Challenges of Innovation Pt. 2 – What is Poker, Really?

Alex Weldon : March 30th, 2015


Challenges of Innovation is a multi-part essay on the current state of poker from the perspective of a commercial game designer. It seeks to answer the questions of whether No-Limit Hold’em is destined to remain the predominant variant, why it’s so hard to come up with good new variants, and what avenues of innovation appear the most promising. To read from the beginning, click here.

As we discussed last week, poker is unique among games in that it has no standard form. Whereas most games – both commercial and traditional – have a base ruleset and then perhaps some variations or expansions on those rules, poker exists only as a set of variants with no one specific game that we could point to and say “that’s poker.”

No-Limit Texas Hold’em is currently far-and-away the most popular poker variant, but that crown was previously held by Seven-Card Stud and by other variants such as Five-Card Draw before that. These have little enough in common with one another that it would be very hard to make the case that any of these games qualifies as the definitive ruleset for poker and that the others are variations on it.

In fact, I would argue that poker isn’t a game at all, but rather a classification. In other words, the term refers to a family of games which share certain common mechanics and player objectives, in the same way that checkers, chess and shogi are all “capturing games,” and many card games fall into the “trick-taking” category.

That still leaves us with the question of exactly what these shared characteristics are. This is an important question to answer if we’re looking to innovate in poker, because it defines our design space. Given how different existing variants are from one another, people’s intuitive understanding of what qualifies as poker is obviously quite broad, but before we start getting too wild and crazy, we need to be sure we know what the real core of the game is, the part we mustn’t change. The two most obvious candidates to look at are the use of cards and the betting structure. Perhaps even more important than either of these, however, is the nature of the information available to the players.

Hand rankings are a red herring

Many people, particularly casual players and non-players, if asked to define poker, would probably start by talking about the deck of cards and the standard hand ranks – High Card, Pair, Two Pair, Three of a Kind and so on. Indeed, there are various games and activities which borrow the cards and hand rankings from poker, but otherwise bear fairly little resemblance to poker as we know it: Poker Dice, for example, has more in common with Yahtzee, while video poker is arguably a cousin of dealer blackjack in that it pits the player against a static system rather than a human opponent, and the decisions come down to pure probability.

In terms of the notion that the standard hand rankings are an essential component of poker goes, it should first be pointed out that straights and flushes were not always a part of the game and, in fact, are often omitted in lowball variants. Certain homebrew games – wildcard variants in particular – have been known to introduce a variety of exotic hands to the hierarchy as well, although none of these have found much popularity in general play.

The real hand-hierarchy killers, however, are Badugi and its recent offshoots. Not only does the Badugi hand-ranking system differ substantially from orthodox Lowball variants, it doesn’t even use the same number of cards. In fact, it introduces a wholly new concept, in that the number of cards you can legally use to form your hand is itself a component of hand strength.

But what about the deck? That’s a harder thing to get away from. One can certainly play poker with a non-standard deck with more or fewer ranks and/or suits, and of course players have experimented over the years with adding various non-standard cards to the deck, particularly with using the Jokers in various ways. But you could even imagine playing a poker-like game where one’s “hand” consists of dice rolled under a cup or any other mechanism for producing a spectrum of values.

That said, perception matters when it comes to a game finding widespread adoption, and any game which doesn’t use the familiar suits and ranks will have a harder time being accepted as “poker” by the average player. Furthermore, there are logistical problems associated with any game requiring special equipment when it comes to live play. For practical reasons, then, I think we should limit our definition of poker to include only games played with a standard 52-card deck or at least some subset thereof: players and casinos might be willing to accept a game played with a smaller deck – for instance, a deck with one suit removed – if there were some very good reason for it, and indeed, there is precedent for such an experiment in the form of Royal Hold’em.

Betting and information

The two things that all poker variants actually have in common is the basic structure of having one or (usually) more rounds of betting, during which players have a fixed set of options: to bet or check if no betting has yet happened, or to fold, call or raise if facing a bet from another player. The objective is likewise consistent: to win the pot in one of two ways, whether by forcing all other players to fold by betting, or by having the best hand after the final betting round.

