PokerStars announced yesterday the release of a new twist on its Spin & Go format, called Spin & Go Max. The new game is found as a separate tab within the Spin & Go section of the PokerStars client, and currently available at buy-ins from $1 to $15. The tab in question is labeled “Max Hold’em,” suggesting that an Omaha version might be forthcoming in the near future if Max proves popular.

As with conventional Spin & Go, Max is an on-demand, short-handed sit-and-go with automatic, non-discretionary seating and a randomized prize pool offering the chance to win up to 10,000 times the original buy-in.

What’s new?

There are a few important differences, however. Firstly, whereas Spin & Go is always played three-handed, the number of players for Spin & Go Max is determined randomly, just before the prize pool is. 75% of the time, it will be played 3-, 4- or 5-handed, with 4-handed being the most common, but 6-, 7- and 8-handed matches are possible as well.

Secondly, there’s a limit on the number of hands that can be played. The exact number depends on the stakes and buy-in, but is quite low. Players have just a narrow window of opportunity to accumulate chips and eliminate opponents, after which the game switches to a forced all-in shootout.

Finally, the way the prize pool is distributed is different. The top prize, set aside for the winner, has an additional random component; its statistical value is determined by the first spin, but the actual amount will be chosen from one of three possible values after the tournament is concluded. For instance, the top prize might have a statistical value of $25, but be awarded as a random choice between $40, $20 or $15.

Many Max Hold’em matches will also award prizes for the other players involved, more like a normal sit-and-go, though these prizes are fixed at the time of the initial spin, and the number of seats paid depends on the number of players and the total prize pool.

Borrowed concepts

Although nothing quite like Spin & Go Max has been seen in the industry before, most of the concepts involved have been lifted from other sites’ experiments with the lottery sit-and-go format. For instance, 888poker’s BLAST introduced the all-in phase for matches not wrapping up within a designated window a while back; the only difference there is that BLAST is based on a time limit, rather than a hand limit.

Meanwhile, Americas Cardroom on the Winning Poker Network recently launched its “Sit-and-Go 2.0,” which is a 9-max, slower-paced take on the lottery sit-and-go format, with the twist that its randomly-determined prize pool also determines the number of seats which are paid. Max is essentially a mashup of these two concepts, plus the randomized player count and the element of uncertainty surrounding the exact prize for first place.

An interesting mix

And yet, although the most important elements of Max are lifted from existing games at other sites, the result is something rather different from either BLAST or Sit-and-Go 2.0.

The BLAST experience is quite a lot like conventional Spin & Go, but improved by the time limit in that it prevents slow or over-tight players from spoiling the pacing of the game for others. Sit-and-Go 2.0, on the other hand, is intended to provide a game more like the a classic single-table tournament, but with the variable payout structure creating changing strategic concerns from match to match to make the game less formulaic.

Max manages to blend the benefits of both these approaches in a way that synergies rather than contradicts itself. The pacing is still very, very fast, like BLAST, but the hand-based timer prevents weaker players from stalling in order to get to the all-in phase.

The variable table size and seats paid create changing strategic issues like Sit-and-Go 2.0, and this is important, as one of the faults of Spin & Go is that it’s too susceptible to mathematical “solving,” much like the heads-up hyper-turbos of old. The hand limit actually enhances this aspect, as the all-in phase creates situations which fall outside the scope of conventional ICM thinking, something I’ll discuss more towards the end of the article.

Criticism

If you’ve been paying any attention at all to online poker for the last three years or so, you won’t need more than two guesses to identify the top two complaints from professional players regarding the new game. Too much rake and a low skill ceiling.

The rake in question is one point higher than that of the regular Spin & Go’s across all the existing buy-in tiers. Of course, the Spin & Go rake was a bone of contention itself, especially when it was raised shortly after launch, though now players have mostly stopped complaining.

There is also a bit of hidden extra rake, in that the site offers the winning player an option to “cash out” for a guaranteed amount when a large prize is present among the three possibilities. The amount offered will always be slightly less than the average of the three possible prizes, but it’s likely that many players will take the hit to reduce variance and avoid the chance of missing out. Of course, we don’t know exactly how many will take the option, but any time someone does, it means additional money is being pocketed by PokerStars, but is not being counted as part of the official rake.

