Duel by PokerStars: Can Asynchronous Poker Really Work?

Alex Weldon : February 12th, 2016

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In the midst of the fallout over the changes to its VIP Rewards program towards the end of last year, PokerStars explained that the money it was saving through those cuts was not being pocketed, but rather being rolled into research & development efforts which would bear fruit this year. In particular, the company teased the upcoming release of a special mobile product designed to bring new players – and therefore new money – into the game.

Despite the objections of some players that explanations about the poker “ecosystem” are nothing but vague hand-waving, nearly everyone can agree on two basic facts: that poker has been on the decline for many years, and that, to be sustainable, it needs an influx of new money – specifically the money of “recreational” (a euphemism for “losing”) players. So, despite the generally frosty relationship these days between PokerStars and its highest-frequency users, many have been waiting with interest to see what this mystery product would be.

Yesterday, we found out. Introducing “Duel,” a one-on-one social poker app, which will soon be available on most mobile devices for either play or real money. It will feature social media interconnectivity, the ability to challenge friends directly, and all the other trappings you’d expect of an app targeting social users. No big surprises so far, but there’s one small twist, and one big one.

Synchronous vs. asynchronous play

The small twist, and the most obvious difference between Duel and standard heads-up play on PokerStars is largely that Duel is played asynchronously. That’s a fancy word, but a pretty simple concept, and one that’s important across all forms of digital gaming.

In a nutshell, synchronous play means that the players all have to be online at the same time. Asynchronous play, conversely, means that a player logs in and gets a list of her active games (since most players will typically have multiple games running at once in an asynchronous environment), and sees in which ones it’s her turn. She then takes her turns and, usually, logs out again. If one of her opponents is online, she may notice that it’s her turn again before she leaves. If she decides to move again, and her opponent likewise, the game may play out as if it were synchronous for a time, until it finishes or one or the other decides they have to go.

Clearly, any real-time action game needs to be played synchronously, but many turn-based games are played synchronously, as well. For instance, all real money poker sites that I know of offer only synchronous play, for obvious reasons; imagine trying to play the Sunday Million if anyone could just decide to disconnect and go to bed, and everyone else had to wait for them to get back in order for the tournament to continue. It’s absurd even to consider.

Asynchronous play is popular for a lot of strategy games, however, like chess, go, Scrabble and so forth, plus more cerebral card games like bridge, and some more modern inventions. It’s particularly popular in social media implementations of these games, for instance in Facebook apps, because the gameplay then matches the asynchronous nature of the social interaction: I make a post and leave, you come and comment later, and so on.

Solving the obvious problems

Of course, various social media implementations of poker have been attempted before, but they all suffer from a couple of problems, one which is common to all asynchronous games and one which is unique to poker.

The problem all asynchronous games face, particularly those for more than two players, is that it’s unfortunately common for one player to quit out of boredom, forgetfulness or spite. Even if there is a game clock which eventually eliminates a player who refuses to move, it’s frustrating for everyone else.

Harder to solve is the problem that poker is fundamentally a slow-paced game – often painfully slow – even when played in realtime. A lot of decisions are both obvious and boring; checking and folding are things that good players do a lot of. If you’ve waited a day for the next hand to be dealt only to find yourself looking at Eight-Three offsuit yet again, it doesn’t make for a very fun game.

Making the game heads-up mitigates these two problems, though it doesn’t eliminate either entirely. In a one-on-one context, an opponent who refuses to finish is simply resigning, not interfering with multiple opponents who still want to play. Meanwhile, heads-up poker allows players to play many more card combinations (some players even play any two cards), and requires a more aggressive style post-flop, both of which should make for a less tedious asynchronous experience. A straightforward asynchronous heads-up only poker app could potentially work, but would hardly qualify as a big innovation. So, for better or worse, PokerStars has gone considerably further in order to attempt to remedy the second of those two problems.

The big twist

What makes Duel truly different from anything that’s been offered before is that it’s a bizarre cross between a cash game and a Sit-and-Go, with all hands being played simultaneously. In a nutshell, it’s a match for fixed stakes, consisting of either 10 (in the play money version) or 20 (in the real money) separate hands, all of which are dealt at once, and each of which is then played out like a separate cash game with its own starting stack. The goal is not to win individual hands, or even to win as many chips as possible, but simply to show a net profit across all hands.

Players can play at their own pace, within the constraints of a chess-style game clock. Faced with a tough decision, a player can even make moves in some hands and leave others for later, although the clock only stops when the player has no decisions pending whatsoever. Once a hand is completed, the chips won or lost are added or subtracted from the player’s overall score, and once all hands have reached their conclusion, the winner of the overall match is determined based on that combined score.

