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 looked at a fairly simple modification to standard flop games, now we’re going to venture into more exotic territory with a variant called Bullseye. It combines two special mechanics, neither of which appears in any existing variants to my knowledge. To stick with the terminology I used in presenting them a couple of weeks back, these are a “moving target” showdown, and the “draw-or-lock-in” mechanic.
Despite being radically different from existing variants, Bullseye is quite easy to understand and to teach. It also presents players with some tactical options that aren’t present in other poker variants and is deceptively deep.
- The game is played with blinds and a dealer button. Order of play is the same as for other flop and draw games, for both the betting rounds and the lock-in rounds.
- Players are dealt three cards face down to begin with.
- There are four rounds of Fixed Limit or Pot-Limit betting. No-Limit is not recommended. If played as a Fixed Limit game, big bets kick in on the third betting round, as usual.
- After each of the first three betting rounds, one card will be dealt face-up to the “target hand,” which goes in the center of the table, like the community cards in a flop game. Thus, by the end of the hand, the target will consist of three cards visible to all players.
- After each card dealt to the target, there is a lock-in round, in which each player still in the hand must commit one card to his or her final hand.
- For the first lock-in round (after the first round of betting is finished and the first target card dealt), each player simply chooses one of their down cards, rotates it sideways and pushes it in front of the others to indicate that it is now part of their final hand. These cards are not revealed, and there is no option to discard and draw a replacement.
- For the second lock-in round, players have a choice: they may either play one of their remaining two cards face-up on top of the already locked-in down card, or they may discard one of their cards and be dealt a replacement. The replacement is dealt face-up on top of the locked-in down card and is now part of the player’s final hand.
- The third lock-in round is similar to the second. Players now have only one card remaining in hand, and may either lock it in face up, or discard it and be dealt a replacement, also locked in and face up.
- At this point, all hands are final. Players have one down card and two up cards, and the target hand consists of three up cards. There is one more round of betting and then a showdown, assuming two or more players are still in.
- At showdown, each hand’s value is equal to the sum of its cards. Aces always count as 1, and all face cards count as 10.
- The pot is awarded to the player with the highest-valued hand not exceeding the target hand. For instance, if the target hand totals 24, then 24 is the best possible hand (a “bullseye”), followed by 23, 22, etc. Ties result in split pots.
- If all hands exceed the target value, then players form the best two-card hand they can and these are compared. In the unlikely case that no player can form a two-card hand which does not exceed the target, then players’ best single cards are compared. In the even more unlikely event that no player has even a single card which does not exceed the target, then the pot is split.
Because of the moving target showdown, the most important characteristic for starting hands is flexibility. If all three cards are close in value, then the player is much more likely to be forced to draw later on, and may even be put in a bad spot by the very first target card. The best starting hands are combinations like 3-7-9, where it will be reasonable to lock in the 7 on most initial target cards, and keep both the 3 and 9 in reserve for maximum flexibility on the second card. Although Tens and face cards have the highest value, they are also the most common and thus the easiest to draw to, so cards like 8s and 9s are usually preferable to have in hand. Hands with two or three lows, by contrast, make for interesting speculative hands, as it’s likely that a low runout for the target will force others to draw and probably go over.
For the initial lock-in, the most obvious strategy is to play whichever card is closest to the first target card. The counterpoint to this is that by the final betting round, this one card will be the player’s only remaining bit of hidden information. In attempting to deduce one another’s holdings, players will typically assume that the down cards are close in value to the first target card. Playing a seemingly sub-optimal first card therefore allows players to introduce deception into their game.
The third betting round is of particular importance. At this point, there are two target cards out, and each player holds only a single card in hand. Most players will therefore be hoping for a specific card to complete the target. The ideal situation to be in at this point is to have a total that is equal to or slightly under the current target, and with a low card in reserve. This way, if the final target card is low, the player can lock in their final card and have a strong hand, while if it is high, they will have a fairly safe and likely productive draw. By contrast, a player who is slightly above or far below the target, and/or is holding a high card may find themselves with a thin draw at the end if the final target is not what they had hoped.
