Challenges of Innovation Pt. 5 – Failed Experiments

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.

Last week, we took a look at the successful innovations which have been introduced to poker over the years, resulting in the couple dozen or so variants which see at least occasional play in casinos and card rooms.

Most poker variants originate in dealer’s choice home games, where almost anything goes, and modifications to existing games are often proposed on the fly. The natural consequence of this scattershot approach is that for every variant which is successful enough to make it into the card rooms eventually, there are dozens more which don’t make the grade.

It’s almost more important to look at these failed experiments than the successful ones, because the only thing worse than reinventing the wheel is reinventing a broken wheel. By examining the things that people often try but which don’t work, and trying to understand why they don’t work, we can avoid wasting a lot of time when similar ideas occur to us in our own efforts to design a variant.

Wild cards

Far and away the most popular element of dealer’s choice home games and one which is conspicuously absent from serious play – even in something like the World Series of Poker Dealer’s Choice events – is the wild card.

Wild cards appear in variants in a number of forms. Sometimes Jokers are added to the deck, or a given rank (such as Deuces) is designated Wild. Other times, certain ranks become Wild over the course of a hand, such as in Follow the Queen.

Whatever the case, the basic problem with Wild cards is simple: they are of such high value that in almost every situation, a hand containing more Wild cards is an overwhelming favorite over a hand containing fewer. They become the primary focus of play, then, with everything else falling to the wayside. The luck factor of the game skyrockets, and its strategic complexity largely disappears.

Some more sensible approaches to Wild cards have been tried, with limitations on those cards’ power. For instance, some games (even some casino games) include a “Bug,” which is Wild only for straights and flushes. This is still too potent an effect in most variants, especially given that a Bug usually counts as an Ace when not used for a straight or flush, but it does show that there is some potential in a limited Wild card. If we’re going to consider a variant in which certain cards have special status, we need to exercise restraint in what we allow: a good example of success in this regard is the ability of Aces to play as both high and low in Hi/Lo variants, which can be regarded as a form of “limited Wildness.”

Spade in the hole

Some split pot variants award a portion of the pot to the player with the highest (or lowest) Spade in their hole cards. This is usually uninteresting for the same reason as Wild cards: It allows a player to have a lock on part of the pot up front, based on luck of the deal, while rendering a majority of other hands completely unplayable.

Exchanging or contributing cards

Many other home game variants involve the idea of players exchanging cards between themselves, or discarding cards to a common pool which is then used to produce the community cards for a flop-type game. On the surface, this seems like a great idea, as there can be considerable strategic complexity involved when deciding what to do with a card that does not help one’s own hand but might help others.

The problem with such mechanics is that they make collusion far more effective, allowing two or more players to pool their resources and ensure that one of them ends up with the best hand. As a blanket rule, I think we can safely say that any mechanic which allows players to affect the strength of one another’s hands or the community cards is a non-starter for this reason.

Purchases and penalties

Yet another common attempt at innovation is to include mechanics which sometimes obligate players to choose between folding immediately or making a special payment to the pot which the other players do not have to match ; for instance, many Wild card variants force players to pay a special tax to the pot upon being dealt a Wild card. Other variants include elective contributions to the pot in exchange for special privileges, such as buying an extra card or an extra chance to draw.

On the surface, these mechanics are not quite as problematic as the others that we’ve discussed so far. It’s easy to see how they could contribute additional strategy to the game if carefully applied.

Unfortunately, they only really work in the context of a Limit cash game in which players can top up their stack at any time. With table stakes in effect, No-Limit or Pot-Limit betting, and particularly in the context of a tournament, such mechanics can be unfairly punitive to the player with the shorter stack. With uneven stacks, the deeper stacked player can bet so as to leave himself, but not his opponent, enough chips behind to pay these additional bets. This could make it extremely difficult for a player to come back from a chip deficit, which is not what we want.

