When Full Tilt launched Rush Poker in January 2010, it was obvious the developers knew what a potential game-changer they had on their hands. In an industry which seems to have survived and progressed somewhat on mimicry, Rush's worldwide patents tried to keep the copycats at bay with the stark warning: 'Full Tilt Poker, its Affiliates and/or its Parent Company will take vigorous legal action against any infringement of their patent rights.'
Rush's effect on the site was felt almost immediately and dramatically. It's estimated the total number of cash game hands played on Full Tilt went up by 50-60%, resulting in an increase of total rake by 40%. Across the forums, players were proclaiming the addictive virtues of the 'crack cocaine of poker' and thanks to those protective patents, Full Tilt was the only operator enjoying the highs.
Two years on and one-Black-Friday-scandal later, the poker landscape is a little different. Full Tilt's patent-pending warnings haven't proved an impediment to rival firms rushing to release their own versions of the game, and, regardless, Full Tilt is not really in a position to argue its case. 'Rush Poker itself was patent pending with the patentable element being the algorithms and mechanics/logic of the gameplay,' explains Steve Cutler, Unibet's head of poker. 'All the competing products have been developed by changing those algorithms.'
In 2012 speed-based variations like Zoom Poker, Blaze Poker and Fast Poker have certainly come thick and fast but is this just a case of the emperor's new clothes? Definitely not, says Relax Gaming's CEO Patrik Osteraker who says it's a trend which has been on the cards for a while. In early 2011, Relax made the decision to only offer a single software product, Fast Poker, providing the software to operators like Unibet. 'We looked at the future of poker and gaming in general,' he says. 'It's become much more difficult to be in the poker market and make money. The market has been woken up to seek new innovations.'
Great for business
There's no doubt that the fast fold poker certainly makes for a good business model. Per Hildebrand, founder of InstaDeal which offers Speed Poker as either a complete network solution or back office integration explains how the rake increase is substantial. 'Players are dealt 3-5 times more hands per hour compared to traditional online poker,' he says. 'Needless to say the rake revenues become substantial and can be compared to every player multi-tabling at your site.'
Obviously, rake means nothing if the game isn't popular among punters and this is why even at this nascent stage, Lee Jones, PokerStars Home Games manager, believes the format is undoubtedly here for the long haul. Jones points to the stats from extensive Zoom beta test conducted in March and April which saw an astounding 300 million hands dealt. At one point, PokerScout.com reported that 25% of all cash games on PokerStars were being dealt on Zoom. Considering PokerStars' overall domination of poker traffic, that's a significant number. 'You ignore that at your peril,' says Jones. 'It has clearly gone beyond the fashion stage.'
The full version of Zoom Poker launched on 15 May and Jones says it has attracted even more interest than the beta version. 'I'd say the reaction has been stronger than we expected,' says Jones. We knew it would be popular but I don't think we suspected it would be this popular.'
According to software giant Microgaming, the popularity of the game is down to its simplicity. 'It's a very simple concept, as the best ideas often are,' says Lydia Melton, Microgaming's head of network games. 'I think it's in the industry's best interests to keep the game fun and Blaze Poker does just that. Because of the speed and excitement it may be more attractive to new poker players (including casino players) than other variants have proved to be in the past.'
Osteraker says the 'fun factor' could be key to bringing on board the lucrative casino demographic. 'The gambling business as we see it today sees net revenue coming from casino rather than from poker,' he says. 'It is a sign of customers being more inclined to spend money on casino style games than traditional poker.'
The recreational market
Hildebrand believes the format is the key to unlocking the recreational market. 'The recreational player's biggest mistake is to play too many weak starting hands,' says Hildebrand. 'This is usually because of boredom even though he may realise it's a bad long-term strategy. As he is dealt a new hand within seconds when playing Insta-deal, there is no longer a need for that type of player to “play every hand”.'
And because players join a 'pool' and not a specific table, the 'bum-hunting' favoured by many a shark is no longer a legitimate strategy. 'Players can't chase players they wish to play with,' adds Hildebrand.
Another plus factor, says Cutler, is the fact that the format is so undemanding on people's time. 'As we know, poker takes a lot of time to play and those that don't have as much time on their hands find that fast-fold poker will be the ideal compromise. If you're on your lunch break and want to play for half an hour then it's the equivalent of a good two-hour evening session.'
