Pokerstoker is a web-based poker tool developed by Andrew Dyster, a recreational online player who says he finds traditional HUD software too complex, but wanted something simple to help him keep tabs on his opponents.

It’s not technically a HUD, because it runs in its own window in your web browser, rather than overlaying itself on your poker client. This makes it poorly suited to multi-tabling, but perfect for those like Dyster himself who, in his words, are “playing a single table and enjoying a beer while they play.” Used that way, it’s actually an advantage to have the player data in a separate window, as it avoids cluttering the poker interface. It is also better suited to the casual player’s mindset; whereas multi-table grinders rely heavily on opponents’ statistics to make their decisions, a casual player is more likely to be “just playing his game” most of the time, and considering his opponent’s styles more occasionally, when faced with a tough decision.

Pokerstoker is currently compatible with PokerStars and 888poker. It’s also free to use for now, although Dyster says he may switch to some sort of freemium model in future if the tool proves popular. It’s hard to say no to something free, but the important question is whether the tool is actually useful. I’ve tried it out and although it has some obvious merits, it also has some equally obvious downsides.

The good

The first thing you notice about Pokerstoker is that it is very well designed from a graphical perspective. Everything is laid out very clearly and without clutter, the color palette is appealing and relaxing, and numbers are omitted wherever possible in favor of icons, meaning that the relevant information on an opponent can be taken in at a glance, without requiring the user to read a bunch of numbers and interpret whether a given figure is on the high or low side.

The amount of information given is minimal, but this is the point. Unlike a classic HUD, Pokerstoker is not attempting to help you find specific holes in opponents’ games, but rather just to help you keep track of basic reads when you’re playing recreationally and not paying all that much attention yourself.

A player’s preflop tendencies are boiled down to a single icon, indicating whether the player is loose or tight (based on VPIP) and passive or aggressive (based on PFR). If you’re unsure of what a given icon means, or want to see the exact VPIP/PFR numbers, you can mouse over the icon and be given an explanation.

Postflop, you have a sort of meter, indicating the player’s postflop aggression frequency. Mousing over one of these meters gives you the exact percentage of the time they’ve taken aggressive actions, but more importantly lets you know the sample size this is based on, since an aggression of 0% or 100% means almost nothing if you’ve only seen the player acting postflop once or twice.

One of the most useful things presented – which is absent from a lot of HUDs – is a player rating, gleaned from an online results database. This is a simple numerical value from 1 to 5 – with 5 being the best – and you can adjust it manually if you believe a given player is better or worse than their results would suggest.

Finally, you’re shown numbers indicating the total hand sample you have on the player from the current tournament, and the number of times they’ve gone to showdown. Clicking this latter number brings up an overlay window which shows the specific hands they’ve shown down. From there, you can even click one of those hands to get a full replay of the hand in question.

Overall, I think that Dyster has done a good job of identifying the bare-bones essential facts that a player needs to have some sort of read on his opponents. Any more would simply be confusing for a casual player who lacks the skills to capitalize on more subtle tendencies, such as a player’s continuation bet frequency, or how often they raise on the river. What information there is, is easy to get at a glance, and I can see how even this little bit of knowledge would go a long way to helping a distracted casual player who would otherwise have no idea what his opponents were doing and thus otherwise limited to level one thinking.

The bad

There’s only one big problem that I have with Pokerstoker, but unfortunately, it’s a really big problem. It’s also an unavoidable one given the decision to make this a web-based application. Because Pokerstoker runs in your browser, it has no direct access either to your hard drive or to the poker software that you’re running. This means that you have to go find the correct hand history file every time you want to play a tournament, and then manually give the program access to it.

This is probably a huge hurdle for a lot of casual players, who may not even realize that PokerStars is saving hand history files on their hard drives, or where those files are going. The app offers help on setting things up, but casual users tend not to like reading help files. There’s also a problem for Mac users like me, in that the default folder for those histories is within the user’s “Library” folder, which OS/X has hidden, and therefore inaccessible through a standard browser dialogue box. In order to use Pokerstoker, then, I have to go into my options within PokerStars and change where the hand histories are being saved. Of course, any HUD requires some setup to use, but for the others it’s a one-time thing, whereas with Pokerstoker, there’s some setup to be done not just for every session, but for every game. Objectively, the advantages it provides are probably worth the hassle, but perhaps not from the perspective of those very same casual users that the app is trying to help; user-friendliness is everything for that crowd.

Assuming you can get past that one hassle, my gripes about Pokerstoker are relatively minor.

For one thing, the icons for the player styles look nice, but aren’t as clear as they could be. Some are fine, like the rock and the fish, but it’s not clear why a shield represents a standard tight-aggressive player, and a spartan helmet represents a loose-aggressive one. You’d also assume that the rock would be the nittiest player classification, but actually, there’s a separate “Vault” category (represented by a safe) for players with extremely low VPIP, who are presumably playing only super-premium hands. Of course, there are only seven different icons, so it won’t take very long to memorize them, and in the meantime, you can mouse over them to get an explanation. That said, it’s still another minor barrier to entry, and any minor source of confusion is bound to lose some percentage of potential users when it comes to the casual crowd.

The hand replayer is also far less slick in its design than the rest of the application. There’s no option to play through the hand in realtime, or click through action by action. Rather, you’re given one street at a time, with little (and somewhat non-obvious) arrows to click ahead to the next street or back to the previous street. There’s no indication given next to the player names of who did what: all the action for the current street is provided as straight, unformatted text, pulled more or less directly from the hand history file.

The good news is that the various types of action are color-coded, which makes it a little bit easier to read, but it’s still difficult to read through and figure out who did what, especially while you’re still in the process of playing a tournament yourself. If I thought that the target users would be looking at the hand replays a great deal, I might even call the interface a problem of similar magnitude to need to load the hand history files manually; however, it’s probably not such a big deal in practice because many people may not even explore deeply enough to discover that it exists as an option, sticking just to the information shown on the main screen.

Finally, the app could probably stand to include some performance-related stats-keeping for the user themselves, such as percentage of hands won overall, percentage of hands won at showdown, and average profit per hand in terms of chips and/or big blinds. This would be of limited usefulness because each tournament is being considered on its own, with no long-term stats being collected, but nonetheless, people like to have some measure of how they’re doing. Moreover, it wouldn’t be hard to implement, and could make use of the dead space which exists in the top right of the interface. (That space is currently being used for a banner ad, but while I understand Dyster’s desire to make some profit off of his free product, a banner could just as easily go above or below the interface as a whole.)

The verdict

Pokerstoker is in no way a replacement for a full-on HUD if you’re a serious player or playing more than one table at a time; it’s unfortunate that commercial HUDs are as expensive as they are, but if you feel you need software assistance and are playing poker primarily for profit, you’re much better off shelling out for one of those than trying to make do with Pokerstoker.

However, if you’re in the same group as Dyster himself, a “one table and a beer” kind of player, then a full-on HUD is almost certainly not the tool for you, and Pokerstoker may be just the ticket, provided you can deal with the annoyance of loading up a hand history manually each time you want to use it. Exactly how annoying it is to do this depends on how frequently you’re going to be starting a new game, of course. For that reason, it’s probably more likely to be useful to you if you play regular speed, multi-table tournaments, rather than, say, hyper-turbo sit-and-gos.

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