PokerStars launched its latest novelty format, Swap Hold’em, for dot-com players this week. As the name suggests, it’s a bit of a mix of conventional Texas Hold’em and draw poker.
Unfortunately, like many PokerStars innovations, it won’t be available to American players for now. And it may be a while before that situation changes.
In Swap Hold’em, players are dealt the usual two hole cards. The flop, turn, and river are also dealt in the standard fashion.
The only twist is that when the action is on them, players have the option of exchanging one or both hole cards before making their decision.
Each player can only do this once per hand, but whether and when to do it is at their discretion.
Since early 2018, PokerStars has been adding newly invented or non-standard games to its dot-com client on a temporary basis.
There have been eight to date, each usually lasting for a few months before being removed:
Innovation is difficult in the poker world. New concepts are often met with initial enthusiasm only to sputter out after a few months.
PokerStars’ strategy was to embrace that and introduce new formats with the express intent of pulling them before players lose interest.
Some met with a better reception than others. Consequently, “temporary” hasn’t always meant the games are only available for a limited time.
The 6+ Hold’em format, already familiar to some players, ended up becoming a permanent feature on most of PokerStars’ sites due to the amount of traffic it generated. Tempest, an all-in-or-fold version of Deepwater, still remains in the lobby despite the latter’s removal.
Fusion, the most successful of the truly original games PokerStars has tried, recently made a second appearance. It was then removed again to make room for Swap Hold’em. However, it and Showtime continue to be included occasionally on the schedules for major tournament series.
Given Fusion’s success, it’s not surprising that PokerStars would want to replace it with something similar.
Part of what made the game so popular is that hand equities run very close on the early streets, even more so than in Omaha. That means that optimal strategies end up being quite loose-passive, which makes for a more fun game.
Swap Hold’em is similar, in that players have access to up to four hole cards, but only know two of them up front. Furthermore, players usually want to hold off on swapping as long as possible.
Both these facts mean that players will end up seeing more streets per hand and the average pot size will be larger. That appeals to both recreational and professional players.
What’s new about Swap Hold’em is that none of the previous temporary variants allowed players any direct control over their own holdings.
Draw games themselves are not new, of course. In fact, they predate Hold’em. They haven’t been very popular in the modern poker era, however, so some of the strategies they produce won’t be familiar to players trying Swap Hold’em for the first time.
For one thing, the draw mechanic becomes an important part of bluffing in such games.
In a conventional draw game, standing pat before betting can make a bluff more convincing. In Swap Hold’em, a player who is all-in no longer has betting decisions to make and therefore no chance to swap cards. Once their chips are committed, they’re also committed to their hand.
That show of strength can make a bluff more likely to succeed, but it leaves the player without a backup plan if they get called.
Swap Hold’em has strategy dimensions beyond conventional draw variants, too. Where other games merely ask players whether to draw, Swap Hold’em presents the additional question of when to draw.
Games that present novel avenues of strategic exploration like this offer great value for clever players. Skill edges can run much bigger in a new game than one that’s been studied extensively.
That’s one more reason PokerStars’ decision to make these formats temporary is a sensible one.
There are no doubt many online poker players in the US who’d love a chance to try out such games. Sadly, there are a few factors that make it unlikely you’ll see them rolled out on PokerStars sites in Pennsylvania or New Jersey in the near future.
Regulatory hurdles are one problem.
Any new game requires approval before launch. Because the US online poker market is so young, regulators have less experience and are therefore likely to be hesitant about formats that aren’t already proven in other markets. Navigating that red tape also comes with a cost to the company, so the potential revenue has to be worth it.
At the moment, just getting to play on PokerStars is a novelty for US players. There isn’t the same pressure for the company to “keep things fresh” for them as there is from international players.
Most importantly, though, the current player pools on PokerStars’ US sites probably wouldn’t be enough to keep these novelty games running. Even a successful niche format tends to get only a few percent of overall cash game traffic.
For PokerStars PA, that would mean only the lowest stakes would run most of the day. In NJ, you’d be lucky to have two full tables at prime time.
Unfortunately, niche formats require more liquidity than state-by-state regulation can muster. It will require multi-state poker compacts like the one that currently exists between Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey before American players will be able to enjoy the likes of Swap Hold’em.
The US market is still growing and a lot of things are possible down the road. A lot depends on how the ongoing ongoing legal battle over the Wire Act turns out and whether the Department of Justice ever stops trying to fight against states that want to share player pools.
There are, however, some cash game options you’re likely to see long before that ever happens.
PokerStars already said it plans to launch Zoom fast-fold games in Pennsylvania. These were available in New Jersey at one time before being pulled due to insufficient liquidity. The PA online poker market should have an easier time sustaining the format.
Even 6+ Hold’em is a possibility. It was popular enough that PokerStars rolled it out across all regional sites except NJ, finding particular success in Italy.
If that happens, then the reception from players will likely inform the company’s decisions about other new formats down the road.