In Praise of the Banana Games
Despite the seeming stranglehold that no-limit hold'em has on the poker industry (and culture) these days, there are, indeed, pockets where other poker games are holding their own. For instance, I was gratified to see pot-limit Omaha maintain about a 40% market share in the poker room at the Grey Eagle Resort and Casino in Calgary, Alberta. (Typical PLO situation — it's 60/40, including its market share in a Canadian poker room.)
In the online space, PokerStars certainly offers the most options for playing non-hold'em variants. After the aforementioned PLO, our most popular poker variant is actually a cocktail of poker games called "8-game." It's a mix of...
- no-limit hold'em
- pot-limit Omaha
- limit hold'em
- seven-card stud
- seven-card stud eight-or-better
- Omaha eight-or-better
- razz (seven-card stud played exclusively for low), and
- 2-7 triple draw
With the exception of the NLH and PLO rounds, all of the games are played with fixed limit betting.
These games have actually gotten a fair amount of currency recently as PokerStars Team Pro (and Twitch superstar) Jason Somerville has encouraged people to give them a try. And they've responded — sometimes building 700-runner fields for $1 8-game tournaments in his Home Game club on PokerStars. Jason calls them "banana games," presumably a reference to the sometimes crazy nature of such mixes (think of slipping on a banana peel).
PokerNews has invited me to write a series of strategy articles about banana games and I'm delighted to be involved. Why?
1. Mixed games level the playing field
The ascension and dominance of NLH have coincided with the availability of extremely powerful computing power to almost everybody. The game has been dissected and researched in a way that no prior poker game has been analysed, to a level almost akin to chess. In short, it appears that there are few secrets remaining about no-limit hold'em. The only difference is who has the knowledge. This is particularly true in the online space, where powerful software enables players to surgically categorise their opponents and find weaker ones in the blink of an eye; the gap between the "haves" and "have-nots" of NLH is huge (and, sadly, growing with every new software product).
Contrast this with the mixed game world, where a small number of true renaissance people play all the games well, but almost everybody is struggling some amount.
2. Fixed limit betting levels the playing field
Over a decade ago, I (and many others) publicly expressed concern that NLH would decimate the bankrolls of weaker poker players. There's a reason casinos and card clubs liked limit betting and avoided "big bet" games — in the latter, the mistakes that weaker players make are amplified; their money has a much shorter lifetime against good players. In fact, the casinos tried to keep no-limit hold'em out for a while, but the Rounders-Moneymaker-TV siren call was too great and the player-customers demanded it.
The poker industry is now paying the price for the almost exclusive popularity of no-limit hold'em; anything that will bring back limit betting is probably good for the game.
3. Mixed games allow you to develop your "poker muscles"
Playing these "banana games" can help you to develop and stretch poker muscles that you haven't used before or haven't used for years.
NLH, again because of the research that has gone into it, has (in some respects) degenerated into opening-hand charts, push-fold charts, and other distillations. Kangarooing all over the poker landscape forces you to break out that copy of David Sklanksy's The Theory of Poker ("ToP" to the old school folks) and remember (or learn) the fundamentals that drive our game.
4. Mixed games help you become a serious player
If you fancy yourself a "serious" poker player (i.e., one who's in it for the money), you better be able to play more than one flavor of the game.
About 20 years ago, I was fortunate enough to sweat Jennifer Harman as she played in a $500/$1,000 mixed stud game at the Bellagio (long story as to why I got that chair). As I watched the game change from stud to stud-eight-or-better to razz, I finally got curious. It was a time when limit hold'em was all the rage.
"Why," I whispered, "Is it all stud games?"
She tilted her head toward the #3 seat at the other end of the table. "Because 'Bob' likes to play stud, so that's what we play." No further explanation was necessary.
5. Mixed games are fun
Last, but definitely not least: mixed games are fun. Just as you're getting settled into one game, the next game comes along and stirs the pot. On your best (or worst) days, you don't notice that the game has changed (e.g., from seven-card stud to stud eight-or-better). That allows you to value bet your way through a pot, only to realise that your confident betting was based on the wrong hand ranking, and you've just bullied out by far the best hand. Never did a successful bluff taste so sweet.
I was at the PokerStars Festival in New Jersey in November and watched NLH expert Jonathan Little play in his first mixed-game tournament. He declared it the most fun he'd had in a poker tournament, including one of those "I'm playing the wrong game" bluffs.
So join me as I give a brief introduction to the games that make up PokerStars' 8-game mix and maybe you'll go dip your toe in our cash games or join a 700-runner $1 8-game tournament in Jason Somerville's Home Game club.
One caveat: I am not a mixed-games expert. But (and please take this the right way) I'm probably more of an expert than you are. I've played uncounted hours of seven-card stud variants, ace-to-five lowball (with a joker), and pot-limit seven-card stud eight-or-better. And yes, I learned limit hold'em at the feet of the masters and ultimately wrote a decent primer on the subject. Quite simply, I grew up in a time and place where you had to play the poker game that was available, and that could be about anything that can be dealt with chips and a deck of cards.
So while I have no business playing in $10/$20 mixed games when they break out, I hope I can teach you a thing or two about these games. Just please don't read this series and think that you are prepared to go jump in a $10/$20 mixed game.
I'll see you next time and we'll delve into a specific banana game. I hope you'll join us on this journey into the little-visited portions of the poker universe — you may find something new and unusual to love.
Lee Jones has played poker seriously since the mid-1980s and been part of the online poker industry since 2003, most of it (and currently) with PokerStars. He is the author of Winning Low Limit Hold'em, which is still in print, 22 years after its initial publication. You can read his occasional Twitter-bites at @leehjones.