As of last week, PokerStars has a new cash game variant available, called Showtime. It’s straight-up six-max Texas Hold’em with one important twist: All folded cards are revealed immediately and left face up for the remainder of the hand. At first, it seems like a cheap gimmick to appeal to recreational players’ curiosity and something that would be off-putting to pros, since it means their strategy is on display for all to see. However, the extra information provided by the folded cards and the way it affects players’ ranges and their outs adds a subtle complexity to the game, in the same way as the up cards in a game of Stud.

Struggling to innovate

If you look around the online poker industry these days, what you see is a lot of operators attempting to figure out what the Next Big Thing is going to be. Overall traffic has been on the decline for the industry since before Black Friday, and the only way in which sites have managed to buck that trend in any meaningful way has been the lottery sit-and-go format, invented by French site Winamax as “Expresso,” and popularized by PokerStars as “Spin & Go.”

Although lottery sit-and-goes continue to be big money-makers for those operators which have adopted them (which at this point is almost everyone), they too seem to be starting to run out of steam. As I’ve often pointed out in the past, however, innovation in poker is hard. It’s not that it’s hard to come up with new variations, it’s just very hard to come up with ones that fulfill the two simultaneous requirements of having immediate appeal for the average player and producing fun and interesting gameplay in the long run.

On the one hand, we have games like Duel and Power Up, which PokerStars invested a huge amount of time and effort into developing, only to see the latter languish with low traffic figures and the former so poorly-received that it was cancelled immediately after a limited soft-launch. In both cases, the likely reason for failure is that the games had too steep a learning curve and not enough of an obvious benefit to convince average players to make the effort.

On the other hand, we’ve seen games like “free flop Hold’em” (that is, Hold’em with no preflop action) tried out by the likes of 888poker (as “Flopomania“) and Winamax (as “FLOOOP“). That game has proven to be an immediate but brief hit with players; getting to see a flop every hand has intuitive appeal, but it turns out to be a boringly tight game once players have made the necessary adjustments, so traffic soon dies off.

Intentional flashes in the pan

Faced with this double bind, PokerStars has elected to change tactics this year and shoot not for one lasting success like lottery sit-and-goes, but rather a series of intentionally and explicitly short-lived novelty formats along the lines of free-flop Hold’em.

The first such game was Split Hold’em, launched in late March and available until just last week, when it was replaced by a new format called Showtime. This, we can guess, will probably also run for about two months, whereupon it will be replaced by something called “Fusion.” No details about that game will be known until it is actually launched; its existence is only known because of the inclusion of its graphic assets in the latest client release, and unlike Split Hold’em and Showtime, the name is too vague and generic to offer much in the way of a hint about what twist it will add.

At some point, the team at PokerStars responsible for these variations will probably start finding it hard to come up with more good ones, and we’ll probably see repeat appearances of some of the more popular games, with new ones irregularly thrown into the rotation. It seems like a pretty good plan, in that two months is about the right length for a novel format to go through its boom-and-bust cycle of interest, while if there are enough games in the rotation, each game should feel fresh again by the time in makes its reappearance.

Split Hold’em

Split Hold’em was a natural choice to start with, because it’s a concept that occurs naturally to most players even if they’ve never encountered it. Indeed, it’s played somewhat frequently in live cash games. It’s simply a regular game of Texas Hold’em, but with two sets of community cards dealt at every street. By the river, there are two five-card boards, and if the hand goes to showdown, the pot is split between the best hand on each board.

It’s dead simple to explain, and players can immediately see the fun in playing two boards at once. It’s also a game that’s not great for players in the long run, for the same reason that Pot-Limit or No-Limit Omaha Hi-Lo is popular as a tournament format, but not for cash games. The trouble is that when you have a big-bet format combined with a split-pot format in a cash game, it becomes a rake trap.

It’s very easy for a player to have a lot of equity for one end of the pot but only a bit for the other, and when two players find themselves in this situation, it’s likely that all the chips go in and the pot gets split. When that happens in a cash game, the fact that the pot is raked means that both players come out behind. The only way to avoid getting bled out this way is to play extremely tight, which in turn makes for a boring game once the players figure this out.

It’s Showtime!

