PokerStars Head of Live Poker Operations Neil Johnson on Putting the Fun Back in Poker

PokerStars' Live Events Specialist Neil Johnson

Can you remember the first time you walked into a poker room? The first time you ever sat down in a cash game or a tournament? Can you remember how intimidated you were? How nervous the entire experience was? What it felt like to sit down with that first rack, or give that first seat card to the dealer? Whenever that happened for you, whether it was 1990, 2000, 2010, or this week, did the players at the table make it easier for you, or harder? I would imagine if you first sat down in a game before 2006, the players made it a lot easier for you.

My first-ever tournament was in Las Vegas at The Orleans while on vacation. This was back in the late 90s when they were holding $20 tournaments twice a day. Limit hold’em even! I was pretty nervous, as Las Vegas was a far cry from my family’s kitchen and home games with my friends, but between the other players and the staff I had a fantastic time and played a couple more tournaments before my wife and I went home. I busted near the bubble in the first one I played and managed a fourth-place finish in one before going home. That first-ever final table was an electric feeling and everyone could tell how excited I was and what the experience meant to me and my wife. They laughed and joked with us and made the entire thing a night to remember.

Those players taught me what it means to welcome new players to the game. They taught me how to make them feel at home and a part of the action and the "club." This was years before I was a dealer, years before online poker took off, and years before I settled into this industry, and it solidified my love for the game and the experience of playing live with all sorts of different people. If they had all made me feel like a complete rookie, berating me for making mistakes, playing too loose or too tight, laughing at my inexperience — if the staff had gotten frustrated and made me feel stupid for maybe playing slow, or being confused by the action, or asking too many questions — then the reverse probably happens. Our twice-a-year trips to Vegas would have become a different destination and we would have developed a different hobby. Instead they helped create two people who will play poker for the rest of their lives because the game is fun!

Much has been made of “fun” in poker over the last couple of months. Apparently some of us aren’t having enough of it, some of us are having too much of it, and some of us don’t care as long as our hourly rate isn’t affected. The other night, I saw fun tournament poker brought to life! During EPT10 Vienna, we decided to run a new, unique variant of Texas hold’em. We have never run a tournament that included wild cards before and we thought a €100 Deuces Wild tournament* would be an entertaining way to close out Friday night. For any who don’t know, in deuces wild, all four twos are wild (like a joker) and can be any card in the deck. So if you have {2-}{2-}{7-}{7-}, you actually have quad sevens. We got almost 200 players to sit down and give it a spin and we asked our dealers for volunteers to give this game a shot.

*PokerNews' Chad Holloway played in the "Deuces Wild" event. Read his account over on Learn.PokerNews.com.

It was an incredible success. Everyone had so much fun. The players and tournament staff were laughing, everyone was engaged, and following every hand since you never knew what was going to happen. Have you ever seen a royal flush chopped? How about two five-of-a-kinds beaten by a royal flush? I saw aces folded pre-flop! I watched a table spend 60 seconds arguing whether a player had a straight flush or not until the dealer pulled all the cards in and spelled it out one card at a time while the players all said “Oh!” and then laughed and commiserated with the player who had quads. Players were moving from table to table with every shout and exclamation as crowds gathered to see funky hand after funky hand. Basically, they had fun.

I spoke to a bunch of players who said what they loved is that the differences and the uncertainty of the game brought back the social element that is generally lacking in poker today. Hardly anyone was on their phones or their iPads (other than to take a picture of a crazy board) and they were all talking to each other and the dealers. The dealers told me how much fun it was to deal as it forced them to really think about the action and how the players were engaged with them, focused, paying attention and really, genuinely, participating! The only criticism I heard was from players asking me to increase the buy-in on the event.

I think a lot of people have lost sight of the fact that we are still playing a game, one that we have all chosen to participate in because we enjoy it. Every table presents an opportunity to meet new people, learn new stories, and hear about new places and different lifestyles. I’m not suggesting we all need to share our life stories at the table, but I don’t see what it hurts to have a little courtesy when someone new sits down. A little “Hi, welcome to the jungle,” or “Welcome to the party,” any kind of acknowledgement that you are about to spend a few hours together can go a long way to keeping the atmosphere of the table light and easy-going.

That extends to the dealer as well. Almost all dealers wear nametags and it goes a long way in a poker room to say “Hi Kate, what’s new?” when she sits down, or “Thanks Alice, have a good night” when she gets up to go to the next table. It is amazing how little common courtesies can keep everyone in a better mood and having a good time.

The goal of all of us that play and enjoy poker is to get more people to come and join us. While there is some monetary incentive to doing that, it is also so we can always find people to play the game we love with! I love to play basketball and tennis and I need people around who also want to play that game. I don’t believe there is one right and one wrong way to entertain players and make poker fun for everyone. However, I do believe that all of us share a responsibility for the environment that we are playing in. In this day and age there are almost infinite ways people can spend their time and their money. Why would people think it is a good idea to actively encourage people to go find other hobbies and interests?

While poker is a game, we as players keep score with money and the people who provide that money are other players (our customers). Way back in the late 90s, some players and staff at The Orleans (where I still play when I visit Vegas because of how well they have treated me over the years) provided incredible customer service to a brand new recreational player and his wife. The return on their investment was my business for over 15 years and poker getting my business forever. How is your customer service at your tables?

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