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.
Our final example variant, and probably the final instalment of this series, is a game I call Snake. Although none of its individual mechanics are as exotic as the ones we saw in Bullseye, last week, they are combined to produce a game that plays rather differently than any existing variant.
Its closest relative Badugi, in that it is a four-card triple draw game where hand strength is primarily a function of how many cards the player can legally use together. The resemblance ends there, however, as the addition of community cards radically changes the game’s information structure, and the rules for forming and comparing hands are likewise entirely different.
Hand ranking list
The showdown rules for determining the winner between hands of equal size may sound confusing, but in fact they are almost identical to the standard poker hand rankings, but with straights and flushes removed and the scheme extended to handle hands of up to seven cards. Here is the full ranking scheme, along with proposed names for the new hands:
It’s important to remember, however, that hand size is the most important factor and these hand rankings only serve to break ties, just as in Badugi. Thus, even K-K-K-K-Q-Q loses to K-Q-J-T-9-8-7 because a seven-card hand always beats a six-card hand.
Obviously, good starting hands are ones which contain some combination of connected or paired cards. The actual ranks are of secondary importance, but Jacks and Tens strike a fairly ideal balance between having kicker value and being able to extend in both directions, whereas Kings and Aces will tend to create hands that are drawing a little bit more thinly on average. Starting hands can be “dense” or “wide” depending on how tightly packed the cards are. J-J-T-T is a dense hand, for instance, while 9-7-5-3 is a wide hand. A wider hand is more likely to connect with the community cards, but weakly, whereas a dense hand is more speculative. Any card from 2 through Ten gives 9-7-5-3 a reasonable first draw, whereas J-J-T-T will either have a pat monster on a 9 through Queen, or else miss entirely.
The addition of community cards means that considerably more information can be gleaned from the number of cards each player draws. In particular, it creates many situations in which a player may want to draw more cards on a later street than an earlier one. For instance, a player holding T-9-8-7 and catching a T for the first community card will want to stand pat. If the second community card is a Queen, however, that player will likely want to discard the 7 or perhaps both the 8 and 7 in the hopes of getting a Jack to connect with the Queen. This pattern of standing pat and then drawing is a giveaway that the second community card was “on the wrong side” for that player (and therefore that they don’t have a Jack), while a player who drew one card in both the first and second rounds is actually much more likely to have a strong hand.
For this same reason, players should consider occasionally being deceptive with their draws. For instance, the player holding T-9-8-7 in the above example may opt to stand pat again and hope that the third community card is a Jack or, perhaps, something like a 6. If it is not, then they can draw in the third round while giving away slightly less information, but of course, the downside to this plan is giving up one opportunity to draw.
Many interesting situations come up in which one player has a powerful but hard-to-extend (i.e. “dense”) five- or six-card hand, while the another has few pairs, but much better chances to make a full seven-card hand on the final community card and/or draw. This, in turn, creates interesting scenarios on the final street, where the holder of the smaller made hand needs to try to guess whether his opponent has a full seven or not. For instance, let’s say a player holds J-J-T-T on a T-9 board, a 5 comes as the final community card, and both players stand pat. He has the near-nuts for 6 cards (only losing to Q-Q-Q-J or 9-9-9-x), but now has to figure out whether or not his opponent is likely to hold something like 6-7-8-9, having made a seven-card hand with the 5.
Position is extremely important, perhaps even more so than in other draw games due to the higher amount of information. There are often spots where it’s unclear how many cards one should draw, or even whether to draw. Seeing how many cards others have drawn and thus getting a sense of their strength makes those decisions easier.
A player who completely misses the first community card has an interesting choice between drawing a large number of cards (possibly even all four), or standing pat and hoping that the second community card hits them; assuming the player’s hand is sufficiently removed from the first community card, then if the second card hits them, it will likely miss everyone who connected with the first. This is another reason that position can be so important; if the player is last to act when put in this position, standing pat becomes a more attractive option. It’s likely that doing so will intimidate the other players into checking, whereupon the player can check as well and see the second community card for free.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
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