Post-Move Randomness in Poker: A Lesson from Game Design

This article may be outdated. Get the latest news on Views here.

The fact that luck plays a valuable role in poker’s popularity is generally well-appreciated by most players.

The random elements of the game have a favorable impact on both the popularity and the accessibility of the game by providing the allure of a weaker player still winning reasonably frequently on any given hand and, reciprocally, providing a scapegoat for his opponent in that hand to blame the loss upon.

But would a version of poker with different degrees of randomness or different distributions of randomness result in even more mainstream popularity and accessibility?

Randomness in traditional game design

Mark Rosewater, head designer for the trading card game Magic: the Gathering, wrote an article, Kind Acts of Randomness, that provides a broad overview of the role of randomness in games.

Rosewater’s article focuses on casual board games and card games. But one idea in particular stands out in its potential relevance to poker:

Here is the next truism about randomness: the earlier the randomness occurs in the game, the better. Responding to early random events is fun. Having the end of the game hinge upon a random occurrence is not. In short, players are much more willing to endure random events if they have time to respond to them.

Pre-move randomness and post-move randomness

Randomness in ScrabbleFor example, in Scrabble, the only overt random element is the random draw of the tiles, an event which only occurs before each player’s move. Players always get a chance to react to this pre-move randomness by strategizing around the tiles they’re dealt, providing the opportunity for exercise of skill in nondeterministic gameplay situations as well as heightened engagement and interaction with the game itself.

Pre-move randomness can be beneficial in most games by producing diversity of play.

Poker, of course, has its strategic foundations built upon the pre-move randomness of the shuffle of the cards and would hardly be a game without it.

However, poker also has overt post-move randomness where the final cards dealt in a hand can occur after the pivotal strategic moves have taken place.

In particular, in a hand in which players are all-in on an early street, all strategic decisions precede the random event of the river card. While the hidden information in poker, tied from the pre-move randomness, is perhaps the biggest source of randomness in the game, the subtlety in this is likely much less salient to a casual player than the unmistakable short-term effects of the post-move randomness.

Unique randomness, unique impacts

Though both types of randomness may be similar from a rational risk management perspective and both even out over a long career of play, this design concept might suggest that the losses from post-move randomness sting harder psychologically than those from pre-move randomness.

Randomness in Game DesignOne might imagine the helpless or dissatisfied feeling of a player who busts out of a tournament on a lost preflop coin flip as compared to the self-reflective and critical player who busts out of a tournament on a strategic decision that they controlled, such as a big river call that didn’t work out.

Would poker be somehow better off if all of its randomness were pre-move rather than post-move?

To explore this question, let’s narrow our scope to tournament poker, where pre-river all-in situations are quite common and, more importantly, are the last point of engagement with the game that most players have before they lose.

The final moment of a play experience can have unduly large weight on the memories of the experience; see the psychological effect of the peak-end rule. As a result, any sort of game modification which created the feel of more control over the final part of the game or moved the uncontrollable experiences further away from the end of the game might produce better gameplay experiences.

That alone is a strong argument for reducing or rebalancing post-move randomness in poker. But it’s only part of the picture.

Game context is a critical factor

One important difference between poker and other strategy games is the context of the game, which Rosewater’s article highlights as important to a player’s acceptance of overt random elements.

He gives the example of the use of dice being seen as more acceptable in board games, where they are common, but less tolerated in card games, where they are less common. In the case of poker, the historical quirk of its marketing and framing as gambling should help prime the expectations of terminal luck dictating outcomes if not outright attract players with risk-seeking preferences who might enjoy the thrill of an in-game coin flip.

From this perspective, the post-move randomness in poker is not necessarily all downside, and the entanglement of poker and gambling may be a sufficient explanation as to why poker might not naturally evolve to follow the principles of broader game design.

Conclusion: Tweak the peripheral elements, not the game

Overall, poker benefits more than traditional games do by having at least some post-move randomness, and, in practice, it’s probably hard to have “enough chance” in poker (from any set of objectives) if all post-move randomness were unilaterally removed, such as by forcing all-in equity chops in cash games for all players.

Still, there may be more to explore in refining the balance of the impact of post-move randomness relative to pre-move randomness for different audiences.

This may have implications for tournament structure design, rewards program structuring, and conveying proper expectations through marketing.

Postscript: Poker’s randomness and related social value

A closing thought on this idea, paraphrased from and entirely due to Andrew Brokos, looks at this classification from the perspective of the social value of poker.

Games with random components are crucial tools in helping people truly understand probability, and each of the two types of randomness offer different rewards.

Pre-move randomness, as is common in many traditional competitive games, helps players develop their skill at dynamic decision-making under uncertainty.

Independently, post-move randomness, most exemplified in poker, while irrelevant to the idealized rational mind, serves as a crucible for building psychological and philosophical tolerance to events fully outside of one’s own control.

Each of these lessons are important to learn, and catering game design entirely towards pre-move randomness would lessen the positive impact of games. Poker is unique among popular games in our society and offers unique growth experiences for its players, and that may be the best way to keep it.

- Mike Stein is a mathematician and lifelong enthusiast of competitive strategy games. He writes about practical and theoretical applications of applied probability within and around poker at
Privacy Policy