Challenges of Innovation Pt. 7 – Socialist Poker

Alex Weldon : May 5th, 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 few weeks, I’ve described my feelings about the state of poker and what my approach would be to designing new variants. Over the next few, to finish up the series, I’m going to share a few that I’ve designed myself, along with my thoughts about their relative merits and flaws.

The first is not a single variant, but rather a modification that could be applied to any of the standard flop games. In other words, instead of Texas Hold’em, Omaha, Pineapple or whatever other variant you like, you could choose to play Socialist Texas, Socialist Omaha, Socialist Pineapple, etc.

The rules are extremely simple, which is why I chose to start with this one.

Rules

  • All standard rules of the base variant (Texas Hold’em, Omaha, etc.) apply, except as specified below.
  • Two community cards are dealt on the turn, instead of one.
  • On the river, immediately after the sixth and final community card is dealt, the highest-ranked unpaired community card is removed, bringing the board back down to five cards. In the rare case that all board cards are paired, all six community cards play.

Example

If two players hold JhTc and 7d7h and the board runs out J98+63+8, the J will be removed, leaving 98863, and the 7s will win.

If the river was a Q, K or A instead, then that card would be removed, the J would remain, and the player with JT would win with top pair.

If the river was another J, it would be the 9 that was removed as the highest unpaired card, and the player with JT would win again, this time with trips.

The inspiration

This variation was inspired by a regular poster on a poker forum I frequent. He complained that it seemed unfair to him that a Pair of Deuces is as hard to make as a Pair of Aces, but the latter is worth so much more due to the arbitrary ranking of the cards. If a Pair of Aces is worth more, he reasoned, then it should be harder to make and the Pair of Deuces should be easier.

The poster in question was known on the forums for being politically conservative, so I needled him about how his desire to help the Deuces get a leg up sounded a lot like socialism to me, and it got me thinking about how such a variant might work.

In effect, the mechanics “tax” the higher starting hands by removing a card which might have hit them, while “subsidizing” the lower ones with an extra board card to potentially help them out. The hope, then, would be that this would reduce the variance associated with starting cards, by causing weaker starting hands to hit the board more often, on average, than the stronger ones.

Strategic implications – preflop

These mechanics complicate preflop considerations considerably. As intended, they tend to bring hand equities just a little closer together by helping the underdog out a bit. For instance, in standard Hold’em, QJ offsuit has about 64% equity over 98 offsuit (of different suits), but in this variant it’s only 57%*, a lot closer.

More importantly, from the point of view of strategic depth, it creates an interesting dynamic where weaker hands are still more likely to be an underdog, but less so than a stronger hand when it finds itself behind. For instance, in Hold’em, an underpair is always pretty close to 20% equity against a larger pocket pair, regardless of what specific hands we’re talking about. In Socialist Texas, however, 77 is has a more decent 26.5%* equity against either Kings or Aces, whereas the Kings are crushed when they run into Aces, winning only 8% of the time, which is almost as bad as AK vs. AA in conventional Hold’em.

It may seem that Ax hands are unplayable, and indeed, they suffer much more than any other hand in this variant. However, big suited Aces can still be played as speculative hands or for steal attempts, much like small suited Aces in regular Hold’em. Firstly, although they can’t make a pair of Aces or two pair, they can still make top pair top kicker or trips, both of which are much better-disguised than usual, since players won’t be expected to be holding an Ace very often. More subtly, having big suited cards in one’s hand makes a flush draw more likely to hit, as it makes it much less likely that a necessary flush card happens to be the community card which gets removed on the river.

*: I’ve written a preflop odds calculator for this variant; the code is too crude for it to be worth sharing, but I can be reached on Twitter if anyone has questions about hand equities.

Strategic implications – postflop

These mechanics also shake things up considerably postflop.

For one thing, the kicker game is now extremely complicated. As we discussed above, players having top kicker or very high kickers will be rarer, because those cards are much less likely to make a pair. On the other hand, players will be playing a lot more connectors, so a kicker a couple of ranks higher than the pair will often be in the lead.

At the same time, no top pair is ever safe, as the card is in danger of being removed if no higher cards come out. So a hand like J9 on a 973 flop is now quite interesting. On the one hand, if the next three cards all come low, the player may end up with only Jack high and lose to something like 7x. On the other hand, being ahead of T9 or 98 is much more likely than in standard Hold’em, because those hands will be played more often, while being behind Q9 or higher should be very rare.

