The best flop of the night.
Math majors have a few things in common: we’re huge nerds, we're legitimately crazy, and we play a nasty game of poker. Unlike seemingly more cerebral games like chess or Go, poker's most relevant pieces are the ones most hidden. Poker noobs see this as reading an opponent's tells, like when the fat guy scratches his second chin during a bluff or the third chin when he's bluffing
Nerdy math majors, however, know the real key to poker lies not in the lies of flesh and bone players, but in their betting patterns. Once that concept is scribbled on your hand, poker becomes as much a game of you against yourself as against anyone sitting with you.
This is where Stacked
finds its greatest strength. Via its use of the badly-named but ruthlessly efficient Poki
A.I. engine, it does a solid job of making you play a cagey, adaptive game of poker and rockets to the top of the heap of crappy console poker games, although that isn’t saying much.
Nor do the play modes, as the only poker game here is Texas Hold 'em. That means no stud variants, Omaha, Baseball, Follow the Queen, nada, so the single-player is already handicapped. What it does have is a choice between playing Single Table or Multi Table tourneys, which play out identically. There’s also the Cash Game mode, which is a Single Table tourney that starts you off with two grand, and if you lose all of it, cover boy Daniel Negreanu will boost you back to two grand. He's as infinitely kind as he is infinitely rich, because in Stacked, there's no such thing as Game Over. All that cash you earn through tournaments is at best a meaningless score with a "$" in front of it.
Earning those dollars is at least tougher here than in other poker games, though, thanks to the hardy artificial intel. Say you're first to act and have a mediocre pocket, like J-9 off-suit, and say you call the blind in hopes to see a cheap, lowball flop. In the case that anyone at the table raises pre-flop, you'd fold this hand and kiss a couple chips goodbye. But anyone at the table with a slightly better pocket, like a Q-10, will be thinking the same thing, so simply calling the blind when you're first to act is essentially either making more adversaries for yourself post-flop or inviting an aggressive player in a later position to take command of the timid pre-flop betting.
A generally smart play would be to raise in this early betting position and try to eliminate all the Q-10's or K-7's, then go one-on-one with a player with an A-Q or a pocket pair that, in all probability, will be a pair lower than your J-9. Any way you play this, hold 'em or fold 'em, Stacked
will make a note, and after you've gotten burned a couple times, so will you. This kind of critical thinking becomes second nature after a couple rounds, if it wasn't already. If you're enough of a poker addict to consider paying $30 for software that doesn't trump a $3 deck of actual, real, physical cards, that’s probably a good thing.
Stacked is thankfully smart enough to know the odds and a good hand in a certain betting circumstance, so you won't encounter any foolhardy bluffers. The players at the table range from the aggressive better to the patient folder. Fancy that. None of them are dumb, either, so figuring out how to play against any of them is as aqueous as you're going to encounter in a poker video game today.
That being said, it does have its holes. Check-raises are very powerful, usually winning you the hand, as will raising when you're the big blind regardless of what bet is front of you. This is especially true if you haven't gone all-in in a while, since Poki only tracks your performance from tourney to tourney, not overall. Poki is one of the best approximations of the intractable problem that is poker, but it has fundamental limitations when compared to a real player, such as lifelong experience. Apart from the occasionally insightful tips from Negreanu in the 25 minute pre-taped "Poker School," you're not really learning how to play poker, you're learning how to play Stacked. Once that dawns on you, all bets are off.
And once you're done with the long but repetitive career mode, you'll seek online play, which works the same as other online poker games since the Internet came out. The only main thing you'll notice is how everyone looks the same due to the slim set of character creation options.
The presentation has as much to offer as the character creator does. The chip stacks are small or non-existent and the feel in any of the three equally quiet locations is the same: everyone's broke, everyone’s bored and everything sucks. There are as few animations and models as there are sounds, so the fat guy with the Hawaiian shirt will be "Philippe" one game, then "Hank" the next. But it's got
to be the same guy! He's saying the same four things in the same voice! Someone stop this madness!
And video game poker publishers, that goes for you too. After the deluge of console poker games, it's easy to see why Stacked
would have the gall to have a blurb like "Halo with Chips" on the back cover or why Maxim, of all mags, would say such a thing. Probably because when compared to the likes of World Series of Poker
and World Poker Tour
, even Hello Kitty: Poker Party
would look like gold. Stacked is better than that fictitious mess, I think, and might be worth a rental if you'd like to see some decent poker-sim A.I. But to go all-in for something you could find for free on the Internet would be a bad bet. Even Poki could tell you that.