All In: Poker's experiment in esports with HoldemX


Much of the poker world operates in a kind of time lock these days. Operations like the World Series of Poker and the European Poker Tour innovate to some degree, appealing to their respective audiences, but the vast majority of other tours and entities utilize standardized variations of no-limit hold 'em tournaments across the board, doing their best to maintain the sometimes delicate status quo that has existed for the last five years.

The shutdown and subsequent exit of online poker from the United States in 2011 has had a dramatic effect on the poker ecosystem, both domestically and worldwide. While poker continues to grow in certain markets, the prevailing result has been fewer and fewer risk-takers going out of their way to court new players and improve the long-term outlook of the poker world.

Enter Alex Dreyfus, the CEO at Mediarex Sports & Entertainment. He and his company, who operate the Global Poker Index -- the most widely-recognized ranking system in poker -- have taken several big steps in that direction over the last year. The upcoming Global Poker League seeks to take poker in its current form and tailor it toward a wider mass-appeal platform, but another recent launch by the company looks to alter the game of Texas Hold 'em itself -- creating a hybrid with elements of poker and several different popular card games and esports that can appeal to all of the aforementioned communities.

That game is called HoldemX, and one of its core goals is to bridge the divide in appeal that exists between older games like poker and the booming and widely-varied world of esports. If successful, it might be just the creative shot in the arm that the poker world needs.

"We believe that after 12 years, the online poker industry -- across social, freemium 'real money' corridors -- needs to adopt new, fun and innovative games in order to bring back disengaged players, and effectively target new generations of gamers," said Dreyfus as the game's alpha officially launched in early February.

How the game is played

From the moment you sign up and launch the HoldemX alpha, there's an immediate realization that this isn't just another subtle online no-limit Texas Hold 'em variant. Once you're paired up with an opponent, you're taken to a screen of 15 cards, with various actions on them and green point values in the upper right-hand corner. These are the xCards, but before you get to construct your own collection you have an opportunity to ban your opponent from using up to three cards.

This element adds another layer of strategy, as you're given a budget of 45 points to spend on bannable cards. While the immediate inclination would be to ban three of the most powerful cards in the collection, the point values on said cards make it difficult to eliminate more than one of those top-level xCards.

Once the banning process is complete, players have two minutes to construct their deck of xCards with a budget of 90 points and a maximum of seven cards. In the 15-card set currently available, there are four classes of cards to choose from, broken down by color. Green cards alter or add cards to the board, blue cards alter or add cards to your hand, yellow cards replace board cards entirely and red cards control the pot. The more powerful the effect the card has, the higher the point cost -- making the construction of the deck the most important part of the game.

Once this process is complete, it's off to the table. Poker players will be very familiar with this presentation, opposite a single opponent with a bank of 1,000 chips to start. Each player has a three-minute time bank, akin to a chess clock, and if that player's time runs out at any point they automatically lose -- a process that keeps the game moving at a frenetic pace.

While poker knowledge will be an edge, the gameplay itself is vastly different from what's currently offered on real money online poker sites.

"HoldemX's ambition is not to become a new poker format," Dreyfus said. "This is a full new meta-game based on the principles of poker with an exciting added strategic layer. That said, one advantage of this is that it means we don't have to educate the existing Texas Hold 'em player base -- only to guide them to discover the X factor that this game brings. It brings more drama, more action and more fun without straying from the skill-based foundations of what makes poker unique."

After players are dealt their starting two-card hand, from a standard deck of 52 playing cards, there's a betting round. That's where HoldemX diverges from the standard game of poker; after each round of betting on a given hand, each player is given a chance to play one of their xCards, and if one player chooses to employ one such card from their deck an opponent always has the opportunity to counter with a card of their own. Each card can only be played once in a given match.

HoldemX's meta is being tinkered with fairly regularly, and the possibilities for gameplay in the future are only limited by the scope of the imaginations of the creators and players as more "xCard" decks are released. In addition to Alpha testing, HoldemX has been subjected to the scrutiny of some of the top minds in poker and other games.

"Since October, the game's mechanisms has been tested by dozens of the most advanced poker players in the world and top players from games like Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering," Dreyfus said. "We're thrilled by their first reactions. ... We believe we have the right foundation here from which to build a great franchise, one that will connect these communities and expose poker-based gaming as a viable esport property."

So what do these players think of HoldemX?

Jonathan Little, a two-time World Poker Tour champion and former WPT Player of the Year, jumped into the game headfirst -- and he isn't shy about sharing his early experiences with the platform.

