Forget skill, remember drama!
Kim Lund asks why the industry is so obsessed with skill, even when it’s hurting its own bottom line
Oh how we in the online poker industry laughed. Oh how we ridiculed their simplistic game and their mindless players. Our game was on the front pages of lifestyle magazines, theirs was on back pages of phone catalogues. We supplied a game for skilled achievers; they were stuck with a game for lucky dreamers. I am talking about lottery suppliers, and I’m questioning who’s laughing now.
The mechanics of poker are ingenious. I often call it the greatest game on earth simply because of the depths achieved with such relatively simple game mechanics and rules. And I think it deserves that title. But I also believe that some of the game’s magic has been lost in the online industry’s attempt to exploit one of the game’s most obvious advantages over other gambling games. Skill.
Overplaying the skill factor
Skill in a gambling game is a marketer’s dream. Suddenly you can talk about World Champions, rankings and player awards. It’s not difficult to understand why we did (and still do) exploit this angle to the max. But I think it is time to also realise that doing so comes at a cost. The existence of the element of skill also spawns the existence of something else – inability or incompetence. If you can be good at something you can also be bad at something. And nobody wants to be bad at anything.
Now, the problem with poker is that simple game theory will tell you very few players can win money long term. Numbers usually vary from 30% to 8% of any given set of players depending on who you ask. So when marketers push the skill angle full throttle it’s almost like selling Mount Everest trips to people scared of heights. The lottery provider is confident his players will play again because their expectancy is so low.
Few are the lottery players who totally freak out if they happen to not win the lottery. You’re supposed to not win in a lottery. But you’re supposed to win in poker, because we’ve spent so much money convincing you of that. So we end up making incompetent suckers out of shoulder shrugging gamblers. This gap between customer expectancy and actual product performance is evident in the high churn rates that most online poker sites suffer from. But they would have been even higher had it not been for luck.
The luck factor
Ask one hundred random online poker players whether they perceive themselves as good or bad at playing the game, and my experience tells me that a disproportionate number would claim to be good at it. One reason is that facing the truth hurts. Second reason is because the players blame it on bad luck. And as long as it remains concealed you’ll keep the player striving for the near impossible. But he/she will wake up to reality sooner rather than later and go do something that suddenly seems far more productive (or at least less counter productive) than wasting time feeling incompetent. Like playing the lottery.
The industry has been so good at spreading the skill game angle that it has attained a cult like status. Moves defying strategy are shunned, ridiculed and chastised. And that includes the suppliers who keep hammering home the message of skill. Practice! Visit our poker school! Spend even more hours trying to achieve what we tell you to achieve although we already know you will not accomplish it! Suckers.
The last laugh
The lottery provider is having a good laugh by now. He’s free of having to find ways to convince his player to invest more and more hours into his game instead of watching the football game on TV. Filling in a row of numbers or randomly picking a scratch card takes under a minute. And he’s free of having to retain illusions about his game as his players are mostly at peace with the mechanics of the game and their own role in it.
Something very vital has been sacrificed in the ferocious exploitation of skill. Poker is not the greatest gambling game on earth thanks to the element of skill. It is the greatest gambling game on earth thanks to its inherent element of drama. If I and any one of my poker playing friends are ever in the need of a random outcome, we don’t draw sticks. We don’t roll dice. We don’t flip coins. We play a hand of poker. We all get hole cards and then we run the board. Action. Twists. Misfortunes. Miracles. All that in under one minute of no-skill gambling. Certainly beats watching a bunch of balls being tossed around inside a plastic container.
Embrace the drama. Sell the drama. Screw the skill. Poker is the world’s most dramatic gambling game. It is, in fact, in many ways, the world’s most dramatic lottery. And that’s no laughing matter. Take that lottery guy!
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