Hili Shakked is someone who I’ve known for close to 15 years now. After an 11 year run working at 888poker, back in late 2018 he decided to move on to his next adventure. The name Hili Shakked is not necessarily one that many poker fans and people in the poker community will be familiar with, but that’s only because he has always shied away from the spotlight, preferring to let his teammates and colleagues get the media attention.
At 888, Hili worked his way up to being the Head of Poker, a position that he held for the final five years of his tenure there. To the best of my knowledge, only once before, in 2010, had Hili agreed to do an interview, so it’s a true honor that he said yes when I approached him and asked. We met shortly after his departure from the company and spoke for close to an hour and a half, during which time he opened up about his lengthy career at one of the world’s top online gaming companies.
In addition to sharing the story of his rise to the top and how 888poker climbed to at one point be the #2 online poker room, Hili talked about the many ups and downs he and his department had experienced, how Black Friday was received internally at the company, how he led the department to branch into live poker offerings and partnerships for the first time, and much more.
While Hili wanted his story captured “while the iron was hot” shortly after he left 888, for a variety of reasons he preferred that it remain unpublished “until a later date”. Well, that date has finally arrived. 😃
What follows is a transcript of our interview, which offers a rare behind-the-scenes look at how 888poker operates, as well as Hili’s opinions regarding the future of both live and online poker.
Who is Hili Shakked?
So, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Let’s start off with you telling us a bit about your background prior to getting into the poker industry.
I’m an electronic engineer. I have an MBA in finance. I worked many years with a big Japanese company, doing technology-related investments. I did portfolio management, both stocks and bonds. I did option trading. So, I was focused towards the financial world, and then venture capital investments. Somehow, I eventually found myself in the online gaming sphere. I started with a company called Empire Poker (with the poker team at Empire Online). Poker constituted the vast majority of its business, and that’s where I first learned about the game.
So you didn’t know anything about poker before starting there?
I just played very basic games, draw poker games as a student for pennies and for fun, but I didn’t know how to play Texas Hold’em. In my first week at Empire Online, they told me: “OK, read this, this, and this; these are the rules of poker, learn it.” We had a game at the end of that week, for fun, and I was lucky to win it when really I didn’t understand the game. They thought I was a real genius, but it was just the luck part of poker, and this really helped me a lot to fall in love with the game.
What was your role with the company?
I started as an affiliate manager, then I moved to PPC (pay per click), Google AdWords, making sure that we paid correctly for the traffic we acquired. In parallel, I started understanding how the online poker market works. After some time there, a friend of mine called me to join 888. It was 2007, and my first role at 888 would be to manage the product managers of the software, which was called Pacific Poker back then. I think the name change to 888poker was in 2011.
Anyone who does a little research online can see that 888 was co-founded by a pair of brothers named Avi and Aron Shaked. Are you related to them, and how often do you get that question?
First of all, I’m not related to them. The first person that spoke with me about it explicitly was the late Aron Shaked, himself. He asked me, “Are you with our family?” I said “No, but it’s a great family!”
The Shakeds are very nice people. I think their positive DNA is a big part of the success of 888, and we’ve always had a good relationship over the years.
2007-2011 at 888poker
Back when you started in September 2007, it was a very different online poker landscape. This was just after the UIGEA was passed, and PokerStars and Full Tilt were riding high in the United States. Can you describe what things were like for you when you first joined 888? How big was the poker department?
It was a very small team, two product managers and a bunch of developers. This was the pure poker team. Roughly speaking, in addition to the small “pure poker” team, there were other important technology teams that developed key components that were also used by the other product verticals of 888, including the product teams (IT), the back office, payments, etc. But we were all focused on poker. There wasn’t a lot of poker know-how; when I first joined the company, I was surprised to see that more than half of the people didn’t play poker.
At the time, frankly speaking, the product looked very bad. The the first thing we did was put together a document of 150 things that we need to fix at 888poker. I showed it to my manager, and he looked at me and said “OK, just do it.”
So we prioritized the items and dealt with them one at a time. I can recall a couple of them, like a new player had to open an account for real money and a different account for play money; you could not combine it. There was no mechanism for a loyalty program, no points were counted based on anything. There were many, many bugs — disconnections, terrible software; really unplayable. But even so we were still making very good money because poker was growing strongly back then.
