In my last article I talked about how some players have misconceptions about whether and why poker is beatable for some players. The essence of a poker game’s beatability (by strong players) boils down to whether the relatively static per hand rake can be overcome with enough meaningful decisions per hand.
A decision is just a choice in the game. A meaningful decision is one where two reasonable players could make different choices. Choices that are too obvious don’t make the game beatable because nearly every player will make these choices the same way. It’s almost as if there were no choice at all.
If you want to be a long-term winner in a poker game, prefer games that have more meaningful decisions per hand. No-limit hold’em has lots of meaningful decisions per hand, and so it’s certainly beatable for sufficiently skilled players.
Many players try to avoid shorthanded games. If you’ve played poker online in a cardroom, you’ve seen games break once they get down to five- or six-handed. Say the game starts nine-handed. Then someone goes to dinner. Then someone goes to smoke. Then someone else goes walking. And now one or two of the players are uneasy with the six-handed game and start complaining. When the game isn’t restored to full quickly, they get up. Now the game is four-handed, and a couple more players begin to complain about the situation. The game breaks.
First, let’s consider a game with a time charge rather than a per-hand rake. Say it’s $10 per half hour. Consider a ten-handed game. Most of the time you will be dealt a hand too weak to play preflop. You will have to fold. Often this won’t be a meaningful decision — it doesn’t take a genius to fold 10-4 from under the gun.
You may easily have less than one meaningful decision on average per hand dealt.
Now consider a three-handed game. Now most of the time you will be dealt a playable hand. Almost every hand will involve a meaningful decision, and many hands will give you two, three, five, or even more meaningful decisions. Your average meaningful decisions per hand will be much more than one.
Meanwhile, you are actually paying considerably less “rake” per hand, as you pay a fixed time fee but get more hands per hour in the shorthanded game.
This is why shorthanded games are much more beatable by skilled players than full games are. The players who shy away from shorthanded games may be right to do so—because they don’t win or barely win in the full game, and when the number of players drops and the number of meaningful decisions shoots up, their skill deficit costs them more and more.
When the game is raked per pot, the calculation is more complicated because now you have to pay more rake. But even so, in most cases, the increase in meaningful decisions per hand more than makes up for any extra rake.
In general, short-handed games are more beatable than full-ring games.
Games like draw lowball and razz are games that are played using a different hand ranking than traditional poker games. In these games, the lowest hand wins the entire pot.
In general, with all else equal, the traditional hand ranking offers more meaningful decisions than the lowball hand ranking. The traditional ranking allows for flexible drawing hands like one pair hands that also have the ability to make much stronger hands like straights or flushes.
This flexibility creates situations where it might be right to bluff, it might be right to just draw, or it might be right to fold, depending on the situation. These situations make for meaningful decisions.
In the lowball games, however, everyone is always drawing to the same type of hand. If your opponent is ahead, no miracle flush draw on the river can save you. If your opponent is too far ahead, you can easily be drawing dead.
In general, in lowball only games, there are more rote decisions that every reasonable player will approach the same way. Fewer meaningful decisions make these games less beatable.
This problem was addressed when single draw lowball draw games were displaced in favor of triple draw games. This change exploded the number of meaningful decisions per hand, because now instead of two betting rounds and one draw, there are four betting rounds and three draws.
Another change that introduced meaningful decisions to the lowball games is when traditional single draw limit draw lowball is played as a no-limit game. Because bet-sizing is key part of any no-limit game’s strategy, they will always have more meaningful decisions per hand and therefore offer more ability for skilled players to gain an edge.
Finally, the mixed game players invented split pot versions of the lowball games like badacey and baducey. These are games where the pot is split between the best five-card lowball hand (badacey played ace-to-five and baducey played deuce-to-seven) and the best four-card badugi hand. These rule variations add yet more meaningful decisions on top of traditional deuce-to-seven triple draw, because now the drawing decisions are more complex, as are the decisions about whether to stay in to play for half the pot.
A game like baducey is filled with meaningful decisions per hand, and therefore are strongly beatable by skilled players.
The key to designing a good poker game is to make the game beatable, but not too beatable. You want skilled players to be able to win over time. This is the carrot that gets everyone playing the game in the first place. Not many players would stick with a game that is too simple and transparent and offers too few meaningful decisions.
But if you jam your game with too many meaningful decisions—imagine shorthanded no-limit baducey—the skill difference between the better and worse players will translate into enormous edges. The good players will win quickly and the worse players will get crushed.
No one likes getting crushed. If your game has too many meaningful decisions per hand, most players eventually figure out that they’re outclassed and simply don’t want to play.
If you are playing a popular game like no-limit hold’em, it pays to think in terms of meaningful decisions per hand. If you want to get better, you need to identify the most meaningful decisions that come up regularly and study them. Make sure you are making the best choices in these situations.
Furthermore, when players want to make changes to the game like vary or cap stack depth, add or remove players, add straddles, make some betting rounds limit or pot-limit, and so forth, you can think in terms of meaningful decisions per hand to decide how the rule changes will affect the “skill versus luck” balance.
If you are playing an unfamiliar game in a mix, or if you are coming up with your own variations in home games, thinking in terms of meaningful decisions per hand is powerful. This simple heuristic will point you in the right direction in unfamiliar territory. ♠