Although Showtime is also being offered on a limited-time basis, it seems like it could be a different beast than Split Hold’em or the various free-flop variants offered on other sites. That’s because it doesn’t look like it will force players into a boring play style, nor does it reduce the game’s skill aspect. On the contrary, the adjustments it requires are subtle and complex; recreational players can essentially just play their normal game and merely factor in the folded cards when it comes to borderline decisions. Skilled players, however, have a lot more to consider when putting their opponents on ranges, because not only are the cards themselves important, but the timing with which they were revealed.

In fact, the complexity of Showtime is such that the so-called GTO solver software used by serious players to develop their strategies shouldn’t be effective. Not only is it a different game, but the game space itself is much, much larger. This is not just because the revealed cards increase the amounts of available information, but the exact timing with which they’re revealed is important as well. Imagine, for instance, that there is a King-high flop, and one King was folded preflop. When trying to guess the odds that a given player has made top pair, it makes a huge difference whether that King was folded before or after the player put their chips in the pot; a player who got to see the King folded before taking his action should have far fewer Kx hands in his range than a player who raised or called before the the folded King was revealed.

Compare Split Hold’em. In that it’s true that the second set of board cards massively increases the number of possible situations, but players can treat the two boards mostly independently, estimating their equity for each and applying the same strategies as for other split-pot games. It might make the game much more complex computationally speaking, but for a human playing using heuristics rather than brute force, it shouldn’t be too hard to adjust to the second board.

Strategic observations

I’ve only played a little bit of Showtime, but it’s apparent within a few orbits that there are important qualitative adjustments that players need to make, rather than it simply being a matter of playing a bit tighter or looser compared to regular Hold’em.

As pointed out above, the sequence with which preflop hands were folded makes a lot of difference. This is especially true when it comes to speculative hands like small pairs and suited connectors. A hand like Ace-King still has a lot of equity even if a couple of Aces or Kings are gone, but any sensible player is going to muck something like pocket Fours preflop if a Four has been folded. Meanwhile, a player with a hand like Seven-Eight of Hearts cares not only whether Sevens and Eights are gone, but also how many Sixes, Nines and Hearts have been folded.

A top pair-top kicker type hand on a dry board can be either much more powerful or much more vulnerable than in Hold’em, depending on whether the hands which were folded preflop make it unlikely that opponents would be playing combos which could potentially make sets, gutshot straights, and so forth.

The fact that certain hands can be ruled out for one player but not another based on what information was available to them preflop also means that range advantages run wider than in Hold’em. Any time an opposing player’s range is capped and/or one’s own contains a lot of strong hands is a good time to consider bluffing, and there are more spots and more ways that can happen in Showtime than conventional Hold’em.

Finally, effective position can be an important consideration, and lead players to lean towards passivity from time to time. Assuming there are any folds on a given street, the player closing the action will be acting on better information than the aggressor. Preflop, there’s a lot of incentive to limp from early position, which is generally considered bad play in conventional Hold’em. If you raise from under the gun and it folds around to the big blind, you’re in a vulnerable position, as she’s getting to make her decision based on eight folded cards which you hadn’t seen when you decided to raise. By limping, you minimize this disadvantage, and might even turn it to your advantage if a player to your left elects to raise.

Postflop, the situation is similar but a little more subtle, and only applies in multi-way pots, and mostly when the board is quite wet. In those situations, a player who’s torn between checking and betting might lean towards checking, simply because the situation becomes easier if the next player bets and one or more other players fold.

Catnip for copycats

If that sounds appealing and you live in a country where you can legally play on PokerStars, it’s worth giving the game a try. It’s fun, and it’s probably possible to enjoy a greater skill edge at it than most games these days. It’s also unlikely to be full of grinders at the low and mid stakes, because the amount of information that needs to be considered makes it a hard game to multitable effectively.

Unfortunately, because the game uses a blind-seating lobby and doesn’t display any information about the number of people playing, it’s hard to know exactly how well PokerStars’ player base is responding to Showtime. If it’s even moderately popular, however, it’s pretty likely that we’ll see the game appear on other sites in the future. The reason is simply that it’s probably the most trivial variation on Hold’em to implement that we’ve seen so far, requiring only the addition of a single line of code. Likewise, whatever regulatory hurdles are involved in demonstrating the game’s integrity have already been cleared by PokerStars, which should make it easier for anyone following in their footsteps.

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