April 25, 2012
So I posted about my a few days ago (NLHE played with 2 card flop, 1 card river, and new 4 card hand rankings), and although some people liked the idea, it didn't generate that much discussion, which I was hoping for.
The concept was interesting to think about though, because it's good to break down the fundamental aspects of a poker game to see why they play like they do, and what features create an interesting game.
Every game can be broken down into a few main features:
- The betting system. Limits (NL, FL etc.) is an obvious and clearly stated one and plays an important role, which is shown clearly by the wild differences between NLHE and FLHE. Amount of betting rounds is also important. A lot of games are regularly four street games, while Stud variants are usually five, 5 Card Draw is merely 2!
- The source of information available. This is everything that helps to define the ranges of each player and is mainly just up cards like in Hold'Em or Stud. It can also be the drawing aspect in Draw games.
- The equity distribution between hands and ranges at each point. This is probably the most important factor and also very complex to figure out, though things like Stove have come a long way for HE.
So far, I've been talking mostly objectively about game features. However, the concept of what makes an interesting game can be somewhat subjective. In my opinion, a game is more interesting the more decisions a player has to make. This means that the best action in each situation has to be unobvious to the player. Each of the features can be designed for this goal:
- Betting needs to allow for viable choices for the player. Take Fixed Limit Omaha, a game that is never played. In such a game the limit bet sizing is too small that it has removed the option of folding - your default strategy becomes to call down in a lot of situations that it doesn't leave you any room to make a real decision.
- The information available needs to not define the opponent's range too much. Take a game like 5 Card Stud, with 1 down card and 4 up cards. The only information hidden is a single card out of a 5 card hand, meaning what he could potentially have is severely limited in a lot of situations. If his board is weak and you can beat him regardless of what his hole card is, then you don't have a decision, and if your board automatically beats what his 5 card hand, neither does he.
- The equity distribution goes very much hand in hand with the information available. In the above 5CS example, one players displayed range could already be 100% versus the other player's range regardless of betting. Generally, high equity favourites will limit the option of aggression for the equity underdog. This will leave one player calling and folding, and the other betting or checking, which means way fewer decisions. Another important aspect is how the equity switches between players per street, and this is best illustrated when the nuts has changed on a new street in PLO, and drawing player's range now looks stronger. This concept shifts power away from the person with the uncapped range on the previous street and gives power to someone who has a capped range, as he now has a new chance to be aggressive.
Anyway, this brings me to the main problems with NLHE. First, I should point out that it has a ton of good features, and that is why it became popular. One of the best parts is that you give no information away about your individual hand unlike in Stud. Your displayed range is never weaker or stronger than your opponent's - you could still technically have anything and so can he. It also became popular because it's the first real big bet games that works, and the nature of big bet lead to a lot more decisions, as well as more opportunities to bluff. The game is also very simple in nature (you have 2 cards, now try to match it with the board) which is a very important feature that I'm not including under 'interesting'.
However, if I had the opportunity to slightly change it, while retaining most of it's features I'd make two adjustments:
1) Remove the turn: Yep, the turn is my least favourite part of the way the board runs out. Simply put, not enough changes on enough boards. It is uninteresting, due to what I described as the way equity switches between the players. Having one card roll off at a time means very few hands which were behind catch up - it is a feature that works very well for limit: when your bets are a small percentage of the pot, it makes sense that the chance of improving on the next card isn't that high.
How would I do it? Have the turn and river come off at the same time, or a 'two card river'. You will notice that this changes the game into a 3 street game rather than a 4 street game, which is also great. 4 streets is too many. It's hard for me to articulate why I think this, but it leads to way fewer showdowns because it takes longer to get there.
2) Remove pocket pairs from the game: Or at least, remove all pocket pairs higher than 99/TT (though this rule isn't as intuitive) If you get one, your hand has to only play one hole card. The problem with big pocket pairs is that they are way too strong, it completely limits what hands you can see the flop with. They are big favourites pre-flop, big favourites to hold up for the flop, and then often big favourites after the flop. This has created a game that is aggressive pre-flop and very commonly ends pre-flop or on the flop. If they were gone, you'd get a preflop game more similar to PLO, where you don't have favourites pre-flop that high. If you are 3-bet, you can more comfortably call with something more speculative knowing that your pairs are more often live and that you will get to see two more cards for one flop bet.
Addendum: Another way I thought of reducing the power of pocket pairs is to say that they are not allowed to interact with the board - AA must remain a pair of aces no kickers. This will mean AA loses if JT makes two pair on a J4674 board, if any Ax catches the case A, or the board ends up showing more than AA or better (a nice kick in the teeth if you flop quads and can't beat the board, but you do get to have both trip blockers). In this scenario, AA is around a 55-65% favourite to most hands pre-flop, but becomes incredibly weak post-flop, which could lead to interesting play. This would also remove all sets from the game, which I think is a positive.
It's important to note that none of the features of NL were a big problem until people got very good at it. When people are bad at the game, it is interesting for them under my earlier definition because no decisions seem obvious. However, now people are much closer to optimal strategy than before and it turns out, it is boring.
I think these two feature changes will make the game completely change from a pre-flop non-showdown oriented game that it is now, to a post-flop game that involves a fair amount showdowns and varied aggression. Of course, it'd never happen, but it's still interesting to think about.