If players had full information about one another’s hands, however, this betting structure would be a hollow exercise. In order for the game to qualify as poker, therefore, we have the further requirement that players be privileged to at least some bit of knowledge about their own hand’s strength that the other players do not have.

Taken in combination, these two features produce the basic strategic nature of poker. Players have some idea of their rough probability of winning a showdown. They then want to get money into the pot if their odds are better than average and avoid doing so if they are worse, but must balance this against the danger of giving the opponent an informational advantage by betting too predictably. The option to fold, meanwhile, introduces an element of bluffing to the game, which may be a major or minor consideration depending on the exact variant, but is always present to some extent.

This structure is, strictly speaking, all that is absolutely required for a game to be recognizable as “poker,” but just as we’ve said we’ll add the use of a standard deck of cards as a practical restriction, I would like to add one additional informational restriction. On top of the private information held by players about their own hands, and the information they infer from one another’s bets, all good poker variants include some additional public information which becomes available over the course of the hand. In Hold’em and Omaha, this comes in the form of community cards. In Stud, it comes from players’ up cards. In the various drawing games, it comes from the number of cards each player draws.

The reason I consider this a practical requirement is simply that the nature of timing of this information is, at the strategic level, what makes one variant different from another. The information available to you in 2-7 Triple Draw is qualitatively different from that available in Hold’em, and it’s the variation in the challenge of making use of the information available which makes those games feel substantially different. Without any public information becoming available, all poker variants would feel more or less equivalent to Kuhn poker, and not particularly interesting to play.

Oddballs: Badugi and Open-Face Chinese

I mentioned Badugi as a counter-example to illustrate why the standard hand rankings are not intrinsically important to poker. I anticipate that some readers will be thinking of Open-Face Chinese Poker as a counter-example for the betting and informational requirements, since it does not feature the standard betting structure, and players do not hold any private information.

This is a valid point, to an extent. Nomenclature is inherently subjective, and so it’s hard to “prove” that Badugi is poker and Open-Face Chinese is a different game entirely. And certainly, Open-Face Chinese is popular with a subset of the poker community, and you even see Open-Face Chinese tournaments included in some poker series.

There are two main reasons I would consider Badugi to be “poker” and Open-Face Chinese a different game. The first is in terms of strategy and mental skills involved. Both resemble other poker variants in terms of the counting of outs and estimating probabilities, but for Open-Face Chinese, the resemblance ends there. Badugi, meanwhile, features the same sort of inferred information and bluffing as other forms of poker, which in my books makes it more poker-like than Open-Face Chinese.

Secondly, I see an analogy with the idea of species in biology. Biologists define a species as a grouping of animals which can produce viable offspring together. If they can make babies and their babies can make babies, then they’re the same species. If they can’t, then they’re not.

Badugi is poker-like because it can easily be combined with other poker variants, as we see with Badacy, Baducy and Razzdugi. Even Omadugi is now a game which is being played. Open-Face Chinese, meanwhile, is its own microcosm. Although Open-Face Chinese variants are beginning to appear, they aren’t just straight hybrids with other existing forms of poker, and it’s hard to imagine what, say, a community card variant of Open-Face Chinese would look like.

The design space

To summarize, then, here are the hard restrictions I would impose on myself in trying to design a game which could fairly be considered a poker variant:

  • Played with a standard 52-card deck or a subset thereof
  • Players have partial or full private knowledge of their own hand’s strength from the beginning of the hand
  • One or more rounds of betting, with players being allowed the usual range of actions (check/bet or fold/call/raise)
  • Players obtain partial public information (and possibly additional private information) over the course of the hand
  • Pot won by making all opponents fold or awarded to one or more players at showdown after the final betting round

I think that any game with all of those features would be recognizable as poker to anyone playing it, while still leaving us considerable room for variation within those constraints. That doesn’t mean, however, that any game meeting those criteria is going to be any good. On top of these hard restrictions, there are a great number of additional “soft” requirements for a potential poker variant to be viable for serious play. These can be a lot harder to meet, and form the crux of why Texas Hold’em is a hard game to top; we’ll start to look at these criteria next week.

Next: Soft Requirements

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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