Saturday, December 1, 2018

In the Cards

Apparently a big-hat dress code is in effect
Invented sometime in the late 1800s, poker is one of the most popular gambling-based card games today.  Unlike blackjack or baccarat, it hold the distinction of being played against individuals rather than the "house" - a casino employed dealer who must follow rigidly defined moves.  It's also the most commonly found card game in media today, whether it be tournaments on TV, short appearances in movies or, yes, even video games.  Unsurprisingly, poker has a lot of variants so let's look at three of the most well-known ones before moving on to how all this relates to electronic entertainment.

First off, there's "straight" poker (not to be conflated with the suit of cards).  Five cards are dealt to each player.  Then, betting happens clockwise starting from the left of the dealer with the standard options of "check," "open," "raise," and "call."  It's one of the oldest forms of the game and probably the simplest, but also the least interesting for reasons I'll get to in a bit.

Next is "five-card-draw" which, as the name implies, allows the player to discard unwanted cards (after an initial round of betting) in an attempt to strengthen their hand.  Once a second round of betting is complete, players who didn't fold (i.e. give up) reveal their cards.  This is the version of poker I'm most familiar with having played it a lot with friends and family using fake casino chips or small snack items (like pretzels) in lieu of actual money.

Hand that bad, Riker?
By far the most famous version of poker today is the community card variation, often taking the form of "Texas Hold'em."  In this style of poker each player is dealt two cards face down called the "hole."  After an initial round of betting three cards are placed face up in the middle of the table, the "flop."  These cards are shared by everyone when it comes time to determine the strength of each player's hand.  After the "flop" there is another round of betting, followed by the confusingly named "turn," which consists of adding one additional face-up card to the center.  Yet more betting is succeeded by a fifth and final card added face up in the communal center known as "river."  Only after one final round of betting do the remaining players show their "hole" cards in order to determine the winner.  Obviously, this more complex version of poker provides more opportunities to bet; four times to be exact as opposed to twice in five-card-draw, or just once in straight poker.  Generally speaking, more rounds of betting means more chances to bluff, semi-bluff or value bet.  As folks like to say in poker play the player, not the cards.

Psychological aspects aside, the visible community cards in Texas Hold'em allow for a great deal of strategization by considering probabilities and making educated guesses.  Capturing all these layers to the game in a piece of entertainment software can be pretty tricky.  The basic mechanics of poker are clear-cut enough to be easily coded, and if you only allow the game to be played by real people then one can simply circumvent the tricker part of player interaction.  However, what do you do when it comes to a human player against AI opponents?

While I'm sure there are earlier examples, the first time I can remember coming across a product that had distinct poker playing AIs was Celebrity Poker.  Released in 1995 and staring three B-list actors (including Jonathan Frakes a.k.a. First Officer William Riker in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation), the game allowed the player to choose from several different versions of poker, but I don't know if there was any real difference between the three AI opponents.

The game is set in 1899, but Texas Hold'em
wasn't actually invented until
the early 1900s...
A better and more recent example is the Governor of Poker series which began in 2008.  Basically a Texas Hold'em simulator (with some side activities that can be done away from the table), Governor of Poker has noticeable variety in terms of how each AI opponent plays the game.  It's even possible to enrage an AI opponent by revealing that they were bluffed into folding.  Once an AI opponent is enraged it's easier to exploit them further by luring them into making overly aggressive mistakes.

Two years later Red Dead Redemption came out, taking what was a stand-alone piece of entertainment and reducing it to a mini-game.  Unlike Governor of Poker, I don't think it is possible to aggravate AI opponents into make bad bets.  That said, they do seem to change their strategy a bit depending on whether or not they won the last hand.  Both Red Dead Redemption 1 and 2 have a bug/feature wherein the AI will usually "call" all-in bets by the player.  Personally, I believe this purposely exists so players can clean house if they happen to get dealt a really good hand.

Well, that about wraps it up...what's that?...what about video poker?  Here's the thing, even though video poker does have some superficial similarities to five-card-draw, that game is really more of a re-skinned slot machine (complete with the one-armed banditry those insidious devices are known for).  On the other hand, I'd advise against wagering real money regardless if it's craps, roulette or any other form of gambling.  Trust me when I say there are better things to spend your cash on.  That said, as long as no real currency is involved what's the harm in playing a few hands of cards?   

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