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Trying My Hand at Poker: iPoker

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If your knowledge of poker comes from watching television shows such as the World Series of Poker or Celebrity Poker Showdown, you might think that the only type of poker game is Texas Hold 'Em. (See my article from last week's issue, "Trying My Hand at Poker: DD Tournament Poker," for more details.)

<http://www.worldseriesofpoker.com/>
<http://www.bravotv.com/Celebrity_Poker_Showdown />
<http://db.tidbits.com/article/08141>

However, Hold 'Em is just the current popular variation in the United States (and to my surprise, poker still seems to be primarily a U.S. game, as one of our Japanese translators pointed out to me). Variations were played as early as the Civil War, and spread across America as settlers moved west.

If you're looking for more than just Hold 'Em on the Mac, you're looking for Scenario Software's iPoker. It features 101 poker games that range from simple 5-Card Stud to some that entail a bewildering array of rules, wildcards, and antes. For example, take a look at the iPoker description for the poker game called Baseball:

7-Card Stud is played with all threes and nines wild. When a three is dealt face up, the player must either match the pot or drop. When a four is dealt face up, the dealer immediately gives that player an additional face-up card. With eight wild cards and the ability to have more than seven cards in your hand, you'll need at least four-of-a-kind to win this game.

<http://scenario.com/iPoker/>

If that weren't enough, you can customize the rules to each game to an extent that I didn't realize was possible for a card game. Want to honor a three-card straight instead of the normal five cards? Use joker cards? Award chips to a player for being dealt a specific card? All easily done.

The Buy-In -- With so many games to manage, iPoker doesn't try to mimic the layout of a real poker table, aside from the look of the cards, the table surface, and the chips - all of which can be customized. Instead, players are listed top to bottom at the left of the program's single window. Cards are dealt in horizontal rows left to right, making it easy to see every player's cards.

iPoker also takes a more general approach to the game overall. It's one long ongoing marathon poker session, which you happen to be able to jump into and out of at will; when you quit the application, the current standings are saved, so that the next time you play every player has the same amount of money as before. This approach can be exhilarating if you've managed to hand out some bad beats to your opponents and stored up a mountain of chips, but it's depressing when you're thousands of dollars in the hole and fighting to just break even. Unfortunately, in this case the only way to start fresh is to delete iPoker's preferences file.

Having a rolling session simulates what you'd likely be doing at a casino, carrying your winnings (hopefully) from table to table trying different games, or simply playing a home game. You can choose the game type yourself, or enable a preference so that the dealer chooses the game. Unless you're familiar with all 101 games, or are comfortable losing a few hands to see how it's played, you can also limit the dealer's choice to just recent games.

The Rocks and the Fish -- iPoker can pit you against as many as 10 other players, though your screen resolution and processor seem to determine just how many are possible. On my 15-inch, 1.25 GHz PowerBook G4, I can play comfortably with five opponents using a Bigger Graphics setting, or eight opponents with a More Players setting but with slower performance. iPoker won't even let me choose 10 or 11 players.

Unlike the computer opponents in the current version of DD Tournament Poker, the players in iPoker retain their own skill characteristics. Claire Voyant (just one of several entertaining names) possesses the same playing traits each time you go up against her, making it easier to guess when she might be bluffing or holding a strong hand. You can tweak those traits, too, by double-clicking the player's icon and moving sliders that determine the strength of skills such as Poker Mathematics, Psychological Deception, and Betting Courage.

The players exhibit some personality as well. Each player is represented by a photo of a real person, which is animated if you enable QuickTime player movies. Watching them furrow their brows in concentration, grumble when they lose, and smile when they win is a fun addition... for a while. But there are only so many little facial QuickTime movies included for each person, so their antics became a distraction and I turned off that feature.

A clever, if unnecessary, feature is the capability to use an iSight or digital camera to project video of your own face on your player's icon. After a few minutes, though, you realize that you're looking at your cards and not yourself, and are likely to turn the feature off. If iPoker were a networked game, and I were playing against real people, it might be fun to see video of my opponents, but that's not the case.

The Sound of Winning -- One well-implemented aspect of iPoker is its animation and sound. I'm not a fan of whizzing graphics just for the sake of whizziness, which is why I think Scenario Software has done a good job of spicing up the play of the game with minimal, but effective, effects. Cards spin as they're dealt, with a subtle whiss sound of a card's surface sliding against another card. The chips sound as if the developers recorded real chips clicking together (although larger chip values hit the table with a heavier thud, which doesn't seem realistic but adds weight to the fact that you just tossed in a $100 chip instead of a $5 one). There's even some calculated whimsy: if it's your turn and you're taking too long to act, the icon of the dealer's hand snaps its fingers once, then twice, then three times to make sure you're paying attention.

Best of all, you can control the speed of the animation via a slider, which by extension speeds up play overall. I don't need to wait for Rhonda Voo to figure out which move to make (especially considering that the decision was probably made in a few nanoseconds).

However, I quickly turned off the dealer's narration of the action. And although I like the sound effects, there's no in-game volume control. So, if I'm listening to music using iTunes at moderate volume, the sound of shuffling cards is louder than it needs to be. I'd like to see a simple volume control in an upcoming version, instead of having just the choice of enabling or disabling sound effects entirely.

Shuffle Up -- iPoker is a program that loves the game's seemingly unlimited capacity for variety. It's great for trying out different poker permutations, or just for those days when you have a few minutes to spare and want to pick up a few hands without investing the time in playing a full tournament-style game. iPoker 3.4.1 requires Mac OS X 10.2 or later and is a 36.2 MB download. The unlicensed version offers unlimited play, but only of 7-Card Stud; a license costs $30 and unlocks the full version of the game.

 

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