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10 key moments in the evolution of PokerStars

11 Jan 2016

By Aaron Todd
Late last year, when Amaya announced it would be changing's loyalty program, it became the target of wrath for thousands of its highest-volume players. The issue that drew the most ire was the company's backpedaling on promised rewards in 2016 for players who achieved Supernova Elite status in 2015 — a benefit worth tens of thousands of dollars to high-volume grinders.

Five years ago, news like this would be stunning. PokerStars spent years promoting poker as a way to make a living, turning itself into the home for online poker pros. Its rewards system was tailored in such a way that it allowed hundreds, if not thousands, of players to make poker their primary source of income who otherwise could not have done so.

PokerStars' marketing message has changed a great deal over the last 15 years. A look back at those changes reveals a lot about the company. Remembering what types of players — and what kind of play — PokerStars wanted at different points in its history provides an interesting insight into how the company became the behemoth it is today, and how it hopes to continue to grow in the future.

Here are 10 key moments in PokerStars history, listed chronologically, that illustrate how the company promoted the game and itself.

10. Moneymaker wins the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event
Turn a $39 online satellite into a $2.5 million prize, and you're sure to draw some attention. Do it in a nationally broadcast (and rebroadcast, and rebroadcast, and rebroadcast ad infinitum) tournament on ESPN, and you'll become a folk hero.

PokerStars became an important part of Chris Moneymaker's story, and it didn't hurt that his PokerStars hat and shirt got plenty of air time on ESPN. Leading up to the next WSOP, PokerStars dumped millions of dollars into efforts to market Moneymaker and its satellite events. The message was simple: "Play online satellites for a chance to play in real-world tournaments and win millions."

Looking back on Moneymaker's run to the title, you can't help but walk away thinking "Dear God, you don't even have to be that good." (No offense, Chris, if you're reading this, but even you will admit that you had some head-scratching moments that year.)

9. Hachem wins the 2005 WSOP Main Event
There's little doubt that players bought into what PokerStars was selling after Moneymaker's win. In 2004, the WSOP Main Event more than tripled in size, and Greg Raymer won the event wearing PokerStars colors. But it was Hachem's win in 2005 that broadened the horizons for PokerStars, which had spent much of its time cultivating a base of American players. The Australian gave the company a charismatic spokesman abroad, and strengthened the message that PokerStars was the place to play if you wanted to be the WSOP Main Event champion.

8. UIGEA passes
The passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in October 2006 is the single most important moment in the history of the growth of PokerStars. PartyPoker, which was the market leader at the time, was a publicly-traded company and was forced out of the U.S. market by its shareholders. PokerStars, on the other hand, was privately held, and its owner Isai Scheinberg decided it was worth the risk to remain in the U.S. This gave PokerStars a tremendous advantage over PartyPoker, as liquidity is incredibly important to online poker sites. PokerStars used the money it made in the U.S. to advertise in Europe and quickly passed PartyPoker to become the world's largest online poker operator.

PokerStars claimed a great deal of moral authority in its public stance, stating that poker is a game of skill, and therefore shouldn't be considered "illegal gambling." As a result, their lawyers argued, it should be exempt from the UIGEA.

The idea that poker was a skill game permeated not only the legal staff, but also the marketing of the brand. Poker was a game that could be beat, so long as you were more skilled than your opponents.

The UIGEA also forced PokerStars to abandon its strategy of promoting online satellites to the WSOP, as Caesars would no longer accept direct registrations by online poker sites that allowed American players. Instead, the site made the strategic move to promote cash games as a way to quick and easy money.

7. SuperNova Elite loyalty tier announced
In 2007, PokerStars announced a new tier in its loyalty program: Supernova Elite. Players who earned 1 million VPPs in the calendar year would earn rewards at a tremendous rate for the rest of that year AND the following calendar year. If you were good enough to break even at the tables, you could make a living at PokerStars, so long as you could put in a high enough volume of play.

PokerStars glorified these online grinders, none more than Team Online Pro Randy "nanonoko" Lew. Lew won $2 million on the tables from 2007-2010, and during that time he picked up an additional $500,000 in rewards from the site. Lew was featured in a short documentary produced by PokerStars (embedded below), and the message to players was clear: High-volume, highly skilled players are wanted here.