This problem could be avoided by mechanics which force additional bets only at the very beginning of a hand, before regular betting begins. In this case, however, it probably makes more sense to treat the forced bets as regular bets which must then be matched by others in order to stay in the hand. The prime example of such a mechanic is the forced bring-in for Stud games.

Pushed pots

Some variants include situations in which a pot is not awarded to any player, but rather carried over to the next hand. For instance, some variants require a player to meet two out of three conditions to win the pot (e.g. highest hand, lowest hand and highest Spade in the hole), with the pot being pushed to the next hand if no player meets more than one. Other variants include “kill cards” (such as the Queen of Spades) which, when revealed, cause the current hand to be aborted and the pot to be pushed to a new deal. Usually, the new hand is only dealt to players who were still in at the time of the push, while those who had folded are forced to sit out until the pot is won.

These variants are exciting because the pots can potentially grow very large before finally being awarded, but like the purchasing and penalty mechanics, they only really work with Limit betting and effectively unlimited player stacks, as there is no good solution for dealing with a player who is all-in prior to a pot being pushed. Clearly, if players are being dealt into a new hand when they have no chips left to bet with, the last traces of skill have disappeared from the game. Furthermore, the potential for a pot to be pushed multiple times in a row can interfere with the right for players to leave a cash game any time they like, as well as with table balancing scenarios in a tournament.

Roll your own

Many variants, particularly Stud variants, give the option for players to decide which cards from their hand to reveal, or the order in which to reveal their cards. This is usually referred to as “rolling your own.” There’s no unavoidable reason that this mechanic can’t work, but I believe that its lack of representation in serious play points to the fact that its drawbacks tend to outweigh its benefits.

The upside is that it seems to add a little extra layer of strategy to the game, allowing players a new way to attempt deception. However, most of the time, the net effect is actually reduced complexity. For instance, it’s a mechanic most often included in Stud games, and since hole pairs are better to have in Stud than split pairs, players dealt a pair among their three starting cards will almost always choose to reveal their kicker. Thus, whereas in a normal Stud game, split pairs are twice as common as hole pairs, in a Roll-Your-Own game, most players will put their pairs in the hole and so the overall diversity of hands will be lessened.

There are other downsides as well. For one thing, the additional decision will inevitably slow play down somewhat, even if the choice is relatively automatic in most cases. For another, it allows more opportunity for both soft play and explicit collusion, in that players could choose to reveal information in a pot with a friendly opponent which they would have kept secret from someone else in the same situation. Players could even work out a system beforehand for signalling based on the cards they reveal – for instance, showing a Heart could be a request for the partner to raise and set up a squeeze.

These problems are not quite severe enough to make this mechanic a game breaker like some of the others, but it seems like something that should be included only when it’s essential to the game. If included simply for novelty’s sake, it will probably do more harm than good.

What’s left, then?

Given that the overwhelming majority of new games being invented at home by recreational players include one or more of these mechanics, it may be starting to feel like there are more dead ends out there than viable routes for innovation. It’s exactly this endless repeating of mistakes, rather than learning from them, which is impeding poker from progressing.

What’s lacking is a deliberate approach to design, befitting of the game at this stage of its life. Randomly trying whatever ideas spring to mind is a great way to innovate in a game’s infancy, but poker is now a mature game, so deeper thinking is required if we want to develop it further.

We now know what the essential characteristics are that we’re looking for in a new variant, and what has and hasn’t worked in the past. Obviously, we want to draw heavily on well-established variants for inspiration, both because we know they work and because familiarity is a great asset in getting players to try something new. At the same time, we want something that is really new, and not just another mash-up like “Omaha with a draw” or “Stud with some community cards.”

Next week, I’m going to offer a few ideas that I’ve come up with over the years for new mechanics – or, at least, ones I have not personally seen being used. These will be presented as individual mechanics rather than complete variants, though I will follow up with a few variants of my own design as examples. Texas Hold’em is, as I’ve said repeatedly, a hard game to top, but it’s my hope that I can at least demonstrate that there is still unexplored ground out there, and maybe provide inspiration for others to try their hand at crafting a new variant of their own.

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

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