Later on we learned that in retrospect the fact that our software wasn’t so great actually gave our online poker room a bit of an advantage, since there were not that many professional players playing it because it was unplayable for the more serious players due to connectivity issues and the lack of basic functionality. Over the years, I met many, many professional players who had specifically started on Pacific Poker because it was a very soft poker field. Anyhow, we were small. On the PokerScout rankings we were listed very low, as #17.
There were so many other competitors around us and above us. We were a no-name, we were not a factor in the online poker field, and nonetheless we were very profitable.
At what point did the product switch from being called Pacific Poker to 888poker?
It was part of a bigger change by the Marketing Division. For example, our casino product was called Casino-on-Net.
I remember those days; got a LOT of popup ads for that back in the day!
It was very successful, but it looked terrible. Each product looked different, with different names. There was no umbrella value in marketing the 888 brand. So it was a very good move in 2011 by the marketing team to rebrand both name-wise and visual-wise the names, so we’d have 888poker and 888casino and 888sport.
What else was going on in the company during your early years there? Any interesting promotions you remember being involved with?
We did a very big promotion for the WSOP back in 2010. We called it “88 Ways to the WSOP.” We gave away many packages through rake races. In the first month, it looked amazing. Numbers rocketed. The next month, the numbers plateaued. After that the numbers went sharply down to the point where they were pretty terrible. We didn’t understand what was going on! Where were the players? This was actually a pretty big crisis for us. As a matter of fact, the company was very close to shifting to another platform for poker.
But there was one factor that still gave me hope, namely new front-end software. We called it Poker 6 at the time, and it had been in development for about a year. It was supposed to be launched in the summer of 2010. So we got sort of a “stay of execution” to see if the new software would help us boost our numbers back again.
Parallel to this, I still tried to figure out why our promotion didn’t work as planned. After checking out the activity on some poker forums, I saw a couple of posts from people complaining that the level of play on Pacific Poker had become too tough. Right there and then I started thinking that perhaps there was a problem in the way that we did business in poker. In other words, that incentivizing more rake is actually counterproductive to the business because it brings the good players, the skilled players, and they just kill everything around them. The lesser skilled players go away and it ends up being worse for everyone. That was my conclusion, which I brought to the CEO of the company.
Wow. So you identified the problem, but now you had to come up with a solution…
Exactly. The CEO agreed with me and said “what do you suggest we do?”I was very happy he agreed with my conclusions, and had a couple of basic ideas regarding what to do, but told him that I wanted to think about it more and come up with more specific plans.
I eventually went back to him and told him that we needed to completely overhaul the way that we did our marketing: to stop catering to the high-raking players and go to the other side of the spectrum, the casual players. From regulars to recreationals; from regs to recs.
This was a very counter-intuitive idea. The VIPs in every business are always the customers that pay the most commission, right? Fly more, buy more… get more! But poker is a very peculiar and different type of business. Because of the skill element, the good players play a lot because they make money. They play many tables concurrently for many hours, but by doing so, they be definition kill the rest of the players. So why do we need to further incentivize the winning players? Why do we need to spend more of our marketing budget trying to acquire winning players. My perspective was that it’s the recreational players who we needed to start treating like VIPs instead.
Of course, we NEVER blocked or harmed winning players in any way except shifting the bonuses to the long tail of the players.
That’s really forward-thinking, to do that back in 2010 already.
Yes, and it was a long, long process within 888, to convince the relevant people that we need to work differently in poker. Whereas casino games and other house games should continue to work the same way vis a vis VIPs, poker is different.
Another big change was on the B2B side of things. We were in a network at the time with a bunch of B2B partners. Then I went to senior management once again and I told them that B2B poker simply didn’t make sense because the way we had been incentivizing our partners was exactly like incentivizing the good players. Once again, there were a lot of politics involved in this issue and a lot of talking and thinking had to be done, but finally management understood that we needed to make changes, which we did gradually.
First, we stopped accepting newcomers to the network. Then, we looked at little ways that we could limit existing partners from harming the network. Of course we made sure to honor our contracts. It was a long process – it took years – but eventually we finally became exclusively B2C. It was a very profitable and very important move to make, as it made no sense for the main brand to invest in marketing to the casual players while our B2B partners would then go ahead and cater to the high-volume players.
