PokerStars’s latest and most ambitious format, Power Up, entered open alpha testing last week, following several months of limited testing. At the moment, it’s only available for play money, and the tiniest possible stakes at that: only 1000-chip matches were initially available (including a 140-chip “rake”), although 10,000, 25,000 and 100,000 chip versions have since been added.
Power Up is just one of many recent attempts to blend poker with elements from more modern card games, especially those within the collectable card game (CCG) sub-genre. It is, however, the first so far with the potential to be played for real money. That being the case, the need to produce a balanced game is much greater than with the other efforts yet seen. The unusual move of engaging in open alpha testing is a part of this.
It’s hard to predict at this point whether the game will prove to be a Spin & Go-level success or a complete flop like Duel, but one very positive sign is to be found in the response of TwoPlusTwo forums members.
The forums crowd is notorious for hating just about everything, and anything Amaya-related in particular. Indeed, that was the tone set in the Power Up thread when the game was first announced, and maintained by a few posters who’ve elected to stand by their initial judgment and refuse to try the game on principle. However, the reaction from those who’ve given it a whirl is almost unanimously – if sometimes grudgingly – positive.
“Alright, fine, so it’s fun.”
Of course, a necessary but not sufficient condition for the success of a new format is that it’s fun to play. Here, at least, it seems likely that Power Up will clear this bar, at least. Generally speaking, Hold’em plus special abilities seems to be a format that players enjoy, at least at first, and it stands to reason that Power Up would be better than most, given the effort that’s gone into it and the amount of money PokerStars stands to make from its success.
The two most obvious experiments to compare it to are HoldemX and Hands of Victory, but Power Up’s replenishable energy mechanic means that power use is more frequent than in HoldemX, while the powers themselves are more dramatic than those in Hands of Victory. Power use is therefore an important part of almost every hand, on par with the deal of the cards. At the same time, the fact that it’s built on top of a game as familiar as Hold’em and the number of powers is limited to nine means that there’s relatively little barrier for existing players to pick up the mechanics of the game quickly, if not its strategy.
The fact that several forums members have taken time away from playing cash poker to play repeated matches of Power Up for pure entertainment value is definitely a positive sign.
”And there’s definitely some strategy to it.”
The most comical complaint about Power Up after it was announced, but before it was released, was that it would change poker from a game of skill into one of chance, with Hearthstone being pointed to as an example of the brainless luckfest that would be poker’s fate.
Of course, anyone who has played both games long enough to understand them knows that Hearthstone has a far greater skill factor than poker, so long as one is comparing apples to apples. A novice Hearthstone player may have a better chance of beating an expert in a single match than a novice poker player would have of beating a pro over 100,000 hands, say, but so long as we define the sample sizes to be compared by either time or number of decisions made, win rates at Hearthstone will run much higher than those in poker.
That appears to be a non-issue for those who’ve now tried the game, who report that even with shallow stacks, the use of powers expands on rather than overwhelms the basic strategies of poker. Hand reading, for instance, is still important, as wasting energy on powers when one could win the hand without will end up losing matches in the long run.
Ironically – and comically – the increased skill seems to be a downside in the minds of some, who complain that the lack of an established correct way to play will make it hard to profit. The highest win rates in poker are to be found in new games, by those who figure out the best strategies before anyone else. Anyone who thinks there’s something to complain about in this regard clearly isn’t capable of figuring out how to win at a game without someone else doing all the work for them.
”You have new options for bluffing.”
Generally speaking, adding additional decision points to a game – and additional branches at those decision points – will increase its depth, so long as those additional decision don’t render other decisions obvious or irrelevant to the outcome.
When you’re looking at new mechanics for a game like poker, however, it’s not necessarily obvious what form that increased depth will take. It’s easy to make the mistake of considering the impact of a player’s decisions only on her own hand, without looking at what information is being supplied to the opponent.
In the case of draw variants, for instance, beginners tend to fixate on the odds of improving their hands with a given drawing strategy, and on what strength of hand is worth standing pat with. Until they’ve had it explained, or done to them, it can take quite a while before they discover the concept of standing pat or drawing fewer cards to assist with a bluff.
Many people’s first impressions of the powers in Power Up tend to run the same way; that it becomes a game of deploying powers as efficiently as possible in order to make the best hand. Unsurprisingly, though, it turns out that there are plenty of opportunities to use powers in counterintuitive situations in order to make bluffs more effective.