Of course, any rake within reason is beatable, if better players respond by quitting the game. It’s only a matter of what equilibrium is reached. More rake reduces the winnings of better players, but also results in the lower earners leaving the game (or not joining in the first place) to seek better opportunities elsewhere. Top players, in theory, won’t earn significantly less, but there will be proportionally fewer winning players overall, and more big losers.

This is little consolation to the majority of winning players, who fall within the skill range which will be forced to leave a high-raked game in order to bring the average skill level down to the point where the top players can make a reasonable profit. And there is a valid argument to be made that rakes within a site should be tweaked to keep the equilibrium consistent across game types, if only because that’s been the approach historically.

Does Max warrant an extra point of rake above Spin & Go by that logic? Presumably, the reasoning is that the average table size is larger, and games with more players are traditionally raked more heavily. However, the all-in mechanic tends to kick in when play is down to two or three players, and there’s a fairly persuasive argument to be made that playing from, say, six players down to two does not represent a greater profit-making opportunity than from three to one.

Recreational engagement

As always, what’s missing from the professional criticism of the game is the recreational player’s experience. A high rake and low skill ceiling certainly mean that it won’t make an appealing option for struggling professionals, but it’s more than clear by now that this isn’t the demographic most sites are targeting at the moment, with the notable exception of PartyPoker.

From PokerStars’s perspective, what’s important is that its target base finds the game enjoyable, and that enough players find themselves ahead in the short-to-medium term that it represents an appealing opportunity to gamble.

Here, the post-tournament draw of the first place prize is potentially important, even if it makes no difference strategically. Recreational players tend to be motivated by the potential for a big prize, but stressed out when the stakes are known and the pressure is on them to decide correctly. Adding a final random element makes sense psychologically, as a player competing for e.g. a chance between two $10 prizes and a $50 one can feel as if they’re competing for $50 during the game, but rationalize that they probably would have won only $10 if they end up making a bad call and missing their chance.

The all-in phase helps here too, as it lightens the burden of responsibility without removing agency. Win or lose, a player who makes the all-in phase will feel she did all she could, and one who does not can console himself that he might have lost the races anyway.

A question of skill

Objectively speaking, cutting the decision-making phase of the game short and going to an all-in shootout can’t possibly make the game more skilful. Reducing the game space and truncating the decision tree can’t have any other effect.

However, in practice, at least in the short term, the new format might actually create more room for a skill edge between individual players, compared to Spin & Go. As I mentioned earlier, the hand limit combined with the possibility for multiple payout spots creates strategic considerations which don’t come up in existing formats.

Consider the following situation: There are three players left, with two spots paid. Top prize has a statistical value of $25 and second is $10. The players have 1500, 1000 and 500 chips respectively.

In a standard tournament, ICM pressure is highest on the middle stack; he would like to play tight, as he can win $10 simply by outlasting the short stack. Meanwhile, the deep stack will be stealing his blinds, and the short stack will be going all-in frequently, hoping to double up.

These basic strategies are contingent on the fact that they can be continued indefinitely until the short stack busts. The situation is quite different if this is Spin & Go Max, and there are, let’s say, two hands before the all-in phase begins. Now, it’s the short stack who stands to gain by tightening up, as winning the first race will grant him at minimum a triple-up, and also get him into the money if the deep stack comes out ahead of the medium stack. Looking at a more extreme scenario, if the stacks were 2000, 950 and 50, the 50-chip stack still has a roughly 1/6 chance of making the money once the all-in phase begins, whereas in a conventional format, he would need at least two double ups before the middle stack even considers getting all-in against the deep stack.

That’s not to say that the considerations are necessarily more complex than those in a conventional format, but they are different. And often, in poker, novelty is a bigger factor than mathematical depth when it comes to finding edges. Although Max may not prove to be any deeper than conventional Spin & Go in the long run, for the time being, those quick to adjust to these new considerations may find the game more profitable than they expected, particularly if the majority of other strong players wave it off as unbeatable and the field is heavily skewed towards recreational players.

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