Of course, you need to be in sync.
It wasn’t a simple decision, but it needed to be done to grow the business. We also made a similar move with affiliates, with affiliate revenue share deals. Our affiliate rev. share partners were bringing in the high-raking players, as this was the most profitable player type for them. Effectively, the rake-base revenue share deals were counter-effective since we were over-paying for players that we could acquire for significantly less. So, we had to change gradually the deals with the affiliate rev. share partners.
That certainly sounds like a huge change in direction and operations. And you’re saying all of this happened already before Black Friday?
Some of it; it was a process that took a couple of years. We had to map out all of the problematic areas, then implement our solutions gradually.
Black Friday… was Wonderful!
OK, so let’s talk about April 15, 2011, Black Friday. You already mentioned that you guys weren’t operating in the United States at the time. What was Black Friday like at 888? To what extent did things change? Was everything in your department sort of turned upside down?
We had a number of conference calls deep into the night. We believed that the other operators were going to try and go after PokerStars’ and Full Tilt’s reg players, so we would try and lure away their recreational players. We quickly devised a game plan regarding the type of marketing we were going to do, and we began huge promotions specifically targeting the more casual players.
So 888poker wasn’t affected in any sort of negative way?
We were definitely affected, but it was almost entirely positive. Black Friday was a blessing for us. We got tons of players, specifically the type of players that we wanted and needed. So we didn’t combat the other brands that fought for the regs, offering big rakeback and stuff like that. As mentioned, we wanted to incentivize the long tail players. So, it was very good for us.
So when that happens, you probably had a huge influx of players. I imagine that that’s sort of the catalyst for some growth. Is that the type of thing that your department saw?
Yes, we had a bunch of growth catalysts in a pretty short period of time. The new software, Poker 6, turned out to be a big success. The second one was the closing of Full Tilt. The third one was the notion of changing the strategy, going after the recreational players. Then there was the shifting of the marketing budget towards recreational players, and the gradual closing of the B2B network. All of this combined gave us several years of ongoing growth, where the majority of the competitors were either closing or merging or just drifting down.
By 2013-2014, we became the #2 online poker room in the world. It was a huge, huge success! At that point, we faced another hurdle, our loyalty program. While our implied rakeback was far lower than the rakeback our competitors gave, I knew that these incentives were not allocated in line with our strategy, since it was based on rake, and it took us a very long time to crack this challenge and come up with an innovative plan that took our players completely by surprise. It was a plan that was closer to “social gaming” rather than real money poker.
In addition, we came up with an innovative formula that helped us to (much) better evaluate the value of players to our business, very remotely related to rake. It’s a very complex algorithm, kind of a “black box” within 888, and it gave us a better visibility to the value of the players. We implemented it around 2013-2014. At the end of the day, from a business perspective, an online poker room needs to acquire players and pay the right amount for each acquisition. We then need to look at the players and their behavior and estimate their projected lifetime value, and adjust accordingly in terms of marketing spend.
So, in the wake of Black Friday, it seems like everything was going right. People were probably loving going to work every day, seeing the growth…
We had several great years at 888poker. We felt that everything that we were doing was working. Of course, we made mistakes, but the mistakes were relatively small amid the bigger picture.
I can recall one mistake. We had a project called “Play With Friends” with the idea that players could set up a home game with webcams while on the 888poker platform. We did some surveys before, and players indicated they would give it a try. We did some live testing and players loved it, so we felt comfortable going into the project. We spent a lot of money developing it and marketing it.
It was a complete failure.
With that said, it’s my belief that we always need to try new things and innovate in poker. Some work, some don’t. If we fail, we need to accept it, cut our losses in time, and try to learn lessons from it.
Making America Gr888
One of the obviously very good developments for 888poker was when the United States market opened back up for business on a state level. Nevada regulated poker in May of 2013 and it was followed by Delaware and New Jersey. You guys were basically in the best possible spot during this period of time. You pretty much had exclusivity. What was your game plan going in?
