How PokerStars develops new formats with Séverin Rasset

We talk to the Director of Poker Innovation about how they test new formats, ensure the game is skillful and that big Sunday Million overlay.

Severin Rasset
Séverin Rasset

The Sunday Million Take Two event is later this month. Why was there such a big overlay in the first Sunday Million Anniversary event?

Séverin Rasset: We offer more than $1.5 billion of guarantees every year, and that’s excluding France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and New Jersey, so what is very easy to forget is that we take risks every time. What we tried to do originally was to create a big anniversary day with the Sunday Storm and the Sunday Million running at the same time. But the Sunday Storm with $11 buy-in and $1 million guaranteed seems to have been attractive for a lot of players who would have normally played the Sunday Million.

It wasn’t because it clashed with the SuperBowl, one of the biggest gambling days of the year?

Séverin Rasset: I had a couple of people mention that, most of them were American. So we monitored two things. Was there any difference, by country, with countries that would be sensitive to the Super Bowl? So we looked at Canada, for example, and we didn't have any drop in Canada that was bigger than in any other country. The other thing that we looked at is that when the Super Bowl was on in previous years. We looked at those times and saw no impact on the normal Sunday Million, so based on this my answer is very confident that, “No, the Super Bowl didn't have an impact”.

Why are you attempting this event again in the same year?

Séverin Rasset: Players have come to expect a lot of things that we do on the site like the Sunday Million, SCOOP, WCOOP Turbo series and even celebratory anniversary events. We do, of course, continue to challenge this by upping guarantees and adding value where we can; this year for example the inclusion of a Platinum Pass has meant that there was an additional $30,000 in the pot so we always push the boundaries. The rerun of the Sunday Million is a rare opportunity to do something different, something out of the ordinary to surprise our players. I think it has been mission accomplished, our Sunday Million 2 announcement was definitely unexpected.

We set our own path and do things because we believe they are the right thing to do, rather than basing our decisions on what the competition is doing. We consider the best approach is to consider genuine player engagement and hopefully in the long term generate longer term loyalty. Doing things in an authentic way is paramount because this is something that we believe our players will benefit from and respect more in the long run.

"Split Hold'em is for the existing player base"

Split Hold'em
Split Hold'em

Most people recognise your new format Split Hold’em as the dealer’s choice game ‘Double Flop Hold’em’. What makes you pick new formats like these over all the other available choices?

Séverin Rasset: We start by thinking "What are the challenges that we're facing?" We have some players that are very loyal to us and really enjoy the games that we offer. We also know that we have others who are dropping off, giving different reasons such as the game taking too much time or that it's too hard to win. Acting on that feedback as well as on general trends that are happening in the world, like the trend towards mobile play, is really important.

We're starting from a choice of hundreds of games, but we're trying to think about those that are solving some of these specific challenges. Then we go through an internal process where we just try the different games. We have the ability to build them pretty quickly. We test them with beginners and advanced players, then test these games with actual consumers to get a good grip of which games seem to be more attractive.

What problem do you think Split Hold'em specifically solves?

Séverin Rasset: First, one of the aspects that we're solving is that we're giving more opportunities to follow the action. One of the challenges of poker has always been to keep things interesting throughout. So here the intention was to create more action and more engagement and bring more fun to the table.

What demographic is Split Hold’em aimed at because it strikes me as quite complicated for a brand new player, it seems more a novelty for experienced players, unlike Spin & Go which is clearly easy for a newbie to pick up.

Séverin Rasset: This is what we have in mind. It’s for people who have played for a while but might not play currently, it's a way to reengage them. The difference with Spin & Go is we did some advertisement campaigns to promote it to new players with something that speaks to them. Split Hold’em is not on TV because it mostly caters for the existing poker base.

"PKOs have become vastly popular"

mobile pokerstars
Experienced and new players love PKOs

The game has really split the poker world (if you excuse the pun) on whether it’s more skilful (because of more variables) or less skilful (because it’s harder to scoop a pot), what is your view on that?

Séverin Rasset: So I would say that probably the answer is both, depending on the timeline. At the beginning, I think it's more skilful than existing variants because you have to really think about the strategy. I think the better poker players will be faster to adapt to the strategy and make less mistakes than recreational players. Over time, I would fully expect that the skill gap decreases with recreational players making the same adaptations as the better players.

Do you test that a game is beatable, perhaps over a large sample of hands?

Séverin Rasset: This is something that we look at during production. We run simulations and we do predictions. We have very clever players who find the optimal way of playing a game. It's very hard to simulate what's going to be this optimal way before the game's actually live.

We do run these predictions, but then what is more important to us is we actually monitor what's happening afterwards. At the beginning we always see a larger skill gap because good players are very quick to adapt, then over time the skill gap reduces.

"We are living in a mobile world"

mobile pokerstars
80% of new players are mobile

One of the clear themes in your newer formats is speed, is making sure games are not too long vital these days?

Séverin Rasset: We know that we're living in a world that's going towards mobile. If we think about your own behaviour, you know nobody has the patience to wait for more than two seconds on their computer or mobile. If something is not working, you just switch to something else. Overall there's this trend that we need to give something that is delivering a good sense of entertainment in a short period of time.

At the same time, what's interesting is PKO tournaments have become vastly popular for us. We have the existing player that is really attached to these kind of games and also new groups of players that are sensitive to time who also like them. Our main mission is to explain clearly to players that they can find everything they are looking for as well as making sure they don’t get overwhelmed with the number of choices.

What percentage of players are using mobiles compared to desktops?

Séverin Rasset: The consumer trends of today’s mobile-first generation continue to be evident among our customers as currently the majority of new registrations, approximately 80%, come from mobile devices.

PokerStars have tried lots of new formats in recent years, how do you strike the balance of making sure a format is fun and easy to start for recreational players, and skilful and beatable for serious players?

Séverin Rasset: What is quite important to me is that all the games that we develop are skilful, that there's a skill gap and that you can get better over time. There's not one example of a game that we are developing that does not follow these rules. I believe that’s quite important for us to preserve the existence of poker itself. Otherwise, it's a different game.

What do you think of faster mobile friendly formats? Let us know in the comments:

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Comments (6)

newest first


    Nope, not buying it!
  • CptJokerFish


    Ask him why they have removed rakeback and why they have increased the rake.
  • HoTsTePPa


    New format: More rake - no back.
  • BeN78


    "Upping guarantees" - They killed the Sunday warm-up 500k -> 200k within 2 years
  • k0kki3


    He doesn't even look very trustworthy. Also I never played any of BeatTheClock as I calculated it was an utterly crappy game.
  • anduke


    Some funny crap right there, still can't believe how they haven't gone bankrupt yet...