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 looked at the various experiments that have been made in poker over the years. First, we considered the innovations that worked well and have been adopted into mainstream play. Next, we looked at an assortment of failed experiments which crop up frequently in dealer’s choice home games, but which have proven inappropriate for serious play.
The following are a few ways in which I think we could try to innovate, arranged from least to most unusual. None of them is a complete variant on its own and some are not even specific mechanics, but rather general areas to look at. The nice thing about poker is that its mechanics are modular, to an extent, so these ideas can be mixed and matched with each other and with existing variants, much the same way as a successful innovation like Hi/Lo showdowns often ends up being applied to multiple variants.
Alternative card pacing
This isn’t really a new idea, but rather an avenue of development that I think hasn’t been explored to its fullest. What really made Texas Hold’em stand out from the Stud games which had been popular before it was the change in the information structure: in Stud, players had a lot of information in their starting cards, and only a little more on each subsequent street. In Hold’em, players had less information up front, but received a lot more on the flop.
These aren’t the only options, however. The only real restriction that we have is that the final street or two have to be relatively low information, because this is the point at which players are supposed to be thinking about their opponents’ moves and using deduced information, rather than focusing on the cards.
It’s interesting to think about what the implications would be for Hold’em if it had a two-card turn, for instance, either with a two-card flop or the usual three. Perhaps more reasonably, we could consider a modification to Stud in which 4th and 5th street are combined into a single round, with players getting dealt two cards at that point – among other things, that would bring the number of betting rounds down to four, putting Stud in line with other popular variants.
More symmetric information structures might also be interesting. For instance, one could imagine a three- or five-street game with the middle street being the most important. Since we want the streets at the end to be the weakest in information, we could do something like a three-street, six-card game with a 2-3-1 structure, or a five-street, nine-card game going 2-2-3-1-1.
Variable number of streets
We’ve said that it’s a hard requirement that a poker variant reaches showdown after a finite (and reasonable) number of streets, but that shouldn’t be taken to mean that the number of streets needs to be a constant. Rather, we can consider some variants which use a showdown trigger rather than a fixed number of betting rounds.
To be strategically interesting, I think such a mechanic would require that the number of streets for a given hand be unknown to the players up front, but with probabilities that become more clear as the hand goes on. That way, guessing at the remaining number of betting rounds (and therefore cards and/or draws) becomes a part of the odds calculation, which makes the game more challenging. I see two solid ways of doing this.
The first is to base the trigger on the community cards. For instance, the showdown could be triggered once every suit is represented among the community cards, or once the board adds up to a certain total, or anything else you can imagine. Some care needs to be taken, however. We have to avoid guaranteeing certain textures, for one thing: for instance, we don’t want a Hold’em variant in which a board pair triggers the showdown, as this would make straight and flush draws much less playable, since a full house would always be possible by showdown. On the other hand, such a trigger would be just fine in a lowball game. We also have to be concerned about the possibility of the hand running on too long under certain circumstances: for instance, the “one of every suit” condition will never happen if all the Hearts happen to be in players’ hole cards. A crude solution to this problem would be to cap the number of betting rounds, but it would be preferable to choose a trigger which avoids the possibility entirely.
The reason I’m talking about community cards is that applying a similar mechanic to players’ up cards leads to potential collusion; players could potentially manipulate the hand’s length to a partner’s benefit by either folding or staying in strategically. One way to create a trigger based on personal cards without causing this problem would be to impose a minimum qualifying showdown hand. This could be the usual Eights or Better for a Lowball game, or perhaps a straight or better for a Highball variant. Play would continue through as many streets as necessary for one player to obtain a valid hand and call for a showdown: if more than one player obtained such a hand in the same round, then comparative hand rankings would apply as usual. Since it’s the winning hand alone which determines when the showdown happens, there is much less potential for collusion.
Hand size as strength
Changing up the hand ranking scheme in poker is a dicey proposition, but the fact that players enjoy both Highball and Lowball games shows that variety is welcome, and Badugi is of course the example which proves that players are willing to tolerate exotic ideas here, as long as they’re easy to explain and understand.
One thing that I like about Badugi is that it restricts which cards can be used in a hand together, and your hand size, rather than its content, is the primary consideration in determining strength, with the actual cards breaking ties between hands of equal size. It seems to me that there is a fair bit of potential here, though we need to ask ourselves what other criteria lend themselves to determining whether or not a card can validly be included in a hand.
In Badugi, the criterion is that the card has nothing in common with the others in the hand (no pairs, no identical suits). This works very well, but because it explicitly excludes most of the properties that we use to rank hands (suited cards, pairs), Lowball mechanics are effectively the only possible tie-breaker between hands of equal size.
If we want to do something different than Badugi showdowns, we therefore have to choose a different way to establish membership. One likely idea is to use connectedness as the requirement, while including pairs. So 9TJ would be a valid hand, as would 33455, but 4466 would not. That would probably work well, but leaves us with the matter of how to determine a winner between two hands of identical size. There are a few fairly obvious options, but I will leave to the reader to consider.
Using suitedness to establish membership is another idea that seems obvious at first (i.e. that only cards of a single suit can be included in a hand), but it has the problem that it makes pairs impossible, so limits our options for determining a winner in the same way as the Badugi mechanic. Simply awarding the pot to the player with the most flush cards (with highest or lowest breaking ties) is unlikely to create an interesting variant on its own, but it could fit easily into a split pot variant: for instance, splitting the pot between the longest flush and longest straight at showdown is an idea I’ve toyed with a few times.