So, first we have a good partner in America, Caesars Interactive Entertainment, which owns the WSOP brand. We did Nevada with them. They operate their own WSOP.com-branded site using our technology, the 888 software platform.
Then we won the Delaware bid, which I feel was a good achievement. Then, when New Jersey came online, we finally launched with the 888poker and 888casino brands there. Recently the company also launched sports betting in New Jersey with the 888sport brand.
In New Jersey we faced tough competition from MGM/party, and even more once PokerStars entered that market. So, it’s a very competitive market.
I believe at the end of the day that the opportunity in America is really to have a big shared liquidity network. With Pennsylvania and Michigan now online, and hopefully New York or California or some other large states will also join at some point.
Would you say that there’s more of a positive outlook now than in years past about the U.S. online poker market?
Yes, the outlook is positive. It’s no longer a question of “if,” but rather “when” more states will join. Of course, every state will still have its own requirements. At the beginning, for example, New Jersey insisted that the data center would be within the premises of a casino in Atlantic City. This was very challenging for our IT team, but they managed to find a solution in one of the hotels.
I believe that now that there’s shared interstate player pools, each new state to regulate online poker will join the American network. It will be interesting to see whether at one stage, the U.S. network will also merge with the European regulated market networks. If so, it would be great for business.
Moving Up in the Poker World
So, 2014 comes along and you get offered a promotion to become the new Head of Poker at 888. How did it feel for you personally to have reached that sort of a milestone? Did you come into that position with a list of goals or maybe another 150 problems that need to be solved?
It was a small promotion. On the organizational chart, this was actually a horizontal shift from managing the Product and Delivery to managing the Poker’s Marketing P&L (profit and loss). This change gave me a different perspective. The main difference was that I started having the responsibility to manage a very big marketing budget.
While I was on the Product side, I led the major strategy change that obviously influenced our Marketing, so once I got promoted to the Marketing position, I felt in the beginning that it would be a walk in the park and that I’d just continue to grow the business.
Very quickly, I realized that marketing is also very complex. There is not just “one marketing thing,” but rather a whole world of so many activities that are all classified as marketing. There is branding, there is performance marketing, there is content, and everything gets blended in together.
My first focus was in working on that “black box” algorithm I mentioned earlier, constructing and refining a usable metric, to measure player activity. By addressing this, performance marketing became much more reliable. Then, my focus was more on branding, content creation, and distribution.
You mentioned that 888poker eventually grew to become the #2 online poker operator, climbing up from #17 when you first joined the company. What did it feel like, to you personally and as a department, to have risen so high up the ladder?
Internally, we all felt it a huge sense of achievement. We were very happy. It was pretty much the same team running together for five, six, seven years. There were about 50 of us on the technology side and another 30-40 of us on the marketing side. We felt very proud, that we had accomplished something very big, with each person being able to feel their contribution to the team’s overall success. It was not just a one-man show; it was really the joint effort of so many people. It wasn’t even just the poker team but also other units in 888 helped us out a lot.
We threw a party the first day that we were ranked #2. Someone brought a cake with the PokerScout listings on it. It was really an achievement, after a lengthy process with a lot of hard work. We looked at the charts every day and got excited each time we moved up a spot. Hitting #2 was amazing.
Did your rise up the charts change your outlook and the way you guys operated within the industry, towards players, and towards the public?
Yes. We started to understand that we were very visible. I think from time that we were around #5, other companies started looking at our business model. Before that, nobody cared about 888poker. I know that one of the companies hired people to reverse-engineer 888poker. Now all of the big companies, perhaps with the exception of partypoker, are implementing pretty much the same strategy we had started using years prior, namely focusing on recreational players rather than the regs.
The Live Poker Scene
So let’s talk about live poker a little bit. At some point, 888poker decided to do something that other companies were doing and start hiring brand ambassadors. Remind us, approximately when was this and what sort of decision-making was involved in saying, “OK, we’re going to go ahead and start doing that”? How did you decide specifically which players to approach to represent the brand?
In the beginning, it was more of an opportunistic approach. In the beginning we only had Shane Warne, the cricket player, as a Tier 1 brand ambassador not only for 888poker, but for all of the verticals.
