Monday, March 13, 2006


Already familiar with Poker Stars? No doubt it's one of the biggees, currently #2 in terms of cash players. And with the recent turmoil at Party Poker (as I write this, just shy of Halloween 2005), Stars has its sights set squarely on #1.

But Poker Stars wasn't the first site I joined, nor the second... heck, it wasn't even the fifth. Part of this had to do my online poker needs: when I decided to get "serious" about my game, I started with a whoppin' $90 bankroll, which I needed to protect as well as I could. That meant I needed to go after some sign-up bonuses, and I needed to stay away from tournaments, for the most part, at least early on.

And that meant no PokerStars.

Let's clarify this a bit: I am not saying that if you're an online poker newbie, you need to stay away from Stars. For instance, at this writing, Stars does have a sign-up bonus (25% for most deposits), yet it's far from the most generous in the industry. And though Stars also has a goodly selection of ring games (the safest avenue for clearing said bonuses), Stars is, first and foremost, a tournament site. Over 1,000 of the players competing in the main event of the 2005 WSOP earned their way in through a Poker Stars satellite event, or approximately 20% of the total entries for that main event. That's a standout number. And it points to the structure and aim of PokerStars itself, an aim which wasn't mine when I first started out, and might not be yours, either.

It doesn't make Stars a bad site, you see. Stars is actually a good site, one of the best there is. But if you're just starting out and learning how to play, then the best advice is to get your feet wet elsewhere, then come on to Stars; the action here is tougher than on the majority of the largest sites, and without a healthy sign-on bonus as a backboard, your investment would be more in peril. As for me, I was successful in building my bankroll elsewhere, so when I signed up here, my online-poker life wasn't on the line. I've made a little money here, too, so all is well. I live. I breathe. I play a little poker.

Back to Stars. Since their forte is their tournament offerings, you might expect that their ring-game offerings might be a relatively weaker aspect. You would be correct in that assumption. It's not that the ring games at Stars are bad (they're not), it's just that the available selection is limited and unordinary. You get Hold-'Em, Omaha, and 7-Stud, with fixed-limit, pot-limit and no-limit for the first two, and fixed only for the stud games. And in non-peak hours, you might even have trouble in 7-Stud or Omaha finding a game at your most favored stakes. Okay. I am legion; I can adapt.

As for tournaments, though, Stars really shines. You'll find everything here, from major daily "guarantee" events to satellites and supers, from $1 cheapies up to the stuff where the really big boys play. One aside: skip the freerolls, and use your accumulated FPP points for other things (read: merchandise); the freerolls are a horrible investment of your time, relative to the expected payback you might receive.

At first glance, one gets the impression that they're aren't a lot of low-limit tournaments at Stars. But they're there all right; they're just been restructed as multi-table Sit-'N'-Go events, and are found in the plethora of choices available there. Stars, you see, is the hands-down Sit-'N'-Go champ of web poker, both in number and choices of offerings; there ain't no need to even worry about who comes in second. In addition to the regular stuff, including virtually any combination of buy-in amount and seats per table, you'll find that what shows up as a smallish regular tournament elsewhere often plays as a larger SNG here.

You also find tournament formats seldom offered elsewhere. Shootouts are one example, which function something like a Euro "rounders" tournament. Essentially, shootouts are multi-layer SNG tourneys; if you win your first table, you pocket a little something and go on to the next level. The higher you climb, the more you make. Unlike a "rounders" tourney, however, there is no fallback from a higher level if you come in 2nd or 3rd at a table at that point. Win or die, sweetie, scale your catch or be filleted.

Did you ever notice how some sites offer 10-seated action, and others offer 9? (Yes, this is excepting the aggressive 6-table stuff, I know.) Well, as with Party, Stars offers both 9- and 10-seat full-ring games, though their tournaments are --- as far as I've ever seen --- exclusively 9-seat deals.

Hmmm. Software... time to check in on that. Poker Stars has, in the vernacular, gotten their shit together. Not only does their software work, it works whether you've got one table going or several. It doesn't go into spastic flipflops when two or more tables simultaneous require action, as happens on Party, and all the little bells and trinkets work not only as advertised, but as the user hopes and wants them to. Heaven forbid: It seems like the techno-geeks and the idea guys actually Worked Together in assembling the Stars software package, which means that they consider your money (and their efforts to obtain their share of it, for providing the playing venue), a serious matter indeed.

One of the neat little trinkets worth mentioning is that each player can upload a small image to serve as their avatar. That's been done elsewhere, too, but only on Stars can other players block that image if they find it offensive... or, more likely... too stupid to warrant repeated attention from the peepers. Which brings me to an aside that has precious little to do with this review.

When you're 20 or 25, you do things to make the world look at you, just because you enjoy the attention. When you're 45, you look at the people doing those stupid things, and you understand that behind the attention-getting behavior is a simple lack of maturity. (You don't worry, you don't scold, unless the immature sort is the rare type who not fished for your attention, but also confronts you and demands that you give it to him. Then there are other options and concerns.) Some people actually force the confrontations as a way of receiving attention, because they're addicted to the attention itself; notorious examples within the poker world are Mike Matusow and Phil Hellmuth. But I look at someone like Hellmuth, and all I see is a man who likes like he's never had decent sex in his life. And yes, I know he's married... to a psychiatrist. Then I see Matusow, and all I can think is... "Bubba."

Heh. Back to our regularly scheduled review.

Poker Stars' decision to allow avatar-image blocking is simply a victory for and an acknowledgement of maturity. I like it. Thank you, Stars, the gesture is appreciated.

Stars' software, in total, receives the highest marks across the board. In reviewing my notes, I cannot find a single instance wherein something appears or works counter-intuitively, or where a major aspect of expected site functionality is nowhere to be found. Table selection, betting action --- it's all good, here, all professional. They've got me stumped, frankly; I'd like to point at something and shout a big "GOTCHA!!"... but I can't.

Cashing in and cashing out are slick and solid, too. The usual gamut of deposit options are available, and my test withdrawal occurred smoothly and appeared back in my online bank within 48 hours, an acceptable turnaround, especially considering the first-transaction status.

Finally, Stars is a "happening" venue --- you'll find that a lot of special events and private tournaments are held here as well. The customer support is top-notch, as is the direct feedback between players and the site's operators and designers. If they could add another 10% of fishes to the poker-playin' population it'd be Nirvana, but then again, one can't have everything.

Poker Stars gets one of this site's highest overall ratings. The only slight imperfections are the narrowness of the ring-game offerings and the relatively meager bonus offerings. One wishes that the action was a little weaker, but one always wishes for that, regardless --- it's hardly Poker Stars' fault. It's not a site recommended as the first place to play if you're on a meager budget and just learning the game, but it is a site worth ongoing play.

And so we will.

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