Paying More Places: The Evolution of PokerStars Online Tournament Payouts

The PokerStars Poker Operations Team is almost always spending at least some portion of our time tinkering with an interesting zero-sum maths problem: online tournament payouts. I'm going to share some detail here about the evolution of this subject at PokerStars, and provide information on the next stage of that evolution, which is deeper payouts as of September 11.

Looking back to the 2002 - 2006 period, most tournaments paid about 10% of the field. This was a carryover from brick and mortar poker, and that was fine at the time. Providing a smooth transition from live to online poker was one of the most important considerations back then, and 10% payouts helped to facilitate that transition. There were some serious flaws though: there was often significant deviation from the 10% target; a huge portion of the money went to the final table; first place received too much, the jumps in final table prizes were too severe; the pay tiers were often very large, meaning that large swaths of finishing positions received the same prize; most importantly, nine out of every 10 people who played walked away with nothing to show for their investment of time and money.


My colleagues and I thought we could provide a better poker experience for most people. We narrowed the pay tiers so that there would be less deviation from the 10% goal, and introduced more granularity in the non-final table prizes, so that, for example, someone finishing in 300th place in the Sunday Million was paid more than someone who finished in 500th place.

Over the years there was further evolution. We moved money away from first place. We moved money away from the final table. We smoothed out the huge pay jumps. We introduced even more granularity to the pay tiers. Anyone remember when 10th-18th all received the same prize? That used to be a thing. We changed that, too. We eventually decided that we didn't want 90% of the field walking away with nothing and we paid more places.

It's clear to us that paying more places has a direct benefit to most of our players. PokerStars runs a great many large-field tournaments and paying, for example, 1 in 8 players instead of 1 in 10 means that lots more people are paid who would have otherwise had a losing experience. We want more people to have more fun by winning more often, so we've continued to make changes big and small: we moved from 10% to 11.1% to 12.5% to 14.2% to 16.6% gradually across the years. The last time we did this was early 2017 when we moved the payouts in most tournaments to 18%, or 1 in 5.5 players.

On September 11, most tournaments on PokerStars will be changing to deeper payouts. Tourneys that have been paying 12% will change to 14%; 14% will change to 16%; 16% will change to 18%, and 18% will change to 20%. Keep in mind that this doesn't affect every tournament; there's no change to approximately 30% of the weekly recurring schedule. Examples of unaffected tournaments are Progressive Knockouts, many high buy-ins, and tournaments already paying 20%. The changes will be subtle and most players will only notice when they realize that they're experiencing the thrill of cashing a little more often. It's been years of tinkering to get to this point, and we'll keep working to create the best overall playing experience.

If you have questions please contact or join the conversation on our Discord channel.

Mike Jones is Poker Operations Manager for PokerStars.

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