At some point, just before I joined the B2C, around 2012-2013, two players who we sponsored at the WSOP Main Event went deep. Some others approached us with very expensive deals, with very little value. The idea of sponsoring players was new for our team; none of us had really done it before. Over the years, we’ve improved a lot at being proactive in terms of finding the right ambassadors that we want. They have to have the right mix of poker skills, social influence, great interpersonal relationships, and fit in with our corporate culture. There’s also a geographic component to it, generally speaking.
We are very happy with the relationships we’ve developed with our ambassadors, as well as the bond that our ambassadors have struck among themselves. It’s very, very good. We’re friends, we go out together, and we meet on many occasions. There is a very good flow of information and feedback in both directions. We listen to them because they have some good ideas and many times we ask them very tough questions, and vice versa. 888poker is always honest and transparent with its ambassadors. I feel that they enjoy being part of the 888 family. And again, on a business level, we have much better, more cost-effective relationships in place than in years past when we’d just slap a patch on a player and hope for the best. Nowadays, to just patch someone up has relatively little value.
You also ventured at some point into other uncharted territory for your brand, namely doing live poker festivals. At what point was that decision made, and what influenced your decision to say, OK, we’re going to start doing 888Live poker events and get out there in the world?
I believe that once we became #3 or #4, we realized that we couldn’t just remain an online poker business exclusively, and that part of the business was about being closer to the players. We started with a couple of attempts at different types of live events. In the beginning, it was more of a fun, silly type of poker, like going to a ski resort and having a ski weekend with some poker mixed in, or going to Cyprus and having some sea fun, and then also playing poker.
Then we added more poker to the content, and reduced the fun part. At the end of the day, 888poker wants to give poker players what they want. Of course, it’s still always important to keep the poker events fun, with parties, etc. It’s an ongoing thing, we learn which destinations players prefer. Improving the live offering remains an ongoing process.
There’s a lot of poker tours and festivals out there these days, so what would you say is something that you’ve always wanted the unique selling point to be? What sets the 888Live poker festivals apart from the competition
We never aimed to try and host the huge buy-in tournaments with the largest prize pools. We also didn’t try to cater to the low end of the spectrum with very cheap tournaments. Like the online product, the aim is to capture the recreational players who wish to compete for a decent prize. In so many of our competitors’ live events, we often see mostly professionals reaching the final stages of the tournaments. At 888poker events, there’s usually a great mix of players right until the very end of each tournament.
Let’s talk a little bit about sponsorships and partnerships, something you were obviously very heavily involved in with your position. 888poker made some very big waves in the industry when it first partnered up with the WSOP. Do you remember what year that was?
The partnership started out small, with baby steps, and eventually grew to the full WSOP sponsorship in 2013-2014.
And then again, you forged another big partnership with Poker Central/PokerGO, and its various live events that they run.
Yes, that partnership began shortly after their company was founded.
Is there anything you could say about these deals and how you envisioned them in a certain way? How have the deals evolved over time?
I think the deals are very good for all parties involved, and I believe that beyond numbers it’s also in large part due to the personnel, the people behind the deals. It’s not just that brand names are doing deals – PokerGO, WSOP, 888 – but it’s the people involved. We’ve always had excellent personal relationships with them.
Of course there are some misunderstandings, some small things along the way because it’s major deals after all. But what’s great is that usually just a short phone call solves everything. Again, this is what’s so good and important about those personal relationships. It’s not just about the letters of a contract; people communicating with each other are able to fix things on the go with minimal friction.
I’ve seen you there at the WSOP these last few years, and of course you’ve done a good bit of travel to the other 888Live events and other festivals that 888poker has sponsored around the world. What was your favorite part of the traveling and getting outside the office cubicle every once in a while?
All of the travels were great! During the travel, is when I had the opportunity to speak with other people, with the players and with the partners. Plus, the player parties were always fun!
In many cases, we also did focus groups around the events where we also invite some of the players and some of the 888poker ambassadors to really talk about how things are going, how we can be better, and to hear their feedback and share future plans. Sometimes we’d show them prototypes of new products and share a few business ideas, on which we’d get priceless input back from them.
What did you do during your free time during those trips? Do you play a little poker, perhaps?
Unfortunately I cannot play in the 888Live events. I could play in non-888 events of course, if I really wanted to.
