Innovation in poker is hard. I’ve said that often, pretty much every time I’ve written about a new format in fact. PokerStars has been dumping lots of money into product development in recent years. Trying to create the Next Big Thing resulted in a string of duds, however: Duel, Beat the Clock and Power Up. This year, the plan seems to be to create the “Next Little Thing” instead, and in that regard Fusion, which was released last week, fits the bill quite nicely.

What do I mean by “Next Little Thing”? Well, PokerStars seems to have recognized that the fundamental trouble with innovation is that games that are easy to pick up tend not to have a lot of lasting power, while those with the depth to be engaging in the long term tend to be tricky to pick up. Beat the Clock was too simple and not interesting (or profitable) enough to maintain traffic in the long term. Conversely, Duel and Power Up were too complex to get much traction in the first place.

The plan this year, then, is a series of small innovations: little twists on Hold’em and Omaha which can be explained clearly in a few sentences, and provide enough novelty in terms of strategy and player experience to generate traffic in the short term. As far as lasting power goes, the solution is simply not to aim for that. Instead, this year’s new games have been designed with a life expectancy of a few months in mind from the start.

Previous games released under this strategy have been:

Split Hold’em: A split pot game usually known as Double Board Hold’em in live circles. Two separate sets of community cards are dealt, and if the hand goes to showdown, the pot is split between the best hand using the first set of cards, and the best hand using the second set.

Showtime: Completely standard Hold’em, except that folded cards are turned face up. Knowledge of the dead cards changes the odds and ranges for remaining players in the hand.

Unfold: Played like a standard game of Hold’em, except that players make an additional ante towards an “Unfold” pot. Players who fold preflop have the opportunity to make a bet equal to the Unfold pot once the flop is dealt. Those who do retain their cards and the Unfold pot (plus Unfold bets) is awarded to the participating player with the best hand at showdown.

So what’s Fusion?

That brings us to Fusion, which was billed as a mash-up between Hold’em and Omaha. Superficially speaking, that’s true. Players are dealt two cards to start with as in Hold’em. They then receive a third hole card on the flop and a fourth on the turn. Showdowns work as they do in Omaha, with the requirement that a five-card hand consist of precisely three community and two hole cards.

Rules-wise, then, it’s exactly true that the game begins as Hold’em and ends up as Omaha. Strategically, however, it’s closer to the latter than the former, because each street is not played in a vacuum. Players may only have two cards to start with, but they know they’ll be receiving two more, which means that the considerations on the flop and turn are very much unlike Hold’em.

How does it play?

The most important factor in early street decision-making in pretty much any poker format is hand equity – that is, the percentage of the time you’d expect your cards to win at showdown against any other random hand. And it’s in that regard that Fusion really is nothing like Hold’em.

In Hold’em, equities run very wide. Pocket Aces, as we all know, are about 82% to win against two random cards, while 72o has a mere 34% equity. In Omaha, equities are closer, with even a hand like AAKK double-suited holding only 71% equity. There are some rare hands with exceptionally poor equity, like 2222, but ignoring hands with three or four copies of a single card, it’s hard to find Omaha hands with worse than 40% equity against other random hands.

In this regard, Fusion is even more extreme than Omaha. That should be obvious even without running any equity simulations: A Fusion starting hand is simply an Omaha hand with two cards unknown. If AAKK double-suited is the best Omaha hand, then a starting AAxx or AKxx in Fusion can’t possibly be any better, as at best you’ll draw the two cards necessary to complete your AAKK double-suited, but most of the time you won’t. Similarly, if you start with 22xx, sometimes you’ll end up with the dreaded 2222, but much more often you’ll end up with something like J722, with a reasonable chance of winning if the board runs out well.

In fact, AA has only 64% equity in Fusion, while AK suited has 63% and KK has 62%. At the other extreme, 72o has 47% equity, 32o has 45% and 22 has 44%. I haven’t looked at every possible combination, but I don’t think it’s even possible to find a preflop scenario where one hand has a 75% chance of beating another: Even AA vs. 22 results in a 72/28 split.

Splish, splash

That means two things: Firstly, that the value of position is much larger in proportion to the value of starting cards than it is in any other game, and secondly, that the big blind has correct odds to defend against a single raise with just about any two cards.