For example, one obvious use of the Disintegrate power to destroy a just-dealt board card would be to eliminate a possible flush when holding a slightly worse hand, like a set or a straight. But those obvious uses are also obvious to one’s opponent, so one effective gambit would be to destroy a rivered flush card while holding nothing at all, in order to convince a straightforwardly-thinking opponent than one must have some other strong hand and set up a bluff.
Even in standard Hold’em, bluffing has become more complex over the years, often developing over the course of two or more streets (sometimes including flat calls or “floats”) and subtle issues of bet sizing in order to represent a specific hand or range. With nine powers to use – or not use – some of which lead to additional decisions, the potential is there to tell even more complex stories, especially as the implications of each power grow better understood.
”No one has a clue.”
Of course, for those whose primary motivator is profit, not entertainment, the biggest question in the short term is not what the eventual skill ceiling will be, but the size of the mistakes committed by typical opponents.
Here, too, it’s looking good. One forums poster commented, for instance, that many players are too eager to use powers to get rid of scare cards on the turn or river, without considering ranges, and for whom the card should be more scary. This poster said that he’d found, when in position, opponents would frequently activate a power to remove a card he’d been planning on removing himself.
Another mentioned that it seemed “too easy” to gain an energy advantage by open folding a lot of buttons, then surrendering in the big blind if an opponent uses a power preflop. Of course, the phrasing of the comment suggests the poster himself doesn’t understand that balancing energy expenditure against pot size is an intended part of the strategy. But if he’s so frequently running into players willing to waste energy activating powers before anyone else has committed chips to the pot, that sounds like a mistake similar in magnitude to making oversize raises with premium hands to avoid suckouts: that is, something extremely exploitable and which should provide better players with a huge edge until it becomes common knowledge that it’s to be avoided.
So, will it succeed?
Good early reviews from the toughest critics are certainly cause for hope, but any developer will tell you that there’s a long road between earning approval from early adopters trying out an alpha version of a product, and achieving commercial success with the final release. In this case, there’s the added hurdle of making the transition from play money to real money; although a public audience is often good at exposing flaws that were missed by the internal testing team, a public audience motivated by the potential for financial profit is a whole other beast. Existing software tools for analyzing Hold’em formats won’t work for Power Up, but you can bet there are already some sharp minds thinking about how to approach it if it proves popular enough to be profitable.
It’s also pretty safe to assume that no one is going to be attempting to collude for 1000 play chips, and equally obvious that many of the powers, particularly those that manipulate the deck and community cards, allow much more potential for collusion than exists in conventional Hold’em.
PokerStars is surely aware of this, so the decision to make it a three-seated format rather than heads-up implies they believe their security team, combined with randomized Spin & Go-style seating will be sufficient to prevent or detect such abuses. The question here is not only whether they can, but whether players believe they can, since the perception of cheating can be as damaging to a site as its actuality.
Perhaps most importantly, there’s the question of what Power Up’s success would do to the ecosystem. PokerStars’s strategy in recent years has been to emphasize the gambling aspect of poker and reduce the ability of skilled players to turn a consistent profit and take money out of the system.
Although Power Up seems like is should have visceral appeal to casual players, the effects of the powers will likely create much larger edges than exist in standard short-stacked, 3-handed poker. Naturally, this goes a long way towards earning approval from those players with professional aspirations, but if the edges are too large, the game could prove to be a trap for novice players, and run counter to the site’s goal of making their deposits last longer.
If that proves to be the case, then PokerStars will surely take action to make the game less appealing to professionals. Shorter starting stacks would be one way of accomplishing this, but if the last couple of years are any indication, the most likely outcome is rake increases to lower the ceiling on achievable ROIs and reduce the number of winning players the game can support.
High rake hasn’t hurt the popularity of Spin & Go much, but the randomized payouts of that format have the effect of concealing the amount of money the site is taking out of the prize pool. If Power Up uses fixed payouts – and it looks at the moment like it will – then even the most naïve of players will be able to see how far behind he lands when he wins one match out of three. That being the case, there may be a limit to how much rake even recreational players are willing to pay.
Still, the fact that Power Up will almost certainly make it to a full, real-money release is a positive sign for PokerStars’s research & development efforts. When Duel was scrapped immediately after its first limited public test, the situation looked bleak; after all, PokerStars had promised that the money it was saving by scaling back its VIP Rewards program was going to go to developing revolutionary new products. That the first such effort produced a spectacular flop did a lot of damage to the company’s credibility in that regard; now, though, Power Up appears to offer PokerStars a pretty strong shot at redemption.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada.