the artistry and psychology of gaming

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888 Poker

888 Poker

In addition to playing (and, of course, analyzing) video games, I also do play some other games as well. I’m a bit of a board game buff when I can find some others to play with, and I do love to play poker. Unfortunately, in my state, at-home poker games are illegal, so I’m restricted to what I can find in the form of free games online.

I’ve tried a lot of such games over time, and the problem I always run into is that the vast majority of games fail to adequately imitate the stakes of a real poker game. It’s impossible to learn about poker strategy or (in my opinion) have fun with the game if people are playing as if their money is fake and worthless – even though, in truth, it is. Many games try to mimic these stakes in different ways, either through lower-value tables that lead to higher-value tables or through limiting the number of times that players can “go out” in a given time period. Both these approaches, however, leave something to be desired. In the former, novice players are penalized because they are not yet good enough to win their way to the more serious tables, and they will never learn to be good enough to do so because they are not practicing with real skills. The latter, similarly, penalizes novices because losing limits how often you can play. It is impossible to learn when you are forced to stop learning every time you fail.

Not long ago, a friend of mine mentioned an online poker game I had not yet tried: 888 Poker. So, still frustrated from the majority of other online poker sites I’ve played, I downloaded it and gave it a try. The first thing I noticed was that it had all the accoutrements I had come to expect from other free online poker sites: “cash” tables, sit & go tournaments, pre-registered tournaments, table searches, and several different gameplay types to choose from. In those respects, 888 Poker was absolutely state of the art. What sets it over the top, however, for me is the presence of “video tables”. These are tables where you can actually connect via camera to the other players. That on its own reintroduces an enormous amount of the psychology of poker back into the game. The nature of online communication strips out a huge portion of the information necessary to learn to play poker well, but the video tables in 888 Poker reintroduce those elements. So, on that element alone, I was sold on 888 Poker.

There was more to like in 888 Poker than just that, though. I appreciated the game’s explicit acknowledgment of beginners. Many games are suited toward experienced individuals, both with the game of poker and with the software itself, and it can be difficult to navigate these games initially. 888 Poker opens up onto a view specifically for beginners, making it easy to navigate right off the bat. It could go a little further in explaining to the player specific elements of its terminology, but overall I found it more amiable to a beginner (to the software, not to poker in general) than many other online games I have played. It is also significantly more full-featured, featuring multiple avatars, lots of customizations, hotkeys, and an excellent view of the history of the table. As a user interface designer, I was also very appreciative of the game’s interface. It’s simplistic, without all of the bells and whistles that are frustratingly distracting in other poker games, but while still giving all the necessary information. Within a few seconds of joining my first table, it was abundantly clear how to read the table. I was also impressed with the pace of the game; online poker can sometimes drag quite slowly, but 888 Poker keeps a pretty fast pace.
But what about the game experience itself? My experience with the game’s cash tables was frustrating – it was the classic online poker problem of someone going all-in every hand because the currency value is nil. Outside the first couple hands in a tournament, however, that problem did not rear its head as much. That, then, brings me back to the mechanic under which I started this review: the tendency of online poker to fail to mimic the real dynamics of poker because most people do not have anything really to play for. On that measure, 888 Poker is passable; it is clear that strategy is impacted by the fact that people are not playing for real money, but it was not as clear as in other online poker games I have played. This is especially true on some of the higher-stakes tables. This surprises me given that, as best as I can tell, there is nothing limiting players from busting over and over again and coming back; however, it does seem that the tournaments do at least a decent job of approximating real poker strategy.

The game is not flawless; it does not do a great job of explaining which player wins each hand and why, for example. However, overall, I would not hesitate for a moment to say that 888 Poker is the best free online poker game I’ve played. It’s awoken the poker fan inside of me, so expect a broader article on the psychology of online poker in the coming weeks – it’s been brewing in my head for quite some time, and this seems to be a great time to let it out.

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