Taken together, those facts mean that pots are almost never taken down preflop, and family post are quite common. Even if a hand is folded around to the button, it’s probably correct for that player to raise with any two cards, and for at least the big blind to call and take a flop, also with any two cards. For the button, the value of sure position outweighs any equity disadvantage he might be at, while for the big blind, the discount being received is enough to take a cheap flop.

That creates the sort of loose game that pros like. It’s much easier to find edges in postflop play, because it’s more complicated, especially when everyone’s ranges are extremely wide, as they should be in Fusion. Splashy preflop play and complicated postflop scenarios are exactly what has made Omaha the biggest challenger to Hold’em in recent years, and rather than being in between the two, Fusion is actually more extreme than Omaha in this regard.

PokerStars clearly realizes the potential in this regard, because the stakes it’s offering for Fusion are higher than for previous games, all the way up to $25/$50. No one has been playing that high yet, but the day after launch, Jaimie Staples was streaming Fusion and had games going at the $2.50/$5 and $5/$10 tables for a while.

But not the next big thing?

Between its potential with pros and the fact that it seems at least moderately popular with recreational players so far, one might wonder whether Fusion is not in fact such a little thing after all. Might PokerStars change its mind about making it a temporary format and add it to the lineup for good?

Maybe. They did, after all, consider doing so with Unfold after it tested well internally. Ultimately, it didn’t perform as well in the wild as it had with beta testers, so they changed their mind a second time and made it the temporary “little thing” it had initially been planned to be. It’s clear, then, that PokerStars isn’t wholly committed to these games being temporary; if one does exceptionally well, they’re open at least in theory to keeping it around.

I don’t think that will be the case with Fusion, however. Not because it isn’t a good game, but because it’s more likely to remain a good game if it’s not overplayed and overanalyzed. “Gone” doesn’t mean gone for good with these games. Eventually, all the low-hanging fruit for simple Hold’em and Omaha variants will have been picked, so old favorites will reappear in rotation; PokerStars has confirmed this.

There can be too much of a good thing when it comes to high-action, close-equity games, namely that they can turn into rake traps when there isn’t a big difference in players’ skill levels. As it is, players complain that it’s inappropriate to rake Pot-Limit Omaha games at the same rate as No-Limit Hold’em, because it equates to a much higher amount both on a per-hand basis and as a percentage of skilled players’ profitability.

Right now, that isn’t a big issue for Fusion, both because there are still many players who don’t know how to play very well, and because equities don’t necessarily run all that close on later streets. If postflop skill edges grow smaller as players improve, and if players also start 3-betting more out of position to reduce the stack-to-pot ratio, the game could end up resulting in a lot of big pots being traded back and forth on coin flips, while most of the money ends up with the site.

A tournament-friendly format

An example of what could happen to Fusion under such a scenario can be seen with Omaha Hi/Lo. It’s well-regarded as a game, but the Pot-Limit version is rarely played as a cash game precisely because there are so many close-to-even all-ins. The ratio of winners to losers in such a game is much lower than in, say, Hold’em, because players with only a small skill edge end up losing to the rake rather than eking out a profit.

Pot-Limit Omaha Hi/Lo is, however, played extensively as a tournament format. Its weakness is more of a strength there, as rake is charged per tournament not per hand and the closeness of equities creates a lot of interesting considerations when stack sizes grow smaller and pay jumps approach.

As well as promising to bring games back in rotation, PokerStars has also said that it will consider using these limited-time variations as special tournament formats in future. I think Fusion – perhaps even a Hi/Lo version thereof, which would be unthinkable as a cash game – has a lot of promise in that regard.

Leave ‘em wanting more

Overall, then, I think Fusion fits the bill of “Next Little Thing” perfectly, so long as PokerStars doesn’t try to make it a big thing. I suspect it will remain pretty popular through what we’ve come to expect, from previous games, will be about a two-month run, likely concluding early in the new year. By that point, I predict games will be starting to get tougher and players will start to notice the rake more, so it will be time to give it a rest.

What’s important, though, is that I think it will be just about as good as new when reintroduced perhaps two years down the road, with stints as a one-off tournament format in between. Turnover among recreational players is such that it will in fact be a wholly new game for many by that point, while the limitation of only being able to play during certain time windows will likely dissuade high-volume pros from trying too hard to “solve” it.

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

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