WSOP Dealer’s Choice series Pt. 1 – The format

This year’s World Series of Poker saw an exciting new addition, a $1,500 buy-in “Dealer’s Choice” 6-max mixed game event. Dealer’s choice poker is a popular concept at home cash games, but it’s much rarer to see it at a card room, and it’s certainly a novelty in a tournament setting.

It’s possibly the most high-skilled game yet introduced, requiring a deep understanding of poker strategy in its most general form, rather than rote learning of the principles of a single game. Furthermore, the choice of game is itself a point of strategy, based on one’s own strengths, opponents’ weaknesses, stack sizes, tournament situation and the unique characteristics of each game.

That’s a lot to think about, but given the rave reviews it received from the players who participated, it’s almost a sure thing that Dealer’s Choice will be featured again in the 2015 WSOP; I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a $10,000 or $25,000 buy-in event as well as the $1,500.

The downside of the format is that it’s as challenging as a spectator sport as it is to play; pretty much everyone is familiar with Texas Hold’em, but some people need to have a game as popular as Omaha explained to them, or have only a general idea of how 7-Card Stud works. And then there are the strange beasts… how many players have even heard of Badugi, let alone its twisted cousins Badacy and Baducy?

That’s where this series comes in. Right now I’m going to break down the format itself for you, but over the coming weeks, I’ll walk you through one game at a time, explaining the rules in detail, some general strategy, and also the meta-strategy of what it means to choose that game when it’s your turn to make the selection. By the time next year’s WSOP rolls around, you’ll be well-primed to appreciate all that the event has to offer, maybe even to participate yourself!

How it works

There are a total of 16 poker variants included in the Dealer’s Choice event. For each hand, the player with the dealer button gets to choose which of these games will be played.

The choice isn’t completely free, however. The games are divided into three categories: limit flop and draw games; stud games (which are always limit, of course); and pot-limit and no-limit games. Each 60 minute blind level is subdivided into these three categories, with 20 minutes spent on each, starting with limit flop/draw, then stud and finally no-limit/pot-limit. After this, the stakes increase and the next level begins with limit flop/draw again.

There are two reasons for this limitation. Firstly, the flop and draw games – and particularly the no-limit/pot-limit ones – offer a large positional advantage for the player on the button. Since it is the button choosing the game, if the games were not categorized in this way, no sensible player would ever choose a limit or stud game. Secondly, the different categories of games tend to produce different pot sizes for a given initial bet. Grouping the games into these categories allows for different antes/blinds/limits for each, thereby ensuring that the tournament structure is smooth and all games are equally important.

Update (May 2016): The above info was based on an early structure sheet and was apparently changed before the event ran; I’ve been told that players have free choice of games regardless of category, but now choose a game to be played for a full orbit, rather than a single hand.

The games in each category are as follows:

  • Limit Flop/Draw: Limit Hold’em, Limit Omaha Hi/Low, 2-7 Triple Draw, A-5 Triple Draw, Badugi, Badacy, Baducy
  • Stud: 7-Card Stud Hi, 7-Card Stud Hi/Low, Razz
  • No-Limit/Pot-Limit: No-Limit Hold’em, No-Limit 2-7 Single Draw, Pot-Limit Hold’em, Pot-Limit Omaha Hi, Pot-Limit Omaha Hi/Low, Pot-Limit 5-Card Draw Hi

General game selection strategy

Before covering individual variants, I’d like to talk a bit about general game selection strategy. There are three things to consider in choosing a game: your own strengths, your opponents’ strengths, and the aspects of each game with respect to your strategic situation in the tournament.

The most obvious of these factors is one’s own strengths. It’s tempting to figure out which game you’re most comfortable with in each category, and always pick that one. It makes sense to stay away from games you’re less familiar with as much as possible, and you couldn’t go too far wrong simply doing this.

However, your own best game might not always be the best choice, because what’s important is not how good you are at the game in absolute terms, but the difference between your skill and your opponents’. If your best game is also everyone else’s best, there’s no advantage in picking it; if your second-best game is less familiar to others, it is probably a better choice. Robert Mizrachi, who won the inaugural event, felt that this was a big difference maker at final table, stating that second-place finisher Aaron Schaff kept choosing Pot-Limit Omaha, a game Mizrachi specializes in. Mizrachi, for his part, picked games he felt Schaff was poor at, rather than basing his choice on his own strengths.

Finally, the best overall choice may not be the best strategic choice in a given situation. When you’re in a position to push your opponents around, a high-variance game like Pot-Limit Omaha may be just the ticket, but if you’re sitting on an average stack with the bubble imminent, you may want a lower-variance game to try to avoid being put in a tough spot. Some games may make better use of a deep stack, while others are good for short-stack survival. These are the sorts of considerations I will focus on in discussing the individual games, starting with Limit Hold’em in the next instalment of this series.

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

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