What Happened to Online Poker Rewards?

By Michael Stevens in Poker on July 23, 2019

12

Minute Read

Online poker players look forward to rewards in order to boost their winnings. Deposit bonuses, VIP points, freerolls, and merchandise are some of the common perks that players can receive.

Unfortunately, they’ve been receiving far fewer rewards. Poker sites have been slashing VIP benefits over the past several years.

The internet poker world has taken a hit due to legal events. Therefore, it makes sense why online poker rooms rooms are cutting rewards as a result.

But there are deeper reasons why poker rewards are at an all-time low. I’m going to discuss this matter along with if you can ever expect to receive better VIP perks in the future.

Online Poker Rewards Used to Be Excellent

I’ll begin this discussion by looking back at how online poker bonuses used to be. Looking at the past will help bring modern-day loyalty benefits into focus.

Freerolls are one of the oldest perks offered by online poker rooms. As you may know, a freeroll allows you to play for a real-money prize pool without paying a buy-in.

Over a decade ago, you could easily get in a large number of lucrative freerolls. You’d often receive tickets just for signing up at an internet poker site. You could also participate in many other freerolls on a daily and monthly basis.

Poker sites even offered lots of freerolls to members of certain forums. These were actually some of the largest free tournaments in the poker industry.

Rakeback, which pays back a percentage of the rake you’re charged, was another very common deal. You could look forward to rakeback deals worth at least 30% at most sites.

Sketchier poker sites like Ultimate Bet and Absolute Poker used rakeback as their main draw. Certain online poker rooms offered even better deals, sometimes promising over 50% rakeback just to lure customers away from the bigger sites.

Reload bonuses are yet another perk that used to be more available. Many poker rooms would send these offers through their email newsletters on a regular basis.

Reload deals are great because they allow you to get additional deposit bonuses beyond just the welcome bonus. Unfortunately, these offers are also becoming rarer these days.

Of course, you can still find plenty of welcome deposit bonuses. All you need to do is sign up at a poker site and make your first deposit to qualify.

But even welcome deposit bonuses have gone down in size. The internet poker market has consolidated, which means sites no longer feel the need to offer overly generous deals to draw customers.

The Current State of Online Poker Rewards

The internet poker landscape is much different than it used to be. While there are still millions of players around the globe, the game isn’t growing like it once was.

Therefore, poker sites no longer shower players with rewards. In fact, many sites are scaling back VIP benefits every few years.

PokerStars exemplifies the current state of rewards better than any other site. After all, Stars has been put under a magnifying glass for some of their recent VIP club changes.

They made headlines in late 2015 after announcing that their Supernova Elite (SNE) level would be eliminated. SNE, which was PokerStars’ highest VIP level, awarded players high rakeback and other perks.

Many high-volume grinders made it their ultimate goal to reach the SNE level. Players who attained this coveted status remained a Supernova Elite for the current and following year.

PokerStars did away with SNE, though, in order to put more emphasis on recreational players. They felt that too many pros were multi-tabling just to get SNE status and the accompanying high rakeback, rather than offering quality play to opponents.

Of course, many pros were visibly upset with the decision. Some of these same pros organized a boycott of PokerStars and met with officials at the Amaya Gaming headquarters. Their efforts were in vain, though, because Stars didn’t go back on any of their decisions.

The world’s largest poker site has proven that they’re still not done cutting rewards. In early 2019, they announced that Stars Rewards program members would receive fewer loyalty points for multi-table tournaments (MTTs).

Previously, players could expect to earn 100 rewards points for every $1 spent in MTT rake. But Stars cut the number to 45 points for every dollar in rake paid.

PokerStars has been the biggest destination for large MTTs for a decade and a half. Therefore, many players were disappointed to learn that they’d be receiving fewer rewards.

Of course, Stars isn’t the only major poker site that offers less perks. 888poker and Partypoker also deliver fewer rewards these days than in previous years.

Just a few years ago, 888 was offering an unheard-of $88 no-deposit bonus to new players. However, their no-deposit offer is only worth $20 at the time of this post.

You can look at pretty much any poker site that’s been around for a decade-plus and notice that they don’t deliver as much free money as they once did.

Legal Events Changed the Online Poker Landscape

Major legal events in online poker history have played a large role in diminished rewards. After all, these legal occurrences have decreased internet poker traffic and made the game less lucrative for sites.

The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) was the first major law to put a dent in poker. The UIGEA went into effect towards the end of 2006 and forced several major operators out of the US market.

This legislation doesn’t outlaw online poker. Instead, it prevents American financial institutions from processing unregulated online gambling transactions.

Some poker sites chose to continue operating in the US. Notables included PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, Ultimate Bet, and Absolute Poker.

These sites worked with sketchy payment processors to overcome the lack of financial institutions willing to process American deposits. Full Tilt even went so far as to disguise deposits as golf equipment to find a way around the situation.

The UIGEA essentially led to Black Friday, or April 15, 2011. This day saw the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York indict executives from the world’s biggest poker sites.

Full Tilt, UB, and Absolute Poker, all folded within less than a year after Black Friday. PokerStars was the only one of the bunch to stay solvent. They ended up paying a $731 million fine to the US Department of Justice to avoid admitting any wrongdoing.

