Lex Veldhuis delivers verdict on new PokerStars rewards program

Adam Hampton
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Posted on: January 17, 2024 1:24 pm EST

PokerStars players in the .com and .eu markets, plus a selection of other regions, will be moving to a new rewards program from Monday.

Pleasing ‘all the people, all the time’ is a famously doomed ambition, and a site like PokerStars has such a wide player base that a catch-all solution to rewarding player loyalty is no easy feat.

Yet that’s what PokerStars is shooting for – to some degree, at least. We covered the details of how various different player groups will be affected when the news was first announced, but what led to these changes, how were they arrived upon, and how have they gone down in the short time since they were announced? We spoke to some representatives of the red spade to get the inside scoop.

“Poker players now are way more aware than they used to be”

Changes to a site’s rewards system can dramatically affect a player’s bottom line, for better or for worse. PokerStars has been clear that certain player segments will receive less rakeback under the new system, specifically those that completed the 40% rakeback challenges which were introduced last year.

Here, PokerStars points to the data, which shows only 6.7% of players completing the 40% rakeback challenges, and another 0.3% completing 10% rakeback challenges. But also feeding into the decision to remove the challenges is an overall drive for greater clarity and predictability.

20-year PokerStars veteran Chris Straghalis, Director of Online Experience, alongside Ashley Chase, Associate Director of Generosity, explained to PokerOrg that many players that fall within that 7% regularly fail to complete all the rakeback challenges. And when they fall short of a goal, they do not receive any reward for the time they put in to pursue it.

“That’s one of the biggest pain points in terms of the rakeback challenges,” Straghalis says, “We now have a very open, very transparent, hopefully very easy to understand reward system that’s based on ‘do X get Y’, and we’re not treating winners any differently from from the rest of the player base. So it’s one programme for everyone.”

PokerStars online cash game lobby
Higher-stakes cash games are expected to see a boost

Addressing the needs of everyone from a first-time recreational player to a full-time pro, within one program, was the holy grail. The addition of Select/+ tiers for the biggest-raking players enables PokerStars to treat these players in a different way, but within the boundaries of a system that aims to be as transparent as possible.

And while the needs of these seemingly disparate groups may appear to be different, each is crucial to the overall health of the poker ecosystem. And that’s something that Straghalis feels is understood by the players at the top of the food chain – more even than he thought it would be.

“Poker players now are way more aware than they used to be,” he says, “there’s a lot more awareness that it’s not just the generosity from us that they need; they also need us to help bring more players into the pool. And so when we met with players about this, a large number of them said ‘But what will you do for recreational players? We will give up some of the rewards so you can spend more on them’. I’ve never heard or seen that before, and that’s amazing: the awareness of the importance of sustainability in the ecosystem.”

PokerStars ambassador Lex Veldhuis, who is a member of the PokerOrg Player Advisory Board, also sees the benefit in sharing the value across the various levels of the poker pyramid. “It’s a win for people who are trying to pursue the poker dream and get somewhere, I think the path towards those goals is easier now. Regular players are happy too because more people will get into those high stakes tournaments and try to achieve the dream, and that’s good because those fields will get better and bigger.”


Poker pro Lex Veldhuis smiles at the table

Lex Veldhuis

“I play a lot, so the changes are good for my bottom line, but I think what’s more interesting is that this opens the door to other possibilities. If you look at $5/10 or $10/20 NLHE games, I think it’s going to be really good for the action: people are going to be playing them a little bit more, maybe battling each other a little bit more at those stakes. So it makes those games more viable.

When I stream those games, I do it purely for fun, I’m not beating those guys, I’m trying to battle them and showcase cash games to people, plus I’m learning as well, you know? So I definitely think that the bigger rakeback and the change to the way you get rakeback is going to be very good. Anything that makes those get more enticing for me is a nice path into the future.

I’ll be following it with great interest because, having a family with two young kids, it’s a little easier to stream certain games that are a little easier to section off [without the time commitment of a tournament]. If I could have the same volume in cash games as I do in tournaments, then I think it will be easier to manage with the family.”


The power of the path

Much of the ability to qualify for higher stakes tourneys and pursue the poker dream is being facilitated by one of the headline features of the new program: the permanent addition of daily Power Path tickets for recreational players. These will form part of the rewards for players who rake up to $60 per month, but not for those in the levels above.

