The Stars Group CEO Outlines Strategy to Push “Sharks” Out of PokerStars in Bloomberg Profile

In a profile published August 11 by Bloomberg, the chief executive officer of PokerStars parent company The Stars Group confirmed the worst fears of many professional players.

Rafi Ashkenazi was named interim CEO of The Stars Group – a Canadian iGaming firm which was formerly known as Amaya Inc. – in March of last year, before officially taking on the position last November.

Ashkenazi offered quotes for the Bloomberg article, titled “Poker Site Wants Card Sharks to Fold So the Rest of Us Can Win,” while speaking with author Sandrine Rastello. In doing so, Ashkenazi seemed to support Rastello’s introduction to the growing divide between PokerStars and pros:

“PokerStars has a stern, and unusual, message for some of its most passionate clients: Quit winning so much.

PokerStars says these gamblers – semi-professional types who play hand after hand day and night – became a problem after they grew too numerous and have taken advantage of the thousands of novice bettors who account for the lion’s share of all wagers made on the world’s largest poker website.”

Sick of being dominated, the amateurs cut back on the hands they play. So for the owners of PokerStars … driving out the sharks is a crucial step in their effort to jumpstart growth in a business that has been sputtering.”

Ashkenazi shifted the focus somewhat in the quote that immediately followed, casting PokerStars’ plans as catering to recreational players, but he didn’t deny the author’s premise of a pushback against pros:

“(They) want to enjoy the game as a fun entertainment experience that offers many winning moments and the dream of the big payout.”

Severin Rasset, who serves as director of operations and innovation for The Stars Group, was less nuanced in his assessment of PokerStars’ ongoing shift:

“We were starting to have too many professional players for what we could maintain for a good, healthy ecosystem.”

The former Amaya acquired PokerStars in June of 2014 at a cost of $4.9 billion, and since that time, the company has pivoted many of its traditional business and marketing models away from the previous focus on pros.

As part of an overall strategy to remove the company’s reliance on that small community of high-volume customers, PokerStars announced a series of overhauls to its VIP program in November of 2015. Among the reforms which went into effect in 2016 were the replacement of Frequent Player Points (FPPs) with a new rewards system known as Stars Coin.

By capping the level of FPP rewards at 30 percent, PokerStars also stripped down its once vaunted Supernova and Supernova Elite VIP tiers. This effectively devalued the heavy volume of play professionals like PokerStars Team Pro Luca Moschitta once used to famously “purchase” a pair of high-powered Porsche sports cars in 2012.

In an interview with PokerNews published shortly after Moschitta’s 8 million FPPs were exchanged for 350 horsepower, the Italian pro described how the previous system served to incentivize nearly constant play at up to 24 tables simultaneously:

“When I decided to become a Supernova Elite player, that year I started with 80,000 VPP in May and made 920,000 VPP in eight months playing €100 heads-up Sit-and-gos! I was playing around the clock, multi-tabling 9-to-12 heads-up sit-and-gos — it was crazy! That year I made tons of VPP, still made profit and became the youngest Supernova Elite in the world ever.

There are just about 300 Supernova Elite in the world of 50 million total accounts on PokerStars. Being a Supernova Elite is like getting a poker license. Of course, it’s also about earning €100K every year of bonus with FPP as extra profit.”

Those changes to PokerStars’ VIP programs, coupled with a wider emphasis on luck-based lottery-style products like the Spin & Go tournament, prompted immediate backlash within the pro community.

Two boycotts were organized, with players abstaining from major tournament series, and former Team Pro Isaac Haxton resigned his position with the company. Haxton posted a statement to the 2+2 poker forum in which he accused PokerStars of pulling the proverbial rug out from under Supernova and Supernova Elite players:

“I believe PokerStars is behaving unethically.

There’s a lot not to like about these most recent changes and the way they’ve been communicated, but there’s one aspect that I just can’t accept.

Announcing in November that players who earned Supernova and Supernova Elite status in 2015 will not receive the benefits they had expected in 2016 strikes me as dishonest and unfair.”

PokerStars continues to tinker with its VIP program, and Haxton is currently castigating his former employer via regular Twitter feeds, but as Ashkenazi made clear in the Bloomberg piece, PokerStars hasn’t blinked.