The online poker market hasn’t been the same after Black Friday. PokerStars no longer makes the same revenue as they did up until 2011.

That said, PokerStars can’t offer the same generous rewards to their international players. The same goes for other major operators like 888 (formerly Pacific Poker) and Partypoker, which have been out of the US since the UIGEA.

It’s very possible that these poker rooms would have had to quit giving out such great rewards at some point in the future. After all, online poker could only continue growing for so long.

But the UIGEA and Black Friday accelerated the point at which internet poker stopped growing. Poker rooms have since recalibrated their VIP benefits to reflect the current market landscape.

Some sites are starting to filter back into the US through legal means. Delaware, New Jersey, and Nevada all have regulated markets and feature some of the world’s most prestigious online poker brands.

Unfortunately, traffic is low on these sites. Even New Jersey, which is home to 9 million residents, has low liquidity.

Looking abroad, many European countries have developed their own regulated online poker markets. While it’s great that the game is legal in these countries, many of them have isolated markets.

Internet poker liquidity has decreased severely across the world. Fewer huge tournaments and cash games mean fewer people playing online poker. And fewer players means that poker sites aren’t able to offer as great of rewards.

Poker Sites That Concentrate on Other Areas Have Won

PokerStars may perfectly exemplify how VIP perks have gone downhill in online poker. However, Stars has never been known as the most generous place for rewards in the first place.

They’ve always taken an all-around approach that includes putting their operating budget towards software development, advertising, security, sponsorships, and quality customer support.

Their rewards program hasn’t ever been considered terrible. But they’ve always been more of an all-around poker site, rather than one that overloads 1-2 areas.

The results speak for themselves because Stars has been the top online poker room in terms of traffic ever since 2007. They haven’t lost their top spot, either, even with a sale to Amaya Gaming in 2014 and unfavorable changes to the VIP program.

Man playing online poker on tablet, with poker chips on table

Meanwhile, many sites that dumped major money into huge rakeback deals, too many sponsorships, and giant freerolls are no longer around. Players may have enjoyed the rewards they got from these poker rooms, but offering massive rewards hasn’t proven a sustainable model in the industry.

Other poker sites that are still around, such as 888, Partypoker, and the iPoker Network, have also done a solid job of spreading their budget.

Operating a successful online poker room involves more than just showering players with rakeback and freerolls. It requires a balanced approach, where money is properly distributed across several areas of a site.

Will Big Rewards Ever Come Back to Online Poker?

The days of huge internet poker rewards seem long gone. After all, most of the sites that once offered 50% rakeback or frequent $10,000 freerolls are a memory.

Could there ever be a day when we see massive rakeback, numerous freerolls, and land-based tournament prize packages make a comeback?

I wouldn’t count on ever seeing anything like what the poker world offered from 2003 until 2011. This time period saw the online game experience massive growth that was only curtailed by legal events.

However, I also wouldn’t rule out the possibility that we’ll see isolated instances of big rewards being offered. It all depends upon the situation.

Regulated online poker markets are still being formed throughout the world. The companies that jump into these states/countries will be looking for a way to make a splash. Offering a huge welcome bonus and lots of freerolls tickets to new players is a great way to stand out.

An upstart site might also consider giving away plenty of free money to emerge from the pack. Recreational players who are looking for good deals would no doubt be interested in such a poker room.

The United States legalizing online poker on a federal level could also spark a bonus boom.

Many sites would find it more fruitful to offer generous rewards to a country with 326 million people. More European countries sharing player pools could also convince many sites to give out more VIP perks. Currently, most European markets are isolated and have low liquidity.

As it stands now, though, online poker rewards figure to stay the same at best. The more likely scenario is that they’ll continue being diminished as traffic slowly falls.

Many companies in the space are now concentrating on offering all-around gaming platforms. A pure poker site is becoming more of a rarity these days.

Instead, most gaming companies offer sports betting and/or casino games along with poker. Given that both casinos and sports gambling are still growing, it only makes sense to add these activities.

Unless we see a major catalyst for change, poker rewards don’t figure to get much better than they are today.

Conclusion

Online poker rooms definitely aren’t as charitable with loyalty perks and bonuses as they once were. They’ve scaled back on rewards to account for the lower traffic.

PokerStars has been the most visible site to reduce their VIP benefits. Each major move they’ve made has been well documented, including the elimination of the Supernova Elite level.

Stars doesn’t appear to be finished, either, because they’ve more than halved the number of loyalty points that MTT players receive. This latest move doesn’t bode well for the rebound of online poker rewards.

The reality is that many gaming companies are focused on multiple forms of gambling, not just poker. With casino games and sports betting still on the rise, gaming companies are pushing these verticals.

Even PokerStars, which still draws significant poker revenue, recently rolled out a casino, sportsbook, and daily fantasy sports operation. Sites that only offer poker are getting harder to find these days.

Of course, certain poker rooms may consider offering big rewards in the future. A newer operation, for example, might do so in order to draw new customers and get off to a good start.

On a more sustainable basis, poker sites would be more willing to dole out rewards if a major event happened. The US legalizing online poker on a federal level and/or larger European countries all sharing player pools would convince sites to be more generous.

But for the time being, internet rewards will continue being much lower than they were back in the game’s heyday. Players can only hope that something happens to increase traffic across the board and convince sites to give out more VIP perks.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016.

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