Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Tale Of Two Sisters

In which we discover why Ultimate Poker retained its player base and what WSOPcom might learn as a result

In April 2013 Ultimate Poker rolled out the first legal, albeit bare-bones, real-money online poker site in Nevada. WSOPcom, who [1] in my previous post I characterized as Ultimate's herpetic younger sister, flashily appeared on the scene later that summer, with off-the-shelf software that had been battle-tested and refined in the European market, and the commercial power of the mighty World Series of Poker brand.

Everything associated with the WSOP is, of course, owned [2] , trademarked, exploited, and generally sold down the river by Caesars Entertainment Corporation [3]. However, even detractors would agree that the corporation's marketing division has an absolutely enormous budget that is more than sufficient to overcome the lack of imagination of its management and staff.

WSOPcom promotional material was suddenly everywhere. The stained and thinning felt on the poker tables at CET properties was somehow scraped off and new coverings appeared, gaudily bedecked with the WSOPcom logo and cunningly designed to camouflage blinds posted by players in the end seats.  New swivel chairs sprung up, again sporting the online site's logo, that crashed into adjacent ones whenever a player left the table. Pamphlets were distributed by attractive young women in fishnets and bustiers, who set a trend for all future WSOPcom employees by having virtually no useful information about the site when quizzed on the topic.

As the PR juggernaut rolled through Nevada, I revised my estimate for the survival of Ultimate Poker from months to weeks.

And I was completely wrong.

Poker players, mostly out of necessity, rarely exhibit loyalty to anyone but themselves. Many, I am glad to say, have a respect for The Game and for honesty that keeps the ecosystem functioning and has the added benefit of avoiding unpleasantness late at night in parking lots. But loyalty is something that casinos have long known is a commodity that typically has to be paid for. Hence loyalty programs.

Casinos and their online spin-offs all offer some kind of kick-back to players in order to keep those players on their bricks-and-mortar or virtual premises rather than those of their competitors. A standard method employed by online poker sites involves deposit bonuses. At certain times, players depositing money on a site will have that deposit matched at some percentage and up to some limit by the house. The player releases that bonus by playing on the site. The more you play, the more the house makes in rake, and the more of your bonus is released. In essence it is one of those symbiotic relationships that real journalists usually illustrate with small birds removing food lodged in the teeth of alligators.

A few weeks after launch, WSOPcom announced a deposit bonus. I immediately flapped over to my computer, pulled up the client, and after a few minutes pecking at the keyboard had successfully transferred a few hundred dollars from my bank to the site.

A great deal more pecking through the snarling maw of the cashier page [4] provided no evidence that my bonus had been registered by the system. I reread the e-mail announcing the program and noticed at the bottom that I should have included a bonus code.

Bonus codes have been a feature of these bonuses even at real sites like PokerStars and I have never fully understood them. They are not used to track how a player learned about the promotion and thus serve no purpose other than additional keyboard pecking. However, since I rarely read instructions carefully [5], I had forgotten to enter such codes on multiple occasions before Black Friday. The problem had always been quickly rectified by telling support I was a dummy and could they please manually activate the bonus.

I should remind readers at this point that I grew up in London and consequently am more comfortable with accented English spoken by Sunil from Sasaram than Sully from South Boston. Nevertheless, I was a little perturbed to find that my "problem" as it had now become was to be handled by someone twelve time-zones from Las Vegas. I was more than a little perturbed when I was informed by e-mail that my bonus could not be activated.

Now I suppose it is just about conceivable that the oversight of the Nevada Gaming Commission is so stringent and repressive that it bars any agent of WSOPcom from manually flicking a switch to trigger a bonus. Far more likely, however, is that in outsourcing customer support to some third party with employees sitting on another continent, the system is unable to handle the slightest deviation from an absurdly rigid process.

Or it could be that nobody gave a rat's ass about my deposit bonus.

I'll return to WSOPcom's almost unique views on customer service and support in the next installment, but for now I leave you to contemplate this. I am not the only idiot who forgets to enter bonus codes. I checked. Further, and as explained above, the reason online poker sites offer such bonuses is because it benefits them. Thus the fact that WSOPcom would not or could not activate this bonus suggests a hole in their understanding of the business they are in.

More importantly, at least to me, was that this episode alerted me to the fact WSOPcom outsourced its customer support. Ultimate Poker had its support right here in Vegas. I realized that I didn't care that WSOPcom's software was miles ahead of the Ultimate product. I would rather give my action to a company that created local jobs and generated local revenue.

Former readers of my Blind Straddle column may recall my ground-breaking article on table image inspired by a young lady named Hope. I once remarked to Hope that "if you don't have herpes by the time you're thirty-five, you're sleeping with the wrong people." I mention this because my characterization of WSOPcom as the younger sister with herpes would not, in itself, be a deal-breaker for most poker players, particularly given she was prettier and faster [6] than her older sister Ultimate.

But you really have to re-evaluate the situation when you realize the younger sister is both obstinate and as dumb as a rock.

[1] If corporations are people, grammarians better get used to these kinds of constructions.

[2] Technically dependent on the current status of CET debt restructuring, the merry-go-round of subsidiaries and holding companies, and a bunch of other financial wizardry that would require far more research on my part than is likely to be supported by my latest royalty check from Kendall-Hunt for $11.49.

[3] When the company changed its name from Harrah's Entertainment in 2010 - a move usually made for PR reasons by nuclear waste processing facilities such as Windscale - the new corporation lost staff, credibility, and - for reasons that are mystifying even to Chapter 11 legal specialists - its apostrophe. 

[4] It is traditional for the cashier area of online sites to make deposits extremely simple. WSOPcom adopts the philosophy that any other information relating to player bonuses should be part of an amusing game of hide-and-seek.

[5] The exception being high-amperage household appliances since the incident in 2005.

[6] I am told this usage of faster will confuse anyone under the age of fifty. Boo hoo.


  1. Such a sad commentary on customer service. Sigh.

    Really enjoyed this--love your dry wit of course--and also enjoyed catching up on the Image post from a few years back.

    Keep blogging, sir! You don't even need boobie picks to keep my attention.