"The first time I played it was a few months ago, and I got absolutely crushed," Little said. "This was before it was even made public. Once it became public, I just started trying new things. [You have] to figure out the things that you're doing that are good and the things that you're doing that are bad, you keep track of those things and you try to figure out which of the X cards, in this game, for example, work well with the other X cards."

Little has observed the strength in making three of a kind in the current meta of the game, but he also recognizes that certain elements will get buffed or nerfed to balance things out as HoldemX evolves. He's really enjoyed the process of learning the game from its very beginning, starting out on even footing with everyone else and developing strategies where there's little to no accepted way to win an exceeding percentage of the time. As time goes on, certain poker strategies will work better or worse than they would in a standard hold 'em game -- but there's already some evidence of game theory trickling into the gameplay.

"I started playing against some of my friends, who have also put in a decent amount of time on the game," Little said, "and they're starting to bluff with a lot of their X cards. That changes the game up a lot."

Little has been streaming his HoldemX adventures on Twitch, embracing the streaming format like so many of his fellow poker players and countless esports enthusiasts. Twitch has been an immensely powerful tool for poker players like Jason Somerville, who built a following from the ground up and cultivated such a big audience that he was able to obtain a sponsorship deal with PokerStars.

Poker players already crossing over

A willingness to embrace new things has helped several other prominent poker players to grow their brand beyond the game that made them famous. Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier also utilizes Twitch as a means to reach out to his fans as he plays, but his position might be the most unique of all in terms of crossover appeal.

"I was part of the esports revolution when it was still in its infancy," Grospellier said. "I was the first European professional video gamer when I moved to Korea to play StarCraft : Brood War in 2001. I also directly benefited from the poker boom to start my career, as I was casually introduced to poker by a friend in late 2003. I can tell you that the major factor for both 'boom' were definitely the technological revolution."

Grospellier has a prolific standing and résumé in the poker world, and a storied history in esports, but he has achieved a true distinction recently as the only player to be a concurrently sponsored as a pro in both poker and Hearthstone. He joined Team Liquid in November, making his return to competitive gaming -- albeit in a distinctly different environment from the one he left behind.

"I discovered HearthStone while it was still in beta test," Grospellier said. "I heard about it from my friend, and I instantly loved the concept of the game because it's very easy to learn, but you can constantly improve. It's just also a ton of fun, with the animations and Al. The strategy is really important and key, but there is still a randomness factor, which is great for replayability, and for the unpredictability and surprise element -- which is similar to poker, as anyone can really win. For example, for my first HearthStone official tournament after I joined Team Liquid, during the SeatStoryCup4, I went up against the recent World Champion of the BlizzCon Otskaka and had a 2-0 lead, before losing the series 2 to 3 in very close games."

The animations and certain luck elements, which are also quite present in the initial HoldemX build, can be huge factors in attracting amateurs that might otherwise be destined for boredom or utter domination by experienced opponents to a new game. It's the kind of thing that attracts a wide variety of players with a similarly wide spectrum of talent levels, and Hearthstone has already been a major hit with numerous people in the poker community.

Grospellier was happy to allow major enthusiast (and fellow Team PokerStars Pro) Daniel Negreanu to challenge him to a Showmatch at Blizzcon, and Negreanu -- who is notorious for throwing himself headfirst into his enthusiastic pursuits -- defeated Grospellier.

"Obviously, as a professional poker player, I like strategy-based games," Negreanu said of his love for Hearthstone in a recent interview with ESPN's Dan Szymborski. "For me, I just love the depth of that strategy. There are so many intricate decisions that need to be made, much like poker. The software was just so good and they hook you with the different ways you can play the game and the characters you can choose from. It's one of those games that looks like I'll never stop enjoying it and learning new things about it."

What does the future hold?

While it's clear that Hearthstone and other esports appeal to the competitive and strategic nature of poker players, it remains to be seen whether a poker-based game can reach beyond the boundaries of its current audience. HoldemX includes various animations that strive to make it more than just a static, boring, button-clicking boredom-fest, but there's a lot of work to be done in both the production and marketing of the game if it ever hopes to be successful.

The braintrust at Mediarex claims the poker market reaches more than 100 million casual poker players and that more than 205 million people watch esports globally. They've already shown their willingness to embrace the live-streaming capabilities of Twitch with the Global Poker League, and have plans to expand with a GPL X league based on the game if things continue to trend positively.

In a world where there's been a glacial pace to the growth of online poker, especially in the United States, the introduction of an online-friendly format with mass appeal could be a true game-changer.

It's just too bad for poker that there aren't xCards that can be utilized to change the hand they've been dealt from a murky legislative environment.