In the same way that we’re considering having a variable number of streets, we might also think about having variable showdown requirements. This has potential to produce something very deep indeed, but is probably quite tricky to get right. The most important thing is for players to have enough information up front about what they want to have at showdown, and to have a better and better idea as the hand goes on.
We don’t want to have, for instance, a game where we don’t know until a later street whether we’re playing Hi, Lo or Hi/Lo. At best, this would play just like Hi/Lo up until the reveal, and at worst it could make the game a total crapshoot. Rather, we want the showdown requirement to be revealed gradually, at the same time as players’ gain more information about their own and others’ hands.
One way we could do this would be to take a page from blackjack, and have some kind of target hand value, with players trying to come as close as possible to it without going over. Unlike blackjack, where the target is fixed at 21, here we would establish the target value gradually, over the course of the hand. One way of doing this would be to have a dealer hand of sorts, partially known up front and with the remainder dealt out on subsequent streets. The ultimate winner would be the best hand which does not beat the dealer hand.
Of course, we don’t need to limit ourselves to blackjack-style summation of cards: standard poker hands, lowball hands or even something different like Badugi hands could also work with the same concept. Whatever the hand ranking system, the rule is simply that to win the pot, you need to beat all the other players who are under the dealer hand, but not the dealer hand itself. This introduces additional complexity in odds calculations, as a player is not only considering his own hand, but may need the dealer to hit or miss a particular draw in order to win.
Community card removal
One thing that most popular poker variants have in common is that the number of cards in play is either constant (as in draw games) or increasing (for most other variants). The only exceptions are a handful of games such as Pineapple, Crazy Pineapple and Irish Poker, which require players to discard one or more of their hole cards at some point in the hand.
The main reason for this positive-only progression, I imagine, is that getting dealt a miracle card feels good, while having one taken away would feel awful. For this reason, we definitely want to avoid any mechanics which would remove cards from players’ individual hands other than by their own choice. Community cards are a different story, however, since the cards being taken away could easily help one’s opponents as much as oneself.
As with the variable streets and moving target showdown mechanics, I think the key here would be to make the removal somewhat predictable. That is, the card or cards to be removed should be selected by some criterion rather than randomly. If cards are removed late in the hand according to some system, players can adjust as the hand goes on and it becomes more or less likely that any given card will still be there at showdown. The challenge then becomes choosing a good criterion: One which strikes the right balance in terms of predictability but without affecting the hand probabilities in a way which would hurt the game. This depends largely on the hand ranking structure. For instance, anything involving the suits of the cards would either increase or decrease the odds of making flushes in a game with standard hand rankings, but could work well for a Lowball game where suits don’t matter.
Draw or Lock in
This last idea is far more specific than the previous ones, which is why I’ve saved it for the end. It also has a specific intent behind it, which to make use of mechanics which I like on a personal level, but which haven’t fared so well in practice. Those are the drawing mechanic, and the roll-your-own mechanic.
Drawing has always been moderately popular, especially when it comes to Lowball games. Still, the basic problem with it is that draw games tend to have no explicit public information outside of the number of cards drawn by each player. This tends to result in a lot of qualitatively similar spots, while weird run-outs lead to more rare and interesting situations in the other variants. For roll-your-own, meanwhile, the problem is as we said last week, that there’s always some overhead in terms of time spent and collusion potential and often very little strategic payoff.
It seems to me that these two mechanics can be greater than the sum of their parts if combined, and the way it could work is as follows: Players begin the hand with some number of down cards. In between betting rounds, instead of drawing normally or being dealt new cards, players must either lock in a card from their hand by turning it face up, or discard a card and be dealt a new one, with the catch that the replacement is similarly dealt face-up and locked in.
The result is that players get to replace any number of cards from their hand, like in Single Draw, but get to do so one card at a time. After each round, meanwhile, a portion of the player’s hand is revealed to the opponents, producing an informational structure more similar to Stud. Most importantly, the order in which one draws or locks in one’s cards becomes strategically interesting: taking one’s draws early will tend to make later decisions easier, but catching a bad card face up may make it difficult to bluff. On the other hand, locking in good cards early can allow a player to represent a pat hand and possibly win the pot without ever having to chance the draw. Thus, there’s a tradeoff either way, which could produce a complex and challenging game.
There are a few details to this mechanic which have to be considered when using it to create a specific variant. The most important one is to ensure that players have some down cards at the end of the hand: this could be handled, for instance, by players locking in or drawing the final card face down, or by dealing players one or more locked-in down cards to begin with, separate from the rest of their hand. Additionally, if you want players to have final hands consisting of more than five cards, you need to consider how to end up with a reasonable number of streets. For instance, a seven-card lock-in variant could include some community cards or initial down-cards so as to avoid having seven streets of betting, or else players might be required to draw or lock-in more than one card at a time on certain streets.
The sky’s the limit
Obviously, this is far from an exhaustive list of all the things that could be tried, but it does include much of what I would consider the remaining low-hanging fruit. These are all concepts that are related closely enough to existing poker mechanics that they’re unlikely to be rejected by players simply for being too weird. The viability of any variant along these lines will therefore depend on its balance of accessibility and strategic complexity, which is as it should be.
If anyone would like to share some of their own experiments with me, feel free to contact me on Twitter. In the meantime, I will spend the next few weeks offering a few specific variants that I have constructed using these concepts, accompanied by my own thoughts on the strategic implications of the rules I chose, and the advantages and disadvantages of each relative to existing games.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.