If you’re a fan of weird poker variants, it’s worth taking note of the fact that PokerStars has started running “trial” tournaments for Showtime Hold’em and Fusion, two temporary formats it introduced as cash games for a few months each last year.

For the time being, the tournaments are only available at buy-ins between $1.10 and $5.50, and rarely get more than 100 entries, so don’t count on making much money at them, unless you care more about percentage ROI than your hourly. They are, however, quite a lot of fun, and potentially valuable practice, because PokerStars has added several of each to the schedule for MicroMillions 15, which kicks off this Sunday, and will quite possibly include one or both for WCOOP in September, depending on how they’re received.

The history of temporary formats

PokerStars has introduced five of these novelty formats so far, although the latest, 6+ Hold’em, looks like it will become a permanent addition, bringing the planned rotation of novelty formats to a premature end. Showtime was the second such format, running from late May until late July, while Fusion was the fourth, running from early November until early January. 6+ Hold’em already existed as a tournament format, with some events having been included in this spring’s SCOOP; it’s currently being tested for possible inclusion in the weekly schedule as well.

I’ve already written a bit about Showtime strategy, and quite a lot about Fusion, so I won’t be going into great detail about their basics here, though I will be discussing how they affect tournament strategy. If you missed out on the games when they were available though, Showtime is just No-Limit Hold’em but with all folded hands being turned face-up, while Fusion is Pot-Limit Omaha, but in which you get only two of your hole cards preflop, one more on the flop and the final one on the turn. Showtime’s distinguishing characteristic is that the revealed cards change your probabilities of hitting hands, and the ranges you assign to your opponents, while Fusion’s is that it’s an even higher-variance game than Omaha, with smaller differences between starting hand equities than you’ll see in any other game.

The games that didn’t make the cut for tournaments were Split Hold’em (known in live circles as Double Board Hold’em) and Unfold. Split Hold’em needs deep stacks to be interesting, otherwise it’s too similar to regular Hold’em with a mandatory “run it twice” in effect, so for a tournament it would just play like a worse version of No-Limit Omaha Hi-Lo. Unfold is presumably just too slow with its extra “unfold” round of action, particularly towards the bubble when those who are folding a lot of hands are also quite likely to be stalling.

Showtime tournament strategy

Of the two new tournament formats, Showtime is, for obvious reasons, the most similar to existing games, both as a cash game variant and in tournament play. It does, however, affect things quite a bit in terms of short-stacked play, especially when you’re on the button or in the blinds.

When effective stacks are below 20 big blinds and ICM effects aren’t too huge, play in No-Limit Hold’em tournaments becomes quite formulaic. Up to around 12 big blinds, your decisions are most often to go all-in or to fold. Between 12 and 20, you’ll probably also have a raise-fold range and a flat calling range from the big blind. Generally speaking, the approximately-correct decision in these sorts of spots can be memorized from tables, though it’s occasionally complicated by things like a very short stack being all-in or yet to act.

In Showtime, every spot is complicated by the fact that some cards may have already been revealed, and if not, some cards will be revealed by the time the last players to act have to make their decisions. Jack-Ten suited might be a no-brainer shove from the cutoff with 10 big blinds, but what if a Jack’s been folded? A Jack and a Ten? What about two Nines and four cards of your suit, taking away a lot of your straight and flush chances? Conversely, some hands that would ordinarily be a marginal fold might become a shove (or hands with which to call another player’s shove) if several of the worst cards for you have been folded, but the best ones are all still in the deck.

Computing a solution for an individual spot like this is no more difficult than doing it for standard Hold’em spots; it’s the exact same math, just with a different deck of cards. But the number of possible situations is many, many orders of magnitude greater, so putting together tables is impossible. Rather, you’ll have to start from your No-Limit Hold’em ranges and invent some heuristics for how to modify them based on the exposed cards; for instance, you might develop some rules of thumb for treating your effective position as being earlier or later depending on what outs and overcards to your hand have been shown.

Fusion tournament strategy

Fusion is already a very different game from either Hold’em or Omaha, tactically speaking, and those differences are beyond the scope of this article. Where Fusion as a tournament format departs from Fusion as a cash game format, however, is at the level of stack management and overall tournament strategy. Between the fact that Fusion is Pot-Limit so shoving preflop is impossible unless you’re very short or are re-raising, and the fact that preflop equities run so close, you’re never going to have much fold equity as the at-risk player. That means that the concept of “short-stacked survival strategy” is out the window.