Cash games? Tournaments?
Usually cash games because I don’t have enough time to play a full tournament. I usually play for low stakes. I’m OK. I used to be a very good player. At some point, I was actually a semi-grinder, playing 12 tables concurrently. Eventually, though, the level of the game became too tough, so I don’t really play online anymore. But when I get a chance in a land-based casino, I play low stakes games; it’s fun.
What do you love most about poker?
The challenge to win. It’s not about the money for me because I’m not playing for large amounts, but I enjoy when I feel that I understand the situation properly, when I make the right reads, figuring out what the other players have, and managing to make my opponents commit mistakes.
I also learn from my mistakes, and I still make many mistakes when I play. If I get lucky in a hand, maybe I’m excited to win, but I’m very upset that I made a mistake. By contrast, when I’m losing because I’m unlucky, I feel OK because I know that I played well.
What’s Does the Future Hold for Poker?
So over the last while, competition has gotten tougher in the online poker realm. Of course, 888poker’s still a powerhouse, but it’s not #2 anymore. In general, what would you attribute that to?
Yes. There were two trajectory changes in poker in the last two years, from 2016 or so, and they happened almost concurrently.
One was PokerStars moving to the recreational model, changing their loyalty program. They started doing many things that we were already doing for years at 888poker. So, it was a big challenge when they started competing with us on “our territory.”
The other change was partypoker. After their acquisition by GVC, partypoker really woke up the business. They invested a lot of money and, lucky for them, PokerStars moved to the recreational space, so the reg area opened up. They managed to get many players on board and to make very attractive offers both online and live.
Instead of being a duopoly, the industry became much more competitive among very good companies that invested a lot of money in the game. So, things weren’t as easy as they used to be for 888poker. On top of that, there are other networks doing well. Winamax is doing very well; they have a great product, and with the shared liquidity between Spain and France, they’ve also managed to grow. I think that they’re doing great. Then there is the Indonesian company that’s now #2, IDN. They’ve got a lot of microstakes players, but I’m not very familiar with their offering.
On top of all that, poker itself is changing. It’s definitely a different world.
I think everyone in the industry would agree that regulation is a very good thing. It’s necessary for a mature industry to be successful. But at the same time, regulation also means that there are tons of rules to follow, and it can make it very difficult to generate revenue and be profitable. Now, 888 is doing fine, it’s publicly traded on the London Stock Exchange, so no one’s going to go ahead and feel sorry or cry a sad song. With that said, what sort of issues have been the most challenging on that front to try and overcome when you have targets to meet as a business?
So, first of all I think that regulation is great for the industry. I believe that we’ll see more consolidation in the coming years, with fewer companies, but with all the big ones fully aligned with regulation.
Regulation also presents plenty of new marketing opportunities within each of the regulated jurisdictions for operators to advertise offline, on TV, radio, and other mainstream mediums. This de facto increases the potential of the market.
Of course there are taxes to pay for this, but there will be fewer true competitors because the small companies don’t have the resources – both in terms of manpower and technology – to be in compliance and get regulated in so many jurisdictions. Regulations are different in each country and they’re constantly changing. It was certainly a challenge for us.
The biggest downside that I felt at 888 – and I think it’s happening everywhere actually – is that the majority of our work focused on being compliant with all the regulations. There’s just not enough creativity, not enough pure product improvement. This is a very logical progression for a mature industry, but I think more innovation is needed overall.
Reflections on a Gr888 Career
We’ve talked a lot about a lot of the ups and a lot of the downs over your years at 888poker. What would you say have been your favorite times or some highlights from your time in the poker industry?
I think going from nowhere to being a major player; it was six, seven years of just a really great feeling. To keep on improving every single day; it was good.
I also took a lot of pride in the release of Poker 6, our new software. It was really smooth, without almost any bugs. We got great feedback from players. Another highlight was the first time we ran a $1 million guaranteed tournament at 888poker, and we covered it easily. It was new ground for us.
My tenure at 888 was like a marathon of small improvements, with a few big leaps, that all added up over time to something big. I played a key role in turning our MTT offering from a losing offering, due to failing to hit the guarantees, into a very stable and profitable business. Looking at the charts, it’s still amazing to see the growth in profitability.
