Ultimate Texas Hold’em indeed ultimate test

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I consider Ultimate Texas Hold’em (UTH) to be the ultimate casino game. I don’t say that just because I played a part in its creation. I played no part in the creation of video poker, but still consider it to be a transformational creation for the casino. What makes UTH as close to perfection as possible is its unique betting structure.

It was a lot of years ago that Roger Snow brought to me the first version of the game. The Texas Hold’em boom was well under way. Another company had created a successful table game variant – Texas Hold’em Bonus Poker (THBP) – and Roger’s own version, Big Raise Hold’em, had not fared well.

For those not familiar with the invention process, it is rather rare to have all aspects of a game worked out on the first attempt. Even if the game mechanics seem fine, there are many aspects of the math that come into focus as the analysis begins. It is not just about the payback. Imagine the game of Three Card Poker, if the fold rate was 45%. Would the game still be as much fun with the player throwing away his hand nearly half of the time? Probably not.

In a Texas Hold’em game, there are many moving parts compared to Three Card Poker. In the original poker game, you get two cards and make a decision. Then three community cards are dealt and you make a decision. Then the turn card and another decision. Finally, the river and yet another decision.

In order to make the game more amenable to the table game space, it was decided the last two community cards would be dealt together. While this may change the feel of the game to the purist, this greatly speeds up the table game version, and since you are playing only against the dealer the impact is minimal.

The more obvious version of a Texas Hold’em table game would simply have the player make an initial wager and then get his cards. He would then make additional wager(s) after two cards, five cards (the Flop) and perhaps after seeing all his cards. Of course, this would have also made UTH a lot more like THBP, and Roger was looking for something different.

As we were working on about version 42 of the game, it was at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night (east coast time) when Roger suggested a betting structure of allowing the player to wager more earlier in the game and as he got more cards, he would be allowed to bet less and less. I had to give this quite a bit of thought as the math on this betting structure is a lot more difficult than the traditional Bet/Check or Bet/Fold decisions.

Now, what you do earlier has an impact on what you can do later and vice versa. If this was a three card game, I could run every possible scenario. But with seven cards for player and dealer, the analysis was going to be daunting.

In the end, UTH was the most complex game I ever analyzed. My final report has a “simplified” strategy that almost no human could truly follow. If you could play it computer perfect, the payback may go as high as 99.75%. The more complex the strategy, the closer the payback could get to 100%. But would casinos really put in a game that has an established “playable” payback at 99.25%-99.5%?

Casinos were already changing the payouts on blackjack to 6 to 5 to avoid its 99.5% payback. The reality is UTH’s strategy makes blackjack strategy look like child’s play. But the real secret would only reveal itself after the game went live and began to get more successful.

It is really a two part secret. Allowing the player to bet 4x after seeing only his two hole cards turned out to be a blessing and a curse; 4x is a LOT of money to most players. If you’re playing at a $10 table, you already have $20 down ($10 Ante and $10 Blind). Now, you have to think about wagering another $40 having seen only two cards!

If the game of UTH was built like THBP, the player would be making a Play/Fold decision here, but UTH was built so the player could simply check at this point. We know from watching people play, they check at this point way more often than they should. That is what makes UTH the perfect game.

The player always sees his full hand before having to decide to fold. As a result, the number of hands the player actually wins is pretty close to the amount he should theoretically win. Sure, some players will fold hands they should not, but not many.

What does change from the theoretical is how much a player wins when he wins. A player has a strong pocket hand but chooses not to wager 4x when he should. In the end, he wins the hand, but only wins 2x or 1x. He is as happy as can be, but in reality, he’s killing his bankroll – all on a 99.5% payback game!

The player is happy. The casino is happy. What more could you ask for!

About the Author

Elliot Frome

Elliot Frome’s roots run deep into gaming theory and analysis. His father, Lenny, was a pioneer in developing video poker strategy in the 1980s and is credited with raising its popularity to dizzying heights. Elliot is a second generation gaming author and analyst with nearly 20 years of programming experience.

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