Bluffing becomes important in the final round when a player draws a card which looks like it has put them either just under or just over the target. This is also why it is important to be creative in one’s initial lock-in on occasion; since opponents cannot see what card a player discards, they don’t necessarily know whether the player is hoping to draw low or high and will have to make assumptions about the player’s down card in order to guess. If it looks like the player drew the nuts, but is actually over, it is a great time for her to bluff, while if she actually holds the nuts but looks like she busted, then she will find it easy to get paid off. A player may also attempt the equivalent of a pat bluff by locking in a final card which puts him over rather than drawing, and then betting big to make the others fold.
- The basic concept of the game is very simple and easy to explain: try to get three cards which are as close as possible to the target hand without going over. It bears a lot of similarity to blackjack, and will thus be intuitive for most players.
- The press-your-luck element of trying to come close to the target at the risk of going over is exciting. This is especially true for the final draw, particularly when the player has a choice between locking in a safe but mediocre final card, or drawing to try to improve.
- Despite the small hand size and seemingly limited options available to players, there is a surprising complexity to the decision-making. The choice between locking in a card or drawing in the second round is often tough, and there are lots of opportunities for deception in the first and third, as have been mentioned.
- Players have a lot of information available to them by the end of the hand. Not only can they see two out of three cards in their opponents’ hands, but it can also be telling whether the up cards were played or drawn, and in which order they came out, assuming the player has been attentive enough to remember.
- The fact that all cards Ten through King have the same value makes the drawing odds more complex and interesting. Nearly a third of the cards are worth 10, but the mean value is only 6.5. This can make drawing on the final card very risky, if 10 points would put the player over. It can also lead to unexpected turns of events when the final target card is dealt. Players will expect it to be a 7 or higher more than half of the time, but it can also be quite a bit lower, leaving most players at risk and potentially rewarding a player who opted to keep his total low in the hopes of such an eventuality.
- The draw-or-lock-in rule is also a novelty, but unlike the target hand, doesn’t really have an analogue in other games that players are likely to be familiar with. It is thus the most likely point of confusion for new players. This is compounded by the unfortunate need to have the first round work differently from the other two, which may seem a bit fiddly.
- Playing in a physical environment, there is likely to be a bit of confusion created by the need to distinguish a player’s locked-in down card from the cards in their playable hand. Attention must also be paid to ensure that players don’t attempt to cheat by changing their locked in card once the second target card is dealt. Players should be allowed to look at both their playable cards and the card they locked in, but casino rules should probably mandate that they not touch both at the same time, to avoid opportunities for sleight of hand.
- First-time players may feel they have no means to evaluate the strength of a starting hand, since no target cards have been dealt yet. As explained above, flexibility is the key, but this isn’t explicit in the rules and not necessarily obvious to everyone.
- Compared to most standard poker variants, it is very difficult, perhaps too difficult, to hold the lion’s share of equity prior to the final street. No matter what a player’s holdings, there are bound to be some final target cards which will force them to draw. It’s debatable how much of a problem this is: after all, we don’t want a variant in which it’s too easy to hold the stone-cold nuts halfway through the hand. However, most variants do allow some chance for a player to have a lock on the hand prior to the final street and that is probably a good thing, as it’s simply one more qualitatively different strategic position for players to find themselves in. Seen that way, the lack of such a possibility here should probably be considered a weakness.
- Likewise, almost every hand will have some possibility of being a winner until the target has been fully set and the players’ hands completely locked in. This is a good thing to some extent, as it generates action, but it will tend to lead to looser players playing their hands all the way until the end a lot of the time. That’s good for the profitability of the more disciplined players, of course, but will also lead to a lot of bad beats. Many players will likely feel that the final target card and final draw are all that really matter.
- There is some danger of collusion, particularly in three-way pots. If three hands have different but closely-spaced values, the one in the middle will tend to have the worst equity, so two players working together might attempt to coordinate their decisions so as to “sandwich” their unsuspecting opponent. I’ve experimented with this by playing out dummy hands, however, and it seems like it’s harder to pull off in practice than it sounds. It’s something to watch out for, but probably not a game-killing problem.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.