Poker marketing ethics with Michael Josem

Poker marketing ethics with Michael Josem

michael-josem-art-customer-service-passion-providing-value2I’ve worked in poker for ten years and it is only recently that I have started thinking about whether we, as an industry, consider the ethics of marketing the game seriously. While I am ultimately a Libertarian where these things are concerned and believe consenting adults should be allowed to do whatever they want, that doesn’t mean I am at times uneasy when we underplay the gambling side of the game or indeed overestimate the skill element. I recently saw my poker industry Twitter chum Michael Josem discuss this in a very interesting interview with Lee Davy and it compelled me to want to discuss this myself. 

Michael Josem has worked in game security and public relations for PokerStars, and was previously one of the lead figures in exposing the UB/Absolute Poker scandals. He now works as the Innovation & Promotions Manager at 138.com. You can learn more about Michael at his website

I should point out that I normally go into these interviews with a firm idea of what I think on a subject but in this case I really used Michael as a sounding board to try and figure out my own views on ethics and poker marketing. I’m still unsure where I stand on many of the things we discuss, but I thank him wholeheartedly for helping me mull a lot of this over. 

BC: I’ve recently been thinking about the ethics of our marketing messages in poker, one of them being that I wonder if we have oversold how easy it is to win and become a professional in this game.

MJ: I think it is clear that a lot of marketing focusses on the competitive side of poker. For some people that competition can be in the form of becoming a professional, but for other people it can be in the form of a challenge. There are a lot of people who enjoy playing football because they enjoy the competition of it, without wanting to do it for a living. There are also some people who might aspire to be the next Ronaldo, but they appreciate only a very small percentage can make it.

I think a marketing campaign promising to make somebody a professional poker player would be misleading and unsuccessful. If you look at early campaigns from 15 years ago like PokerStars they talked about playing with champions and competing against the best. When PokerStars worked with Rafa Nadal, or PartyPoker with Boris Becker, it was much easier to play against either Nadal or Becker at a poker table than on a tennis court. That degree of accessibility is an important aspect of poker, because if you turn up with the buy in you can play against anyone – world champions or otherwise. There are few other sports where you can test either your body or your mind against the very best.

Small site mentality

poker-sharks-darya-hrybavaBC: Over the years I have seen a lot of smaller sites seemingly berate their own players by boasting how many ‘fish’ play there, or quite commonly bragging they have a lot of ‘casino gamblers’, as a way to entice serious players to play.

MJ: I had a friend who continued playing on Absolute Bet and Ultimate Poker after the SuperUser scandal, who made that same point. I guess anyone who was left behind after that is either ignorant or an idiot, and I guess that’s one metric of judging the softness of a site.

The fact a small site tried a marketing campaign that is fundamentally disrespectful of its audience should cause surprise that it is still a small site. For an online poker site to succeed you can’t treat your customers as mugs, you should respect that different people play for different reasons which should be encouraged and respected.

BC: The industry is heading towards an eSports model, which obviously makes a lot of sense and has a lot of potential, but there is a danger that we are creeping towards a much younger audience, possibly underage children.

MJ: Firstly if any poker site is targeting children, that is absolutely reprehensible. The only poker site doing that is Zynga Poker who target children as young as 13. It may not be for real money but you can buy play chips. I think it’s extraordinary that the owners and managers think it is morally acceptable.

Legitimate operators, as opposed to Zynga, have both a moral and legal responsibility to market to adults and not people with gambling problems. It might be surprising to some but the average age of eSports participants and audiences is older than many imagine. The people who grew up in the 1980s and early 1990s remain the largest proportion of eSports audiences.

Ask the parents

live_pokerBC: I think the counter argument that a site like Zynga may have is that, given we are seeing signs that real money skill based eSports, if a child plays Tekken they could one day play it for real money, so whether it is Tekken or poker, it still could lead to gambling.

MJ: I think a simple answer is to ask their parents. If you want to make the argument that Little Johnny can play poker at 13, I think that will fall on very flat ears. I think there is something meaningfully different between gambling or poker and Call of Duty or League of Legends. Poker is a game of gambling, and that imposes on the operators a significant ethical burden.

BC: My other concern is that we undersell the gambling aspect of poker and fight too hard to promote the skill side of it. I even spoke to somebody in the industry who refused to use the word gambling, saying ‘The G word’ instead.

MJ: I think we should speak openly and honestly to our customers. The word gambling means to wager something of value for the potential benefit of something else. Poker is clearly a gambling game where money is used to keep track of who is winning and losing. If you can’t even be open and honest that poker is gambling, how can you begin to earn the trust of your customers?

BC: What does open and honest look like? Should we, for example, highlight how few people are winning long term in poker, front and centre on poker site homepages?

MJ: I don’t think a reasonable customer will think they will always win. I have spent money on other things like HearthStone, or going to the movies, or playing Netball of an evening, and in none of those activities do I have an expectation I will win money. Clearly there is a risk of winning and losing money in real money poker, but I don’t think we need to specify how many people win or lose, as long as we are honest customer about the product that is provided.

BC: Online poker is fighting two battles in this respect because there is also a growing awareness of how addictive tech in general is becoming, and how much work is going into making them more so.

MJ: I’m not familiar with research that tech is addictive in the same way as people who have had their lives ruined by gambling or alcohol, so it’s difficult for me to accept the comparison. I’m not an expert in the brain physiology and I’m certainly not reluctant to participating social media, yet making the leap that social creates a medical addiction, is, I think, not yet conclusively proven. I think poker and gambling is a very special case where we should be careful not to addict our customers. We can provide a fun experience without addicting people, because, apart from anything else, trying to create a gambling addiction in customers is morally wrong.

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