Challenges of Innovation Pt. 4 – Successful Experiments

Alex Weldon : April 13th, 2015

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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.

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve talked about what the goals need to be when designing a new poker variant with good potential for popularity. We first looked at what the bare bones essentials are for a game to qualify as “poker,” and then at the practical concerns are for designing a variant which is both fun and accessible for recreational players, and challenging enough for more serious players.

The next thing we need to do, if we’re being methodical, is to take stock of existing variants and see what experiments have been tried over the years. To start with, we’re going to look at some of the successful innovations that have appeared over the years and try to understand what they add to the game, though later on it’s going to be important to look at failed experiments as well, to help us to avoid some common pitfalls.

Straights and flushes

Believe it or not, straights and flushes haven’t always been part of the poker hand hierarchy. In its earliest form, it was played with a 20-card deck (Tens through Aces), with the only hands being pair, two pair, three of a kind, full house and four of a kind.

The impact of these hands on the game is bigger than it first appears because they are qualitatively different from the “pair type” hands. The original set of hands form a single continuous spectrum of improvement: One pair can improve to two pair or to three of a kind, and either of those can improve to a full house, and so on.

Straights and flushes, on the other hand, are an all-or-nothing proposition and are mutually exclusive with the other hand types: if you have four cards to a straight or a flush, those cards cannot contain any pairs. This is hugely important to the game, as missed straight and flush draws are the primary source of bluffing towards the end of a hand – without the inclusion of these hands, the later betting rounds would play much more straightforwardly.

Lowball

Lowball mechanics were introduced later on, but serve a similar role to the straight and flush. Paired hands have almost no showdown value in lowball poker, so having four cards to a strong low is very much like playing a straight or flush draw in a more conventional variant. The difference is that in lowball games, there is only one hand type players are attempting to make, and so all hands are draws up until they’ve been made. Badugi, despite using non-standard hand rankings, is still functionally a lowball game in this strategic regard, taking it in fact to a greater extreme, due to the lower odds of catching a viable card on any given draw.

What we can learn from all of this is that if we experiment with alternative hand ranking schemes, we need to ensure that they produce this dynamic: that at least some of the time, players will hold a hand which could either end up with very great or very poor showdown value depending on the cards which come out later in the hand. A game in which showdown value only ever improves or declines in a steady fashion is both less exciting and less strategically interesting – in other words, a fair bit of information about hand strength must be held back until late in the hand.

Split pots

Split pot games further build on the drawing aspect of the game in that, depending on the exact variant, it is very hard for the same five-card hand to win both halves of the pot. Typically, even once a player has made her hand for one half of the pot, she will still be drawing for the other (or, if playing with a qualification rule, hoping that others miss their draw for it). This serves to preserve excitement throughout the hand and ensure that the outcome is rarely decided before the final betting round.

On the other hand, a chopped pot at showdown is rarely very profitable and often a bit of a disappointment, so when designing a split pot variant, we need to make sure that scooping is a regular occurrence and that we don’t actually end up splitting up too many pots. Some of the ways this problem has been solved in existing games include qualification rules for one half of the pot (“Eights or Better” being the standard), ensuring that certain cards good for both ends (Aces counting as both high and low, for instance), or giving players more cards than in other variants (such as Omaha often being played Hi/Lo, while Texas Hold’em is not).

More recently, we’ve seen Badugi mashed up with other Lowball games, creating variants where having a good hand towards one end actually makes you more likely to be strong for the other, though not guaranteed to be. This sort of thing is a promising avenue for future developments.

The draw

The draw was added to poker quite early on, long before community card and stud variants appeared. Its introduction was likely motivated by the desire to see stronger hands appearing more often, as it’s quite rare to make anything better than one pair in a simple five-card deal. Although increasing the frequency of strong hands does make a variant more appealing to casual players, the actual advantages provided by the draw are considerably deeper.

For one thing, before up-cards and community cards appeared, the draw was the only form of explicit information provided to players about the strength of one another’s hands, which we have established to be an important requirement. It is usually a pretty weak form of information, particularly because it only really tells a player how strong his opponent might have been before drawing. On the other hand, not drawing is a much stronger form of information, as it signals (truthfully or not) that the player has five strong cards and no need or ability to improve further. This is the reason that variants with multiple draws are more popular than ones with only a single draw: it makes it considerably more likely that one or more players will stand pat at some point in the hand, vastly increasing the informational content of the variant.

It also adds tactical complexity to the game by providing players with additional opportunities to make decisions, outside of the standard betting actions. It is nearly unique in this regard: the only other non-betting action one sees at all commonly is a discard without replacement, such as in Pineapple or Irish Poker.

Up cards and community cards

Stud poker is arguably the single most important development in the history of poker, as it represented a massive increase in the amount of information available to players relative to Five-Card Draw, which had previously been the standard. With only two streets of betting and a single draw, players had relatively little information to go on in terms of their opponents’ hands. The Stud variants address both of these issues, increasing the number of betting rounds and providing players with explicit but partial information about one another’s holdings.

This increase in information opened the door to multi-level thinking, with the combination of public information and players’ betting actions working together to produce a sort of “narrative” for each hand, and giving players the opportunity to potentially deduce one another’s holdings with much greater specificity than was possible in Five-Card Draw.

The early history of Texas Hold’em is murky, but my guess is that community cards probably first appeared as a solution for playing Seven-Card Stud with a large number of players. The deck can potentially run out when playing with eight or more players, and one common solution to this problem is to deal with final street as a community card when necessary to avoid exhausting the deck. The leap from that adjustment to the development of flop games is a relatively small one, making the sharing of community cards the rule rather than an exception. The strategic difference between community cards and individual up-cards is somewhat subtle, but the effect tends to be to create more tight situations where players have similar but non-identical hands. This in turn generates action, which is a worthy ambition in designing a poker variant.