6. Black Friday
Even though I'm sure I'll live in a state where online poker is a licensed and regulated activity at some point in my life, I'll always remember April 15, 2011 as the day online poker died.

While Black Friday was a body blow to PokerStars, the company quickly proved itself to be competent and trustworthy in its aftermath. Most U.S. players were paid their balances within a month. International players continued to play on the site. And the sudden exodus of players from the world's largest online poker market made PokerStars redouble its efforts in emerging markets.

PokerStars, however, continued to be the home for online pros. In fact, a number of successful American pros set up residences overseas so they could continue to play on the site. It's hard to put an exact number on just how many did so, but it's likely more than a hundred. Since only the most skilled players from the United States were willing to take such drastic actions to continue to play online, the quality of play increased dramatically, and games became even harder to beat.

5. Rafael Nadal signs an endorsement deal
PokerStars has had several professional athletes endorse the site, but let's be honest: David Wells and Mats Sundin don't quite carry the same global cachet as Rafael Nadal. Nadal lent his credibility to the site in June 2012, bringing interest from many recreational players who found themselves surrounded by players who had spent several years finding ways to maximize their EV at every opportunity. No doubt the experience of being vastly overmatched at the tables turned off a good number of first-time depositors, who never came back. Nadal and PokerStars parted ways in October of last year, just a few months after the site signed Cristiano Ronaldo.

4. Reaches settlement with U.S. Department of Justice, buys Full Tilt Poker
If PokerStars had a corner on the market before its July 2012 settlement with the DOJ, after the deal it almost had the whole damn thing. The fact that PokerStars took on international player balances and essentially paid off all Americans with its $731 million settlement with the U.S. built a tremendous amount of goodwill in the poker community. While Full Tilt became a shell of its former self, the two biggest brands in online poker were now under the same ownership.

With its legal troubles now in the past, PokerStars could focus its efforts on building up an even greater percentage of its growing market share.

3. Purchased by Amaya
Being a publicly listed company was a liability in 2006, but in the changing U.S. environment — where states were beginning to license and regulate online gambling — it would be a huge positive. In June 2014, Amaya purchased PokerStars for $4.9 billion.

The downside of the purchase, from a poker purist's point of view, is that the company now had to answer to shareholders, who demand constant growth. A few months later, the company branched out into online casinos, much to the dismay of those who had found PokerStars to be a morally superior product because it offered only poker and not "gambling." British poker pro Victoria Coren-Mitchell renounced her sponsorship with the site soon after.

"Although PokerStars assured me I would not have to actively promote the casino arm, I know in my heart that continuing in my current role could risk helping to send people to a place where they would encounter something I think is dangerous," said Coren-Mitchell in a statement. "That's not the way I want to make a living."

2. Spin & Go tournaments begin
On Oct. 1, 2014, PokerStars announced its latest poker product: the Spin & Go. The three-player hyper-turbo tournaments start with a spinning reel that determines what prize the winner will get. In the beginning, the top prize for a Spin & Go was 3,000 times the buy-in, though most tournaments awarded twice the buy-in. PokerStars started toying with the format, offering a top prize of $1 million for lots of different buy-in amounts, and players loved it. Now players can dream of winning seven figures for as little as a $0.50 buy-in. All it takes is a tremendous amount of luck and 10 minutes.

The tournaments are incredibly popular with recreational players as they add a lottery element to poker, allowing players to dream of winning big prize for a small investment. Sound familiar?

1. Supernova Elite rewards dumped
The circle was completed on Jan. 1, 2016, when Amaya held firm on its promise to drop the Supernova Elite program. Instead of propping up the hundreds, perhaps thousands of players who used the program to supplement their poker income, PokerStars is now dumping the money back into the poker ecosystem through a series of luck-based promotions, giving all players a chance (a small one, perhaps, but still a chance) to win big.

Shifting poker back to a game that gives people a chance to dream about winning big makes a ton of sense. People love dreaming of winning big. Need evidence? Check out the lines for Powerball tickets. In the end, these changes will likely have a positive impact on PokerStars, though the company has built up its fair share of ill will from online grinders who are rightfully angry about the site's broken Supernova Elite promise.
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