Does Any App Play Straight Poker Anymore?
Apple's own "Texas Hold'em" app has left the App Store, but poker lovers can still get dealt in with a variety of other versions of the card game. However, it may be difficult to find a perfect replacement for all the things that Apple did right with its poker app: A clean interface, fast action and an absence of extraneous nonsense like worthless "achievements" and tricky in-app purchases.
11/28/11 5:00 AM PT
When Apple pulled its popular "Texas Hold'em" game from the App Store, I was moderately surprised, but then again, it's not like Apple was actively developing the game over the years. And besides, after racking up US$100 million or so against the Artificial Intelligence (AI) engine, it's been a long time since I've actively played it. But the move sparked my attention. Why did I stop playing, anyway? After all, I like poker, and I really like "Texas Hold'em."
While Apple's take on the game was pretty good, I realized that there were several reasons why I stopped playing. First, I lost interest. After you win $100 million, the thrill could be expected to wane, right? Plus, I realized that the AI, while pretty good, was also exceedingly annoying and couldn't be trusted. As I played on my iPhone, I started playing the AI and not the cards -- not the odds of the hand or my cards, but how I figured the AI would respond. For instance, make a major bet or go all-in, and all too often the AI will fold the hands of the players around you. Do it with some low off-suit cards often enough, and you know that strong hands are folding beneath the so-called power move you just made.
Similarly, if you let the AI players make small bets then go hard against them, they fold all the time, too. But then, further along you'll be doing everything right, by the book so to speak, and the AI will hand you a series of losses, including bad beat after bad beat -- so much so that you realize there's some other algorithm running the game, and it has nothing to do with a fair deal of 52 cards.
But hey, it's a game, and if you're going to head over to a real poker game with your buddies one night, I found it handy to play a bit before the real life game to get my brain in a "Texas Hold'em" frame of mind. A warm up.
Then there's time. The world is spinning faster than ever, it seems, and I don't have as much time to play games as I used to. But the nice thing with Apple's take is that you could play really quickly, folding lousy hands and making quick bets. There was little lag or waiting for the action to take place. I liked that a lot.
Fast Forward to Replacements
With Apple's game leaving the App Store, I wondered, "What am I missing out on? Are there a lot of great poker apps in the App Store? Surely there must be a worthy replacement if Apple pulled the plug?"
So I searched and started checking out a few likely replacements. What I found, for the most part on my first impressions, has appalled me. Many of the casino and poker games are cartoony, look cheesy, and they feature cluttered interfaces. You start out most games with the game prompting you to accept push notifications and location awareness. And I'm like, "Uh, no. I don't want you to send me push notifications. I want to play poker, not get a bunch of free chips, or special buy-in offers, or whatever messy things you have to take over my iPad or iPhone."
And then once you're in, there are tournaments, "cash" tables, and overlay messages sliding in front of your screen. Suddenly, you can be playing with other people online, with cash, except it's not really cash, it's fake game chips -- that is, unless you want to buy more fake game chips with your real Apple App Store account, which is easy enough. And because you're often virtually sitting at some cheesy fake casino-like table, I find that I don't particularly trust the app and the last thing I want to do is accidentally buy a gazillion fake chips for a very real $99 charge on my credit card that Apple has on file.
But you get free chips to play with just for showing up, and sometimes, if you play a hand and happen to be in the right place at the right time, you get rewarded with other free chips. Or maybe you play a hand, raise and then fold, and you get rewarded with experience points. I kid you not. In one game, I unlocked an achievement simply by playing a hand against an AI. One time there was a little party on my screen with a bunch of moving red streaming confetti things and I think I got $500 fake dollars added to my "account." I'm not sure what happened or why, really, but I do know that I'm glad it didn't spark a seizure.
The Games Are a Gaudy Mess
I'm pretty sure I'm too uptight for these games, because in one, the highly-rated "Poker by Zynga," nearly 300,000 people were playing during the very minute I was rubbing my forehead to stave off an oncoming headache. You know how casinos in Vegas so often stack their entrances with all the slot machine games and such, as if they're catering to the lowest possible denominator of human interest? Many of these games seem to eschew tasteful design in favor of gaudy color schemes, bad graphics and ugly playing cards.
I was disappointed with what I found.
Still, maybe I was just in the wrong frame of mind. Maybe I needed a beer and nothing to do at all. Serious time on my hands. So I tried to push away all the other things I could be doing, like watching the last episode of "Castle" that's recorded on my DVR (still haven't gotten to it) or revisiting Jack Bauer in the entire series of "24" episodes available on my new Kindle Fire via Amazon Prime. Or cleaning out my garage, for that matter.
What I Found
Beyond the messiness of the apps, I found that many of them have rich ecosystems built into them -- like the ability to play with your friends, chat with players, play in tournaments, and build up enough chips so that you could play with others in big-money games where the players most likely know a little something about how to actually play "Texas Hold'em."
So that's cool. Plus, the nice thing about playing with real humans is that you can trust the deck -- your hand isn't generated by an AI and the actions in response to you, like checking, folding or raising, come from humans making choices.
On the downside, you've got to wait for these humans to make these choices. If you fold a hand, you have to wait for the action to move around the virtual table, and some hands seem to drag on forever, especially when you folded a 2-3 off-suit hand right off the button. Two or three hands like that, and I want to start multi-tasking. But that doesn't work that well either because boom, I find that I'm up and I need to make a decision on a hand. With an AI, you can pause and speed things up any time. With real people, you've got a fast-ticking clock that forces you to pay attention, even through the dull spots. It's kind of like real poker without the fun of hanging out with your friends, eating chips, and watching football while sitting out a hand.
Then there's the fact that people come in and out of tables all the time. Is this guy next to you making a big all-in raise because that's what he should do with his cards? Or is his dentist appointment about to start and he has to get out of the game quickly?
What I've learned is that I'm not the right guy to give a good review and recommendation of a poker app. My game playing and poker playing habits aren't in line with the popular poker games, and a lousy review is unfair to the game makers who are appealing to a different demographic. I, as a man, might as well try to review a sports bra made for a woman. Sure, I can look at the material, stretch it and pull it, but I can't wear it and give you a real sense about whether it's a great sports bra. Does it breathe well? How's the support on the treadmill? Does it look good?
So when I play poker with these App Store games, I start out with my interests and expectations adversely pitted against what they are trying to do. I want a super-smart and fair AI engine that will let me play and stop immediately, do something else, then continue on. I want an elegant design that's super easy to fold, check and raise. I want the ability to play online with real people at any time, but I don't want to be handed some dumb little achievement for playing a hand and making a raise that causes the other players to fold.
I haven't found this yet, but if I missed a great game that's clean, easy and not out to get me to buy a gob of chips through in-app purchases, comment below and point me to it, please.
Meanwhile, I did find three poker games that didn't cause me to throw up in my mouth. They all have irritating features, but all three are definitely playable, seem to work pretty well, and might be worth your time to explore:
- "Texas Poker" by Kamagames (free)
- "Poker by Zynga" by Zynga, of course (free)
- "World Series of Poker Hold'em Legend" by Glu Games (99 cents)
If I had to rate these apps, I'd give them two out of five stars at best. But like I said, I learned that I'm no longer the right kind of guy to be reviewing poker apps. If you are, don't hesitate to chime in with some comments about what you like and appreciate about your favorite "Texas Hold'em" app. I'm sure there are at least a few readers who would appreciate direction from a true poker-app enthusiast.