The flop

The biggest difference between Texas Hold’em and Stud is not actually the nature of the up cards – personal vs. community – but rather the pace at which they come out. Looking at the information held by players as a percentage of what they’ll have by showdown, each street in Stud declines in importance relative to the ones which came before: seeing a fourth card represents a 33% increase over the three which the player had before, while the fifth is only another 25% on top of that, and so on.

Conversely, in Texas Hold’em, the amount of information known to the players more than doubles on the flop. This is not only exciting, but strategically quite interesting. Furthermore, it tempts recreational players into playing more hands for, at least, the first street of betting, in order to see whether they can catch a lucky flop. This makes the game more entertaining for those players, but also more lucrative for the professionals.

Betting structure

Stud also brought with it the innovation of changing the betting limit on later streets. This was an essential improvement, as keeping a fixed betting limit throughout the hand would render calls more or less automatic on later streets, decreasing the game’s depth. This improvement has become more or less a given for any Fixed-Limit game with more than two streets of betting.

No-Limit and Pot-Limit betting structures were introduced later on. These generally produce more exciting and challenging games, but are not compatible with every variant – in particular, they become increasingly problematic in games with more rounds of betting, due to the explosion in pot size.

In some ways, the choice of betting structure can be seen as separate from the overall design of a variant, because many variants – particularly the flop games – are commonly played with several different betting structures. Certainly, it’s worth considering in designing a variant which structure is likely to work best and be the default, but if the variant is otherwise solid, chances are that one of these three off-the-shelf solutions will be appropriate and no further innovation will be required.

Antes, bring-ins and blind bets

One important aspect of any poker variant is how action is initially stimulated. Without any money in the pot to begin with, players could just fold every time while waiting for an unbeatable hand. There always needs to be some sort of forced betting in the first betting round for that reason.

Antes were the first solution to this problem and have been around since the game’s inception; they are often used in conjunction with other forms of forced betting, particularly in tournament poker, in order to push the pace of play in the later stages.

The Stud variants brought with them the interesting idea of a bring-in, forcing the player with the seemingly worst hand to make an additional bet. Naturally, having a player with poor odds of winning already in the pot is a good way of inducing others to enter as well.

The bring-in was a successful enough invention that when the flop games were invented, the desire to keep it was strong. Players no longer had any personal up-cards, however, so a modification was needed. By this point, players had begun to understand the importance of a player’s position in the sequence of play; even without seeing any cards, it was understood that the player to the dealer’s immediate left was in a position of disadvantage, so it made sense for that player to pay the bring-in.

Furthermore, if one bring-in was good for stimulating action, it was natural to assume that two would be even better. Thus, the small and big blind were born, and worked out well enough that they were adopted into earlier draw variants as well at that point.

Discards and the “Omaha rule”

One aspect of Texas Hold’em which is arguably a flaw is that players’ initial information is tiny compared to other games, with only two cards seen by each player. Even Stud features much greater information, with each player having access to not only three of his own cards, but one from each of his opponents. This means that it doesn’t take much playing experience before a player has seen every possible starting combination and, pretty soon, almost every preflop situation begins to feel familiar, with most decisions being fairly automatic.

Fortunately, the three-card flop means that this strategic shallowness doesn’t last long into the hand, but still, it is natural that players would want to experiment with dealing more hole cards preflop. The downside of this is that doing so undermines the information players have later in the hand – even with just three cards being dealt per player, the number of potentially undetectable monster hands explodes. Almost any flop would make straights and flushes possible with three hole cards, and a player getting dealt a pat three-of-a-kind in the hole would be almost guaranteed to win the showdown.

The clever solution was to give players more cards, but only allow two of them to be used. In Pineapple, Crazy Pineapple and Irish Poker, the unused cards must be discarded early in the hand – either after the preflop betting is concluded, or on the flop. Omaha’s rule is similar, being functionally equivalent to requiring the player to discard two cards on the river.

All of these games work very well, and it’s a little bit surprising that they are not more popular than they are, with Omaha being the exception. Probably what it comes down to is that they are all just a little harder to learn than Texas Hold’em, and the added strategic interest may not be worth the extra learning curve when it comes to casual players. It may also be that the extra decision simply slows things down a little.

A summary of the trends

Looking at all these innovations and what makes them popular, we see that there are two major trends in the history of poker’s development: giving players more information, and stimulating action.

Information comes from two main sources: publicly exposed cards – whether personal or community – and from additional player actions, whether in the form of adding more betting rounds, or special non-betting actions like the draw. Stimulating action is a more complicated proposition, and most of the innovations address this in one way or another: forced bets of some sort are the classic solution, but the pacing of information in the hand is also of key importance. At the same time as we increase players’ information, we have to make sure that more of the information comes out later in the hand rather than earlier, as knowing too much about one’s hand strength off the bat leads to tight, boring play.

Chances are, therefore, that if we want to improve on Hold’em, we will want to continue along these lines, bringing in more information – or new types of information – for players to use in their decision making, but to be cautious in terms of the pacing of that information, ensuring that it’s only later on in the hand that players have a strong sense of their odds of winning. At the same time, we can look for new and innovative ways of stimulating action, though here too we have to maintain a balance, as knowing when to drop out of a hand is the primary edge that good poker players have over bad ones – the game cannot stimulate so much action that playing most hands all the way to showdown becomes a good idea.

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

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