Just How Skill-Dependent Power Up By PokerStars Will Be Remains To Be Seen

Will The Latest Product Innovation From PokerStars Deepen The Game Of Online Poker?

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Over the course of the past two-and-a-half years, PokerStars has released a number of new online poker formats, most of which shared a common thread: They traded off the skillful elements of the game in favor of frenetic gameplay and a higher reliance on RNG.

But from the looks of it, its latest innovation looks to be traveling down an alternate path.

Instead of a dumbed-down version of No Limit Hold’em, Power Up — which entered Alpha testing on Tuesday –adds an extra dimension of gameplay to the core game.

Here’s our take on PokerStars’ first attempt at bridging the gap between eSports and online poker.

A new poker game, not a poker gimmick

This isn’t the first time PokerStars has combined two gaming verticals, the quintessential example being Spin & Go’s.

But unlike Spin & Go’s, which incorporate a slot machine gimmick but are otherwise just a hyper turbo sit & go, Power Up adds what appears to be a deep, card-based mechanic that will impact the decision-making process just as strongly as a player’s initial holdings.

The new game also stands in stark contrast to another recent PokerStars innovation, Beat the Clock.

That game, which uses the Zoom (fast-fold) format as a basis, adds a dynamic where all tournaments end in five minutes, and prizes are distributed according to chip counts.

But it doesn’t evolve the actual game of online poker in any measurable fashion. Power Up just might.

Colleague Steve Ruddock may have summed it up best:

“Power Up might appeal to people who enjoy skill-based games and see Power Up not as a new poker variant, but as a game based on poker.”

Breaking down gameplay

At present, the finer details of gameplay are spotty.

What we can glean from the game description and media posted on the PokerStars blog is the following:

  • Much like the Spin & Go’s, Power Up is a three-handed sit & go, spread across the No Limit Hold’em format.
  • Players have access to a number of cards, which grant the player special powers. Each card is assigned a point value, with higher value cards presumably more impactful than their lower value counterparts. One example is the Disintegrate card, which has a value of “4” and reads “Destroy a targeted board card dealt this street.”
  • There are presently nine cards, although PokerStars makes a point to note that these are Alpha assets, and not necessarily representative of the final product.

There are some open questions as well:

  • It is unknown at which points in the hand a card can be used.
  • The card selection process has yet to be detailed. Given that there’s a numerical value next to player names, we suspect that players are allocated a point pool at the beginning of the match, which can be spent on special powers.
  • The blind structure and starting chip stack were not provided. In a screenshot, the chip counts were all 1,760 and players were betting 80 chips, which presumes a somewhat deeper structure, although these values could have just been chosen randomly.

Power Up bears more than a base similarity HoldemX, a product unveiled by Global Poker Index owner Alex Dreyfus just over one year ago.

It is unknown if Dreyfus was involved in the creation of Power Up.

How skillful is Power Up?

While there’s little denying that Power Up will be a more nuanced and complete game than previous PokerStars innovations, the presently-unknown variables will ultimately determine the skill vs. luck ratio.

These variables include:

  • Blind structure and chip counts: The shorter the stacks and the faster the blinds, the higher reliance on luck.
  • Card balancing: Even major video gaming corporations struggle to balance power between classes/cards in their games. PokerStars will face a tall task here. If select cards are deemed too powerful, they’ll be used universally, diminishing the skillful nuances of the product.
  • The rake: Even if Power Up tends toward the more skillful side, PokerStars can easily make the game unbeatable by imposing an oppressive rake structure. In reality, there’s nothing stopping the operator from slapping on the slot machine mechanic from Spin & Go’s. What results is a brutal effective rake and higher variance.

Personally, I’m most concerned about card balancing, as even professionally developed products such as HearthStone struggle in this area (lower value cards are arguably far stronger, on balance, than higher value card).

One option is to severely limit the number of available cards, but that too, diminishes the skill aspect of the game.

Power Up is in a closed Alpha state, and is currently being tested by a select number of US-based play money players.

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- Robert DellaFave is a game designer and avid poker player. He writes for several publications centered on legal US online poker and the regulated online gambling industries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
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