Drawing odds also become a lot more difficult to calculate, and there are no simple rules of thumb, like 2-1 for a flush or open-ended straight draw. On the flop, players will have three cards left to see instead of two, which would seem to make draws more likely to hit, but then the player has to account for the possibility that a necessary card gets removed – as we’ve said, with flushes in particular, holding higher flush cards in one’s hand helps out there. Small straight draws also become huge for this reason, almost equivalent to combo draws. 65 on a J43 board has eight clean outs and three chances to hit them, making it almost a coinflip. Conversely, KQ on a JT3 texture is, despite appearances, only a backdoor draw, needing either two Aces, or a Nine plus a Queen or better.

Finally, the removal mechanic produces another way in which a given turn or river might be assumed to be a “scare” for a player; the card itself may not be important, but its implications for the river removal may be. For instance, the players will likely assume that the highest card on a high board is going to be removed: an Ace coming out will mean it stays, while if it pairs it will actually be the second highest card which goes. Conversely, on a low flop, players will likely assume that a higher card will come out in the next three cards, and so everything showing will play. If the turn is also low, that may significantly weaken a lot of players’ hands, particularly if the high card showing is involved in a lot of draws.

A note about High-Low Eights or Better

The “socialist” mechanic is suitable for High-Low play, if played with an appropriate variant (Omaha, Crazy Pineapple, etc.), but it has a few additional strategic implications. Since it’s a high card being removed, the river removal will rarely affect low hands, while the six board cards make it a fair bit easier to hit a qualifying low. On the other hand, it will almost always be required to have an Ace in one’s hand to have the low nuts, and Aces now play poorly for Hi, except as kickers. These effects mitigate rather than compounding one another, however, so the overall game should be more rather than less interesting.

I suspect that Crazy Socialist Pineapple Eights or Better would be both great fun and extremely difficult, particularly in deciding which card to discard on many flops.

Advantages

  • Because this is an add-on to existing flop games, the difficulty of explaining is very low. Two sentences are all that is required for players to jump in, assuming they know the base variant.
  • The flop is slightly more important, and hole cards slightly less important than in the base variant, which is a good thing in the case of Socialist Texas, at least. Omaha goes too far in that direction to begin with, arguably, so Socialist Omaha may not be as good.
  • Speculative hands play better in general, and many hands which are ordinarily strong will become speculative instead, which tends to widen ranges post-flop and make the game more difficult.
  • The guessing game surrounding which card will be removed and which will stay creates a much greater diversity of scenarios than in the base variants. The rare occasion when e.g. a three-pair or double-trip river causes all six cards to stay can also lead to unfamiliar spots.
  • Since Aces will be played more rarely, having the nut kicker will likewise be the exception rather than the rule, leading to more muddy situations with marginal hands.
  • The two-card turn and the extra information that implies provides an incentive for players to stay in, and will likely generate more flop action.

Disadvantages

  • Except for pocket pairs, assessing the strength of starting hands can be quite difficult. Whether KQ or 98 is the better hand depends entirely on what the opponents have. Although this is a good thing from the perspective of strategic depth, it’s a significant barrier for new players, as the first question a player typically asks when learning a game is what constitutes a good starting hand. At worst, it could lead to poor players simply deciding not to play anything except pocket pairs.
  • Because the removed card is unknown until the river, the phenomenon of a seemingly solid hand getting “robbed” on the river will be even more common than in the base variant. This isn’t so much a big deal from a strategic perspective, but is a drawback in terms of player experience. The first time a player loses a “made” flush on the river unexpectedly, they may reject the game for that reason.
  • In terms of probability of finding popularity, the fact that it is a modification of existing variants rather than a separate invention works both for and against it, as it does for Omaha. Although the similarity makes it more likely that players will try it, it also means that it will always be learned after the base game. There are a lot of players with a tendency to stick with the first game they learn, so any game which merely expands on existing variants can never really hope to displace them in popularity.
  • The name will likely be offputting to some players, depending on their political views. I thought about something like Stockholm Hold’em (Stockhold’em?), but since it’s an add-on mechanic not a separate variant, I wanted an adjective rather than a complete name. Suggestions welcome.

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

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