PartyPoker’s New Fast Five: Skill Game in Disguise?
Yesterday, PartyPoker trotted out a new cash game format called “Fast Five.” Although it was announced in the site’s twitter feed and on its blog, there was little fanfare, and it didn’t seem, at first, that many users had noticed. A few hours after launch yesterday, there was only a single table running, at the lowest available stakes, and only two players at it. Today, there are more tables running at a variety of stakes, so it looks like more users are beginning to notice, though it remains to be seen if it will take off.
Conceptually, Fast Five is a simple twist, and one that’s likely to irritate those who feel poker sites are focusing too much on recreational gamblers and not their more skilled clientele. It’s a regular 6-max No-Limit Hold’em cash game, but a fixed buy-in of just five big blinds. PartyPoker isn’t actually the first site to offer a game like this; in January 2015, the French ring-fenced site Winamax launched its “Short Track” format, which is identical to Fast Five except that the tables are 5-max rather than 6-max.
What’s the point?
On first consideration, it may be hard to imagine Fast Five being anything other than a complete crapshoot; after all, stacks as short as 5 BB require players to be all-in or fold preflop, eliminating the considerably more complex postflop game. To the extent to which preflop push-or-fold decisions involve strategy, it’s close to a solved game; unexploitable shoving ranges for all positions and stacks up to 10 or 12 BB are readily available online.
Indeed, if Fast Five were a sit-and-go format, this would be all there was to it. Because it’s a cash game, however, the players who double their 5 BB starting stacks will keep those chips in play, while those who’ve gone bust will generally rebuy. As long as players remain at the table, the total amount of money in play is going to keep going up, probably at a rate of close to 5 BB per hand at first, when most hands will involve an all-in confrontation between at least two players. For a 6-max table, that means that the average stack size will grow by about 1 BB per hand, which in turn means that within a few orbits, you can expect there to be some players who’ve accumulated deep enough stacks that postflop play does in fact start to become a factor.
Watching stacks grow
To examine just how quickly stacks can build, I wrote a simple simulation using the naïve assumptions that the same six players remain at the table throughout the game, always reload, and that two randomly-selected players get into an all-in confrontation each hand. Under these conditions, it takes an average of just 48 hands – eight orbits – before at least one player has a stack of 100 BB such as one would start with in a conventional cash game. Given that the pace of play in these games is often as much as 200 hands per hour, this is no time at all.
Of course, in practice, it will likely take somewhat longer, because as stack depths increase, all-in confrontations should become rarer, at least among those players who’ve succeeded in chipping up. This just proves the point, however; unless these games become dominated by players prone to ratholing (that is, switching tables every time they get above a starting stack), then the constant short stack all-ins rapidly produce deeper stacks that cannot just push or fold preflop.
This dynamic does, in fact, play out in practice: Looking at some of the tables which are running, you’re likely to see one player with a stack in that 100 BB range, one or two new or recently-busted players with 5 BB starting stacks, and some others who fall somewhere in between.
Strategically, the effect is to produce a cash game that resembles the middle stages of a tournament. Stack sizes will be shorter on average, which limits the complexity of the action on later streets; at the same time, however, additional concerns will be introduced by the radically different stack sizes.
How one plays the button, for instance, will be very different from a regular cash game when the small blind is short-stacked and the big blind has you covered; the fact that the small blind is likely to shove changes the considerations for both you and the big blind, both in terms of preflop action, and how things are likely to go postflop, given the existence of a side pot. These are things that tournament players are used to thinking about, but come up rarely in a conventional cash game. Although differing stack sizes do result from conventional cash game play as well, the difference in playing a 100 BB stack or a 300 BB stack is usually quite small, unless the players are inclined to get into preflop 4- and 5-betting wars.
Of course, a lot depends on the length of a typical player’s session, and herein lies a bit of a paradox. PartyPoker presents Fast Five as a fast paced, casual option suitable for short sessions; because players are essentially forced to play push-or-fold until they’ve managed at least a couple of double-ups, it is true that a player looking to win or lose a few buy-ins in a matter of minutes will get that experience. And yet, the game’s potential from a professional’s point of view lies in the complexities that result from the big stack size differentials produced from an extended session. Taking advantage of that requires both that one accumulate a reasonably deep stack oneself, and for there to be at least one other such player at the table who may not be able to handle those awkward spots as well as oneself.
Player perception matters
Whether or not the game presents enough high-skill situations to be profitable may then depend on whether players perceive it to be. It’s a classic self-fulfilling prophecy scenario: A Fast Five ecosystem consisting mostly of recreational players stopping in for a few minutes at a time may in fact just prove to be a crapshoot. On the other hand, if it does draw out a number of would-be specialists (tournament players transitioning to cash games, perhaps), then longer sessions may be the norm, whereupon it does become a high-skill game.
No doubt, other sites will be watching PartyPoker’s experiment with interest, to gauge the appeal of such a short-stacked cash game format, both with recreational players and would-be professionals.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.