Just like for a poker player, a nice graph. No huge jumps, just nice, slow and steady.
Yes, yes. I think this is the best way to describe it. To feel that we executed the right strategy at the right time.
Well, after over a decade at 888, you decided that it was time to cash in your chips, and to move on to the next adventure. What’s next for you?
Many people have asked me why I left 888. It was a great job; a dream job. I love the game. I love the company. I love the people; they’re people I hired and who I enjoyed being with. The compensation and working conditions were good, of course, and I’ve gotten to travel to lots of nice places for the events.
But I honestly feel that there is a systematic problem in online poker. You see it today, and you’ll see it more a couple years from now. It’s something that some people talk about once in a while, but I’ve been feeling it for a long time.
Whoever invented Texas Hold’em didn’t realize how great he was in finding a game with an amazing balance between luck and skill. If you look at chess, the game is great, but it’s only skill. If you look at roulette, it’s a great game, but it’s only luck. So in poker, Hold’em especially, the balance between luck and skill is actually the reason for the success of the game.
The luck component of poker is part of the physics of the game, it’s mathematical and cannot change. The chances of hitting your draw will always be identical regardless of where you play or your skill level. Skill level, on the other hand, is something that is manageable. Over the years, people have kept on improving at the game and sharing their know-how in books, forums, and via poker training sites.
So the equilibrium between skill and luck actually is breaking. There is more and more and more skill, but luck remains the same, so the beauty of the game – the reason for the huge success of the game – is gradually breaking. It’s happening mainly online. In live poker, because you can play at only table at a time, it’s different. Moreover, in live tournaments the element of luck is greater than in a cash game.
Live poker is booming. The 2018 WSOP Main Event was the second-largest ever. There are great tournaments being hosted by PokerStars, by partypoker, in Rozvadov, and so many other locations. The 888Live events are great too, and there are no plans for stopping to put them on. Poker programming is doing great on PokerGO.
In the live scene, the effect of skill is lower, so it continues to grow because people love the game. Online, however, the game is much more repeatable, plus you can play at numerous tables simultaneously. There are also more and more artificial intelligence programs out there. I believe that 888poker and other sites still catch the bots quite easily, but in the long run, the bots will be smarter and harder to detect.
But even if not, there are “human bots” now. All the GTO guys playing the nearly perfect game. The chances for new players to beat them are infinitesimally small. So, from a business perspective, the value of new players keeps dropping because they’re losing too quickly and then don’t want to play again.
This is not a catastrophic thing that will happen from today to tomorrow, or from a year ago to now, but I can see the decline. If you look carefully at some of the statistics – I’m not talking about 888poker’s numbers, but rather about the statistics of some delineated markets – you can see it there. I’m afraid that the drop in online will just increase in steepness. This is something we noticed at 888, which persisted regardless of our marketing, acquisition, and customer retention efforts.
All of that is a long-winded way of saying that, for me, I personally want to be in a growing business, where things that we do have bigger effect. In a declining business it’s very difficult to achieve success. Also, 11 years with one company – and it’s a great company – is a lot of time. I feel that the next stage for me will be outside of the poker industry.
Well, I noted right at the outset of this interview that this is the first time, at least to the best of my knowledge, that you’ve ever opened up publicly about your role and the work that you’ve done so diligently over the years at 888poker. You have always attributed the successes to team efforts, even within this interview, and you let the other team members and personnel at 888 shine and receive the attention and the public credit.
Of course, all of the accomplishments are not something that one person can achieve by himself or herself, but it certainly does take leadership of the highest quality. Hili, I’m really glad that you’re finally getting some well-deserved credit for your hard work. I want to thank you once again for agreeing to sit with me here and to share your story, the story of 888poker, and I wish you the best of luck moving forward.
Yeah, great. Robbie, thank you so much for listening to all this history. It feels great to finally tell it.
As a reminder, the conversation Hili and I had took place a little over four years ago, and of course a lot has happened in the poker world and with 888poker since that time. After leaving 888, Hili joined Neogames, where he is managing their Games Studio for the past four years. The company is the world leading eInstant studio (instant games for online lotteries) and their current growth trajectory reminds Hili of “the good old days” back at 888poker.