Jones emphasizes the differing mentality which exists between a casual and more hardcore players. 'On Sunday afternoon, some people sit down and say, 'I'm going to grind the Sunday tournaments until I fall face down onto my keyboard', but that's not everybody. It's becoming more like: “My daughter is at basketball practice and I've got 45 minutes here”. You don't have two hours for an MTT.'
And because it caters for a different style of player, perhaps one of the most crucial benefits of fast-fold is that it doesn't seem to cannibalise the traditional online poker market. 'There's room for both,' says Osteraker. 'Both have their own fan groups. I think we will see sites and networks testing the optimal balance between fast-fold and standard poker in terms of offered stake levels and game types.'
Ticking the boxes
Fast-fold poker does seem to tick a lot of boxes, but conceptually it's by no means perfect. In fact, it may have a fatal flaw. Its key selling point is that players can play four times more hands per hour than traditional poker, and players should never experience being 'card dead' because they can just move onto another table when they pick up rags. But playing four times the hands also opens up the ability to multiply the bad decisions by four. And if the game is marketed at the casual player, it's safe to assume that there will be more bad decisions than good in the mix. In other words, casual players could also lose four times quicker than normal.
It's a conundrum that Cutler's been wrestling with. 'If you've got a casual player who throws €40-50 a months at poker and they play usually about seven days in that period, then he could also easily burn through that €50 in a very short period of time,' he says. 'That means you've lost liquidity for the remainder of the month.' Cutler explains that when they collaborated with Relax Gaming to introduce Fast Poker onto the site, the pro players were initially worried they would lose their edge because the casual players would just fold until they got premium hands. 'They thought it would be harder to win against them.'
The pro players' fears were swiftly allayed. 'A lot of the casual players are gamblers and will lose their patience quicker,' says Cutler. 'They will often go with their favourite hands. The other thing which pros realised is that casual players on the whole don't know how to play premium hands if they haven't hit on the flop.'
With Fast Poker such a recent release, Cutler admits it's still too early to know whether the casual player is losing his money faster than he normally would. 'We're still analysing a lot of the game play information in order to fully assess the impact between the different player demographics.' As things stand, Cutler remains positive. 'On the whole, at the respective stake levels, the potential to earn more is quite obvious.'
For industry analyst Kim Lund, the deeper flaw with fast-fold lies in its unrealised potential. 'It's a huge step forward for online poker but so far we've only seen the most obvious application: do everything as before, just enable players to play more hands,' he says.
Use your imagination
Lund says he'd like to see a more imaginative use of the underlying technology. Given his involvement with not too dissimilar products like Playhem Poker, Lund is reluctant to reveal how he would evolve the technology, but fully believes that if operators and developers start thinking outside the box, issues such as speed of losing won't be a problem. 'Loss speed is a very conceptual idea,' he says. 'The speed at which someone is losing say $20 is likely not the main reason why in the short-term they decide to reload or not. Change the fun factor and you can get away with an increase in loss speed.'
For many operators and developers, the true test of fast-fold poker's aptitude as a game is when it goes fully mobile and starts offering tournaments. Mobile poker has suffered so many false starts over the years you could be forgiven for thinking that phones and poker just don't mix. But Cutler is confident that could all be about to change. 'Where fast-poker really becomes a champion is in the mobile arena. That really is the true power of fast poker,' he says. 'Cash games and tournaments are too slow for the kinds of sessions associated with mobile usage and fast fold removes that issue.'
Melton is also excited by the possibilities of poker on portable media, divulging that Microgaming is going to be the first supplier to go live on Apple devices with a fast poker product. 'Blaze Poker is the perfect poker variant for mobile devices due to its inherent high speed and excitement,' she says. Cutler points to the popularity of sportsbetting and mobile on Unibet as a shining example. 'A very good percentage of sportsbetting is now via mobile. We've released various casino products on mobile recently and the overall trend is extremely positive and encouraging. I would expect a very decent positive spike for an operator's mobile revenues. I'd expect a good 5%+ spike and I wouldn't be surprised to see some operators getting higher than that as time goes on.'
Jones concurs. 'We're going to see mobile picking up a larger percentage of the market over the time. In fact that curve might end up far steeper than any of us expect,' he says. 'Mobile and zoom is a killer combination.'