In a sense, Duel can be seen as “parallel” rather than “sequential” poker, an innovation which should indeed alleviate the tedium of poker in an asynchronous environment. However, it’s rare in game design that fixing one problem doesn’t create the need for compromises elsewhere, and the parallel structure of Duel is probably not going to be an exception in that regard.

Loss of the conventional narrative

Part of the appeal of poker, in its standard form, is the narrative it produces. A player takes a bad beat, rallies, pulls off a bluff, whittles his opponent down, the chips go in, the Aces hold… victory! This sort of narrative relies on the hands being played in sequential order, and is therefore lost in the Duel format. The bluff is being pulled off at the same time as the bad beat is being suffered, at the same time as the Aces are holding, etc. The probable winner can still change on a street-to-street basis, but with so much going on at once, there won’t be the same sort of turning points and do-or-die moments as there are in sequential play. I suspect that many players will feel the overall drama reduced as a result.

Of course, that’s “only” a matter of subjective player experience, rather than the game’s strategic nature, but we shouldn’t discount the value of the former, especially in a game targeted at a more casual audience. In any case, much of the standard metagame of poker is also lost in for the same reasons.

When hands are played sequentially, the outcome of each influences the players’ assumptions about one another’s strategies, which in turn influences the decisions they make in later hands. This is, of course, what we mean by “developing reads.” That, too, is mostly lost when hands are played sequentially, though of course those reads can still develop over the course of multiple matches between the same two players.

A new metagame

At the same time, the simultaneous, parallel structure combined with the victory condition creates new considerations absent from any existing form of poker. I’m somewhat concerned that the consequences of those considerations will, while interesting, possibly not be in the best interests of those exact casual players the game targets.

What’s important to understand about Duel is that the outcome of the match has nothing to do with margin of victory. The stakes are fixed, and whether played for real money or not, winning by one chip or winning by a thousand is the same thing. Thus, the hands aren’t really being played out separately, in parallel, but in a tangled, interconnected way. It means that the game has its equivalent of ICM considerations in tournament poker, in that one player’s chips can easily have more value than the other’s, depending on how other hands have played out or are playing out. If we’re on the turn and I’ve folded several hands to you preflop and on the flop, you’re at a double advantage. Not only are you ahead, but you also know that you’re ahead and can play the rest of the hands in a very tight, low-variance manner. In extreme cases, where few hands reach the river, a player may even be able to fold all his remaining hands to lock up the win, though if the opponent lets it get to this point, it’s true that he has no one to blame but himself.

PokerStars understands these considerations and has taken measures to limit how big of a factor it can be. For instance, no street can be dealt on any hand until the previous street’s action has been fully completed in all hands. You’ll never, for instance, be making preflop decisions in one hand having seen the flop in another. More importantly, you won’t be deciding whether to call a river bet in your last active hand after seeing the showdown results for the rest.

Too much skill?

Without having actually seen the game, which is only being released in Norway on a trial basis for the time being, my concern is largely that this interplay between hands is both complex and extremely significant, and something that many recreational players are likely to overlook. Pro players will of course not object to having an additional edge, but if the goal is to create another simple, gamble-heavy, recreational-friendly format along the lines of Spin-and-Go, the Duel metagame may run contrary to that goal.

The option to play only with friends will of course mitigate the issue, as will the stack sizes, which I’m told are going to be “relatively short.” The slow pace of play will also serve as a deterrent to serious professionals; although PokerStars does not plan on placing a hard cap on a player’s number of active games, only one match-making request can be placed at a time, so unless the format really takes off, it may be impossible to find enough games to play full time.

Still, we should remember that heads-up hyper-turbo is one of the formats which most rapidly depletes recreational players’ bankrolls, and that Spin-and-Go’s were introduced partially as an alternative to draw them away from those games. I worry that recreational players may actually get slaughtered in the random match-making pool even more quickly than they do in standard heads-up play. Furthermore, the friends list functionality may prove a double-edged sword, if predatory players manage to bait tilting players into a rivalry and convince them to rematch repeatedly.

All that said, these sorts of concerns are precisely why PokerStars does small tests of their new products in relatively small countries like Norway. Overall, I’m cautiously optimistic about the potential of Duel, partially for selfish reasons; I’ve previously described semipro players like myself as being part of the “missing middle” in the ecosystem, and an asynchronous game which I can play alongside my daily activities without committing a block of time is, I have to admit, rather appealing.

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

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