Doors Close on PowerUp Alpha: Lessons Learned (Part 1)

Short but sweet is the best way to describe PokerStars’ soft play-money launch of PowerUp poker. With a single buy-in level (1k in play money chips) available – conveniently low enough for any first time players to give the game a shot – PowerUp blasted its way across up to 100 simultaneous games for the few weeks. Innovative – sure? Prettier than normal NL – of course (explosions!) Issues – aplenty. Here’s (some) of what we’ve learned:

The PowerUp Cards need WAY more diversity.

The game was really fun for the first 10 orbits I played it. Everything was new and even though I’d read through PokerStars’ quick card explanations and tutorial – getting the hang of the game wasn’t instant. The was, until I realized that with PowerUp’s 9 seemingly different PowerUp cards – there was only 3 really different dynamics that emerged, and two of them were very similar.

You ended up either:

Milling through cards to create the best hole cards

Milling through cards to ensure your hole cards connected with the board

Milling through cards not really caring about your own hand but instead to try and f*@k up your opponent’s’ hand.

Engineer, Scanner and Intel all rely on one key dynamic – they all show you the future. Upgrade and Reload give you more cards. Clone just makes (if you’re smart) one of these again, and Disintegrate, Emp & X-Ray compromise your opponent’s’ hand strength. For 9 “different” powers, there’s only so much mix and match here in terms of desired results, and after a while that makes the game feel stale. There’s pretty obvious optimal outcomes, and players reasons for PowerUpping (new word?) become very predictable in general.  

To the game’s credit, each of these scenarios DID have nuance, and could be subdivided into situations that included semi-bluffing, leveling and etc. The main issue that stopped this nuance from being realized nearly enough was a. The shallow stack sizing – something which guaranteed that PowerUp enhanced multi-street play just didn’t happen too much and b. (this is a 2-parter) the fact that the board locked once an all-in occurs and PowerUp cards needed to be used before betting. Which leads us directly into the next two key issues:

Don’t lock the board!

It’s a bit upsetting that for a game meant to transcend normal NL and fuse poker with strategy card games, the final blow at the end of every biggest pot you play – is that the board becomes ‘immune’ from tampering and you just face a normal runout.

Why can’t you Disintegrate bad turns? Why can’t you decide to Upgrade your hand mid all-in when you see that you’re outgunned? What is the point of PowerUp when you need to fix your hand without any stakes involved – then be barred from tampering with it once the chips go in? Innovative small ball and normal all-in NL isn’t the road forward here.

The bets need to come first.

Here’s a scenario for you: You wake up with AJ offsuit on the button 3 handed and make it 2.5X to go while still in the first level. Standard. Your opponent uses Intel….then Upgrades….then Clones….then Upgrades AGAIN…then pushes all in. Are you really calling? (note: FOLD).

How different would this hand play out, and how much more excitingly – if you raised, opponent went all in, you called and THEN things went PowerUp crazy? It seems like something that only action junkies would be in favor of, but this is poker that has fireworks literally built into it. Action should be the name of the game (not really – “ActionPoker” just sounds dumb, but let’s move on).

Betting before the PowerUp cards jump into play would make this a reactive game, instead of one built on anticipation and – this could be bias – folding while opponents burn through their built-in edges one PowerUp at a time.

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