I never attended a regular poker game in high school or college, and frankly didn't think much of the game until a couple of years ago when a friend suggested we get some people together to play.
Right now, poker is experiencing a resurgence in popularity thanks to televised tournaments like the World Series of Poker and Celebrity Poker Showdown. I take a fraction of a speck of pride in the fact that my interest in the game came before the current television-fueled crazy, but honestly, I'm following the poker zeitgeist. Besides, watching an actress like Maura Tierney clean out celebrities who play regular poker games has its own perverse pleasure.
The problem with poker, of course, is that it's a shared game, and as such, it's not easy to wrangle five or six friends (most of mine being busy freelance writers or artists) to commit to an evening of cards. One option is to get onto an Internet game, but I'm discovering that I'm not a great poker player, which makes me feel strange playing live poker with real people, even if they're thousands of miles away. I'm also not excited about losing real money.
Mostly, I just like to play. Whenever the urge hits to wager some make-believe cash, I've recently turned to two poker applications that run on the Mac. In this installment, I'll take on Donohoe Digital's DD Tournament Poker; in a future article I'll put Scenario Software's iPoker to the test.
Know When to Hold 'Em -- If you haven't been following along with the poker craze, it's currently dominated by a variant called Texas Hold 'Em (or just Hold 'Em). Each person is dealt two cards face down, and everyone bets or folds. Then, three cards are dealt face up (also known as the "flop"), which are shared among the players, followed by another shared face-up card (the "turn"), and finally one more shared, face-up card (the "river"). (I have to admit that part of the allure of poker for me is its terminology.) Betting occurs between each round, and the best combination of five cards out of the seven total wins the hand.
As played in tournaments, Hold 'Em works well for large groups, as it involves several betting opportunities and a series of mandatory antes (known as "blinds") that raise the stakes. The blinds not only increase after a set period of time, but they also rotate around the table; for example, the person sitting to the left of the dealer has to put up a "small blind" before the cards are dealt (say, $10 in chips), while the next person to the left puts up a larger amount, known as the "big blind" ($15). This system prevents a player from simply folding their cards at every hand and keeping their stash of chips. The person with all of the chips at the end of the game is the winner.
In DD Tournament Poker 1.2, a tournament can involve any number of computer opponents: the normal Card Room setup involves 40 players, while a re-creation of the 2004 World Series of Poker tournament includes 2,576 players. You can also play a Heads-Up game, which is you against just one other opponent.
The interface is a top-down view of one table, which holds 10 players. As players go broke, other players are brought to your table in larger games.
As you can imagine, the level of coordination required to keep track of all these players and chips is ideally suited for a computer. A list at the top-left corner of the screen keeps tabs on the number of hands dealt, how many players and tables are active, and your ranking in the overall scheme. To my surprise, this little bit of information does a good job of making me feel like I'm part of a bigger enterprise; at times I've been in second place, but had the highest chip count at my table, making me wonder who else out there was on top. (Hey, imagination is the best part of any game, right?)
Computer Skill -- Keeping in mind that I don't have a lot of real-world Hold 'Em experience (I've played just home games, never in a real casino), the artificial intelligence in DD Tournament Poker seems formidable. You can choose between Low, Medium, and High levels of skill for the computer opponents. At the Medium and High levels, computer players will try to bluff more often, raise bets more frequently, and note your past performance in a game.
I typically play with Medium-level opponents, who sometimes manage to tease my chips away from me by betting small amounts when they hold a strong hand, which encourages me to try to bluff them by betting large. But often a bluff will work: especially earlier in a game, it can be easy to "steal the pot" by raising to three or four times the current bet, forcing the other players to fold.
What's missing from a computer game are "tells," often non-verbal cues that signal when a player has a good hand or is bluffing. For example, in a computer game you can't see someone lean back in his chair when he has a good hand, or scratch his nose when he's bluffing. To professionals, tells are as much a part of the strategy of playing as knowing which cards are likely to produce a strong hand.
However, you can pick up a few electronic tells based on the computer opponents' behaviors. Some players raise often, and if the hand reaches the final card without everyone else folding, you can see whether the player was bluffing or not. Unfortunately - at least as far as I can tell - individual players don't exhibit consistent behavior. Albert (they're all shown with just first names) may play aggressively in one game, then timidly in another. So you can't base your past performance against Albert the next time he shows up at your table. (Version 2.0 of DD Tournament Poker, which is due 05-Aug-05, promises improved AI behaviors and settings; purchasing the current version after 20-Jun-05 will get you a free upgrade to version 2.0.)
Keep Your Hands Where I Can See Them -- What would a card game be without the potential for cheating? You may not be able to hide an ace up your sleeve, but DD Tournament Poker offers several cheat options intended to help you improve your game.
One frustration of poker is that if you fold, you don't get to see everyone else's cards to know whether your hand could have beat them or not. This rule prevents everyone from knowing if you were bluffing or not, and often encourages real players (me included) to stay in with a weak hand to see what comes after the flop, the turn, or the river. The program's cheat options include the capabilities to show the winning hand, show the hands that folded, and to show all of the community cards - so you can smack yourself when you realize that your meager two of spades and four of hearts could have turned into a hand-winning straight, for example.
More powerful is the option to peek at other players' hands. With this feature enabled, moving your mouse over an opponent's cards displays them. The computer won't be able to bluff you then, though you can still lose a hand by not knowing which cards are coming up before they appear. Lastly, you can also choose Never Go Broke, which sneaks half of the tournament leader's chips into your pile at the next hand. Kids, don't try this at home!
Poker Night -- DD Tournament Poker is designed for solo play, but you can also use it to help you host a home tournament using Poker Night mode along with real cards and chips. It displays a large digital clock that counts down the current level, and lists the amounts for the current blinds. This feature lets you keep a home game in check, raising the blinds at set intervals so you don't end up playing all night long. The preset poker games are tailored for different levels of play; Poker Night 1, for example, is set to last approximately 3 hours, whereas Poker Night 2 will last 4 hours or more.
You can also configure a poker night game to your specifications, setting the amounts of the blinds, the number of rebuys (if someone loses their chips, they can put up more money to get back into the game), and how the prize pool is allocated at the end of the night.
I haven't had a chance to conduct a live Hold 'Em tournament, so I can't say much more, but I like the fact that the computer is handling some of the aspects that someone might easily lose track of during the night.
Draw, Pardner -- DD Tournament Poker includes a number of other features that don't require much explanation. You can choose different card back designs, or use your own (though specifying my own image slowed down card dealing performance). A preference displays hand information, giving you the odds of winning based on your current hand strength. You can also choose to view your cards only when you pass your cursor over them; this option helps you memorize your cards and resembles real-life play, where you typically look at your cards once and then leave them face-down on the table. The sound effects are nice and subtle, and you can adjust their volume level. An option for background music is also available, but I turned that off after launching the program for the first time.
DD Tournament Poker is a Java application, so the controls don't have a Mac feel to them, but this isn't a big deal: the buttons needed to play (Bet, Fold, Call, etc.) all work by typing the command's first letter; the only time I ever need to touch the mouse is when I'm saving a game to resume later or access the program's options.
If Texas Hold 'Em is your poker game of choice, DD Tournament Poker is a great computerized version of it. I especially like that it's not just a card simulator - the developer has engineered the game to be a digital tool for preparing you for the real thing, for those who have the nerve to play against human opponents. Perhaps someday soon I'll venture out to a local casino (of which there are now several in Washington State) and see if my training has paid off.
DD Tournament Poker is well worth the $30 registration fee. A demo version is available as a 9.5 MB download, which limits each game to 30 hands.