way less traffic. Some want to go back to the old 20-100 BB tables because of this. These people simply want Stars to spread games and advertise games in a way that encourages everybody to play the games that they’re best at. Obviously it’s not surprising that people want this, but it’s not something that anyone’s entitled to, and it seems pretty silly to be angry at Stars for the fact that a lot of people actually like playing short.


I’m not sure where I stand on PTR. I again think that some of the arguments against it are entirely selfish and baseless. For example, I often hear people say that one of the big problems with PTR is that losers might look themselves up, see how much they lose, and stop playing. That’s obviously disgustingly selfish, and the fact that people regularly say this publicly with no shame (and usually without any criticism from the peanut gallery) is sad.

I also think PTR’s managed to do a lot of good. Their database has caught a lot of cheaters and gotten a lot of players refunds (1 2). As a consequence of the fact that PTR is run by some smart guys who spend lots of time messing with poker clients, it’s also exposed two major security flaws (1 2). It also provides a very strong deterrent against future cheaters and encourages sites to catch cheaters and fix security flaws before PTR gets wind of them. They even did some research comparing the different rake structures at different sites (though, as I’ve told them, they didn’t use a very good metric. UPDATE 1/11: I elaborated here). Plus, frankly, it’s just a cool web site with information that’s incredibly interesting.

However, PTR has two very big negatives.  The first is of course that it’s against the sites’ ToS and using it provides players with a real advantage.  That’s a huge problem because it gives an edge to players who are willing to violate the ToS. In practice, this leads to almost every professional violating the ToS, which undermines the other, more important rules of the sites. (If you enjoy banging your head against a wall, read Eskaborr’s posts in this thread in which he justifies the fact that he multiaccounts by ranting about PTR, among other things.)  The simple solution to that is obviously to just allow PTR, but that runs into the second problem: PTR is sharing fairly personal information about people without their consent.  It is true that this information is in some sense publicly available, since you could in theory sit down and watch every hand a player ever played and therefore recreate PTR’s data without doing anything shady, but I don’t think that argument is very strong. People had an expectation when they signed up for these sites that there would be some level of privacy (Imagine if FTP put up a web site showing a player’s wins or losses without getting his consent first). A lot of players would not agree to be included in PTR’s database if they were asked, so this is a legitimately big problem.

Regardless, PTR is probably here to stay. This information is available in a form that they can get at it, there’s no real technological solution that will prevent that without inconveniencing players too much, and the sites seem pretty clearly unwilling to make the large structural changes necessary to get rid of them (like allowing screen name changes or disallowing observers). Even if they get so sick of criticism that they drop out, someone else will take their place, and they’ll likely have fewer scruples than the current incarnation. (Their potential successors actually already exist and do some pretty scummy things. I won’t link them because AFAIK not many people have heard of them.) So, I think it’s more constructive to try to figure out ways to lessen the negatives than to try to get rid of them all together. FWIW, they’re willing to listen–They no longer have a list of top losers at least partially because I explained to them that it was classless. (I *think* they’ve gotten rid of most of the negative badges as well. I still want them to get rid of some negative badges, bot score, and tilt score, but it’s pretty cool that they listened at all.)

Anyway, that’s my rant. I hope that some of the few who made it this far (Hi mom!) take my advice and start calling people out for trying to defend their bottom line as if they have some strong moral imperative to do so.


  1. Nice rant sir!

  2. Great first post. Added you to my RSS feed. As far as I’m concerned, write as long a post as needed to make your point, and no longer. No such thing as “too long” if you’re making a point.

  3. Not a bad first post, but not unexpected as I recall liking many of your posts on 2+2.

    Welcome to the blogosphere! 😀

  4. Immediate add to RSS feed.
    Great read!

  5. Posts that are interestinga and thoughtful are never too long. Looking forward to more.

  6. “but I have a little more sympathy for these people since they’re sort of stuck in a tragedy of the commons where they have almost no chance of getting action unless they do this because everyone else is.”

    but are the “table-fillers” not in some sort of tragedy of the commons? If 1 player sits at a high stakes table he obviously increases his chances of playing a bad player. the 2nd player who sits, too. the 3rd too, etc. so besides that it looks bad to the fish etc, strategically doesnt it make sense for everyone to fill up the table and open new ones etc? if 1 does it, the others have to follow to keep the chances of playing a bad player “fair”.

  7. Marky,
    That’s a good point. I think there are some distinctions between the two things, but I made them sound bigger than they are in my post.

  8. Great post as expected, you are one of the most consistently correct and thoughtful posters on 2+2. Insta-subscribed.

  9. Hans Christian

    Although, I mostly agree with you. The poker economy is defined by the following

    rake = deposits – withdrawals

    Its that simple, nothing more to it. In a home game its more simple:

    deposits = withdrawals

    Now when people talk about a “good” economy. Its actually skins/sites/networks talking about the right side of the equation being positive.

    If the upper equation does not hold, it simply means that poker will die at some point, because of the fact that the left side is always positive.

    If you want inputs or want to discuss that further, you can contact me :)

  10. Another awesome post, keep it up Noah.