“Something like 85% of Power Path tickets are used,” Straghalis tells us, “and the ones that don’t use them are the professional players, they can’t be bothered.” It’s easy to see why $0.50 tickets hold less appeal for players in the bigger games with bigger bankrolls, but these tickets provide the type of value many recreational players want: more opportunities to play. And by using a perk that the pros don’t want, the casual players have a better chance of realizing the potential of these Steps-style tourney tickets.

“I think that’s the smartest decision we made with regards to Power Path,” Straghalis explains, “We used to have Steps qualifiers going all the way up to $1k, but you had all these people buying directly into the $1ks, and anybody who won their way up might have these pros coming after you, ready to eat you for lunch. Well, you can’t do that with Step 4, you have to win your way into it from an $11 Step 3. That was important to keep that level free of the predatory ‘super winners’.”

“I’m a huge fan of Power Path,” says Veldhuis, “At first I started playing them because it was a new feature and I was curious, but now it’s a regular part of my grind: I literally play every single $11 Power Path. It’s fun, even if I don’t make Step 4 very often. It’s very cool, and feels like a good playing field.”

Another data point shared by Straghalis reveals the impact Power Path rewards at one end of the spectrum can have at the other. “In any given week over 1,000 players in the Sunday Million have gotten there through Power Path, either buying in with a Step 4 ticket or using a pass to play that event.”

That’s $100,000 in value, added at the recreational end of the scale, that regularly finds its way to the flagship Sunday tourney, a fixture in the schedule for many online pros.

PokerStars-branded All-in triangles, positioned on a poker table

The importance of feedback and player input

Some previous changes to loyalty programs – not just at PokerStars – have been made seemingly without consulting those who the changes will affect the most. It’s something Straghalis and Chase are keen to address.

“To listen to everybody from the very recreational players to the professionals is a real challenge,” Chase explains, “obviously the easy ones are your most vocal players, your most regular players. Those we have regular meetings with, we bring them to our live events, or we’ll actually invite them into our offices, sit down with them, speak with them, and we actually consulted with them on this programme so we knew what their pain points were and worked very hard to address them.”

For more casual players who are harder to reach, PokerStars runs focus groups and surveys, but has found that joining the conversations where they’re happening is having good results. “We created a forum called PokerStars Community where players can actually engage with us directly, but the biggest change is we have our Discord server where you have a complete mix of players there,” says Straghalis, “you have grinders mixed up with very casual players. We have separate channels set up for feedback around our rewards programme, tournaments or software. And it’s a great community where we get to look through their eyes and they tell us what works and what doesn’t.”

The initial response to the upcoming changes has included a lot of players around the world asking when their country will join the new program, while some low to mid-stakes grinders are disappointed that the rakeback challenges they relied on to boost their returns are being removed.

Twitter/X users are wondering when PokerStars new rewards system will be available where they live
Many users are wondering when the new rewards system will be available where they live

Many players with longer memories are generally positive and hopeful that the move is a step back towards the ‘golden era’ of Supernova and Supernova Elite, the top tiers in PokerStars’ old-school rewards program.

While there are similarities, particularly in the way top-raking players will be segregated into the Select/+ brackets, Straghalis is quick to point out the differences, and how they might benefit both PokerStars and the players themselves.

“Supernova Elite was close to 80% rakeback if you maximized everything, which isn’t really sustainable [for us],” says Straghalis, “but the volume that was required was gigantic, and the other aspect was they were milestone rewards, so it had a similarity to the rakeback challenges in that players needed to hit certain milestones to get the bigger chunks. But here you’re getting your rakeback paid daily, that’s super important. There’s not that big ‘carrot and stick’ mentality, it’s much more about ‘show us that you’re doing it and we will compensate you’.”

“The edges are very competitive at high stakes,” says Veldhuis, “Any rakeback changes that result in your win rate improving are just going to be massive. Somebody who might be a small winner in a game now might make decent money; a breakeven player might think ‘I can learn and I can battle a little bit here’. I think it’s going to attract casuals as well, but since one of the biggest improvements is going to be to high-stakes cash, I hope to see a noticeable change there.”

Poker pro Lex Veldhuis on the set of 'The Big Game'
Lex Veldhuis is one of PokerStars’ biggest online streamers

The new PokerStars Rewards program goes live on Monday, January 22 for .com, .eu, .uk, .ee, .bg, .gr and .es markets. We’ll continue to monitor player reaction across all segments of PokerStars players. Don’t forget to let us know your thoughts via the usual PokerOrg social channels.

Images courtesy of PokerStars