You will not be able to steal blinds as a short stack, unless the player or players on your immediate left are shorter than you. Even then, they’re likely to realize that if they allow it, you’ll keep doing it, and that they’re never all that far behind. You will get called, sooner rather than later, and be racing in what’s most likely to be some kind of 55/45 spot one way or the other. The only kind of low-risk survival strategy possible with a short stack is to fold every hand, and there will be a lot of people trying to do that close to the bubble, which means it’ll go on longer than you expect.

Rather, survival is the goal of medium stacks in a Fusion tournament, while as a short stack, you’re looking at a situation more like that of having perhaps 3-4 big blinds in a Hold’em tournament. That is, you’ll be looking for your earliest chance to race with favorable odds in order to chip back up to the point that you actually have some fold equity. Since your hand odds are never going to be all that dominant, you’re mostly looking to compensate by finding spots with good pot odds. You’ll still get it in with your premium hands, regardless, but in Fusion, getting it in with Jack-Nine and some dead money in the pot is probably going to be better for you than getting it in with Ace-Ten when it’s just you against the big blind.

There are many ways you can go after dead money. Standard examples include three-bet shoving from the button in order to force the blinds out and race with the opener, or squeezing from the big blind after a raise and a call. As long as you have a somewhat reasonable hand, the extra chips in the pot will compensate for the fact that you’re basically flipping coins in what is for you a high-ICM spot. And if you somehow do take down the pot with such a move, then it’s great for you, but you shouldn’t count on it.

A close race, even one that is positive in terms of chip EV, isn’t something you relish on the bubble, however. Whatever the game, tournament strategy dictates that opportunities to take down pots uncontested are worth more than spots which would be similarly profitable in cash games, but which put your stack at risk. That means seeking out fold equity before you reach the desperation point, and in Fusion, that means getting into a survival mindset earlier and playing postflop, because it’s so rare to take a pot down uncontested preflop.

Even in a Pot-Limit game, playing postflop requires having some chips. Assuming you’re in position, you might need to shove over an opponent’s bet, and you’d like to have a full pot or close to it when you do so in order to maximize that fold equity. Given ante and the Pot-Limit structure, that means that you start playing a survival strategy in a Fusion tournament at more like 20 to 30 BB than the 10 to 15 BB you’re used to in Hold’em. That’s the point at which you’re looking to take hands to a flop for one bet, and if you catch any kind of hand, applying as much pressure as you can to your opponent to try to get a fold.

No simple answers

Of course, there are more ways things can go with that stack size than the straightforward preflop push-or-fold situation. You might call a raise and get squeezed. Your opponent might forego a continuation bet, leaving you wondering whether you’re walking into a check-raise if you try to take the pot down. You might open and get shoved on by a short stack. You might end up in a multiway pot. All of these possibilities mean that there are many more aspects of the situation to be considered when opening than simply the effective stacks, your position and your hole cards.

So, like Showtime, Fusion as a tournament format means that short-stacked strategy requires more than just memorizing tables. If there are short stacks behind you, the question is how close you are to the bubble and how competent they are. If it’s very close to the bubble or they’re novice players trying to play a Hold’em-like short stacked strategy, you might be able to get your raises through. On the other hand, if they know what they’re doing, they will likely be looking for chances to 3-bet all-in and race as soon as they have a reasonable hand. You’ll therefore need to consider whether you’re willing to race with them and what it will do to your stack if you lose, because you don’t want to raise if ICM considerations are going to force you to fold if they shove.

The big blind’s stack size is also very important, because they’re very likely to call if everyone else folds; if they’re a little shorter than you, your raise size is going to matter, because it affects the sizing of a flop bet and possibly raise. On the other hand, if they’re short enough that they won’t want to call and fold the flop but deep enough that they won’t want to just get it in, you might have some rare blind-stealing equity after all.

Difficult new games mean big skill edges

As you can see, both of these games lead to interesting tournament considerations, and Fusion in particular is very confusing. There’s also been very little written about them, strategically, and almost no one will have much prior experience; even those who played them extensively when they were available as cash games will not likely have played many of the trial tournaments.

When new games like this are introduced, especially ones that change fundamental strategies as deeply as Fusion does, skill edges can run very large indeed. It’s rare to find such chances in a poker climate where all the common games have been studied extensively and strategy resources are readily available. If you’re someone who fancies themselves a good all-around poker player, rather than a specialist in one format, then it’s worth taking advantage when such opportunities do present themselves. If you have at least enough understanding of the game you’re playing to avoid big mistakes, you will surely encounter many opponents capable of making them.

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

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