In this, the fifth and last article in this series looking at and upending conventional poker wisdom regarding home games, we’ll examine the commonly given advice to avoid wild card games.
Those of us who are serious poker players tend to love variety. Though we may have a favorite game, we love mixed games like H.O.R.S.E. or H.O.S.E. or the 10-game mix.
For those of us who like to exercise our poker creativity, best of all is Dealer’s Choice, where the dealer can pick any game, stretching the boundaries of standard poker games like hold’em, stud, and Omaha to include games with two or three rows of common cards, extra hole cards, or extra rounds of replacing cards, declaring high or low, or even passing cards from one player to the next.
But even players who enjoy creating their own games often draw the line at games with wild cards. “Wild cards” for those of you who don’t know, are cards that may have any value or suit as the holder declares — in other words, much like the Joker pictured above. If all deuces are wild, for example, a player with would have five aces. A player with would have a Royal. You get the idea.
Having wild cards in a game renders them unfit for serious players — according to conventional poker wisdom, that is. I guess people think having them so greatly increases the element of chance that a good player can no longer apply his or her skill to gain an advantage.
Wild cards certainly add a variable to a standard poker game. They change the nature of many games. But having wild cards does not inherently diminish the element of skill. In fact, in many situations, it actually increases the advantage that a thinking poker player has over those who treat poker as a game of luck.
This is true for three reasons chiefly:
1. Having wild cards take players out of their comfort zone
Home game players tend to learn the value of starting cards through broadly accepted standards as well as trial and error more than through computation or contemplation. Because of this, they often reach the wrong conclusions when playing a game with which they are unfamiliar.
They may know to start with premium pairs in hold’em, but they have no idea what a good starting hand would be if all deuces were wild in such a game. They might know that a big pair is a good starting hand in seven-card stud, but because they have rarely or never played wild card games, they might have no clue about how valuable one would be in Follow the Queen or “Low hole card wild.” This unfamiliarity is likely to produce errors — often stack-eliminating errors of which you, the thoughtful player, may take advantage.
2. Having wild cards makes the game more fun
By introducing wild cards into your panoply of home games, you will be adding the playful and fun aspect of the game that often goes missing in more conventional poker contests today. Players have learned, through television if nothing else, that no-limit Texas hold’em can be a very serious game in which players can win or lose millions and where skill is a major ingredient to success. Home games can therefore turn into somber, serious affairs as well as the skilled players grind down the less serious.
For the less serious, what’s the fun in that? And if there’s no fun in it for the less skillful, eventually they will stop coming, making the games less profitable for you. Better to have players enjoying themselves so they’ll continue to come and so they won’t mind as much their financial demise. Allowing them to call their favorite wild card game can help keep those home games bastions of amusement, making them profitable for you.
3. Having wild card games creates the illusion of randomness
Wild cards allow players sometimes to have their hands elevated far above their normal value because of the chance intervention of an outside force — namely, the wild card. Since the delivery of the wild card is random, non-thoughtful players believe this to be an equalizer. The skillful player has no better chance of getting this miracle card than the less skillful have, so those in the latter group believe their chances of winning are increased.
Such is not the case, of course. The existence of a wild card is just another permutation for the skillful player to consider in his or her strategy. But this illusion of randomness holds out the possibility of poker salvation sufficient to keep many bad players playing long after they might normally have stopped in a more conventional game.
Other points of consideration with wild card games
You should also know that not all wild card games are created equal. As you are considering existing wild card games, or fashioning new ones, recognize a couple of the basic principles that may add to or detract from your advantage at the table.
For one, generally speaking, the earlier in the game that a wild card is introduced, the greater the advantage to the skillful player.
Consider the inverse of this — a game where the wild card is determined on the last round of betting. Hand values completely change at this point, so all of the action prior to the wild card counts for very little.
For example, in the game “Fiery Cross” five mutual cards are arranged in a cross. The center card of the cross is revealed last, making that card and all cards of like rank wild. This hugely changes the nature of every hand. Also, by that time, the size of the pot may have been so engorged as to render any further strategy useless (all of the money could be in the pot by that time).
A more skill-rewarding variation would have the wild card determined in the first betting round, so the skillful player would be able to take advantage of this knowledge for the entire game as it unfolded.
Another point worth keeping in mind — the more wild cards there are, the less value there is to playing for the low in hi-low split-pot games.
One of the big advantages that a skillful home game player has over the less skillful is that the better player knows the best strategy for hi-low games is often to play for the low and let the high hands take care of themselves. This strategy is of little benefit, however, when the chances of perfect low hands increase with the addition of wild cards.
Poor players, focusing as they are apt to do on how high their high hand is, will often back into perfect lows, as the number of wild cards increases. So the skillful player’s standard advantage of only playing hands with perfect low potential and then free-rolling for high, becomes less profitable.
In sum, recognize that as rules become more complex, the skillful player tends to have an advantage. Better players will be able to figure out the twists and turns of even the most complex game, while their less skillful opponents will tend to get lost in the labyrinth, making costly mistakes from which the skillful can profit.
To the extent that wild cards make home games more complex, they increase the value of skill. The fact that wild card games also add to the general merriment and levity of the poker contest is an added bonus from which a good player can also profit.
Ashley Adams has been playing poker for 50 years and writing about it since 2000. He is the author of hundreds of articles and two books, Winning 7-Card Stud (Kensington 2003) and Winning No-Limit Hold’em (Lighthouse 2012). He is also the host of poker radio show House of Cards. See www.houseofcardsradio.com for broadcast times, stations, and podcasts.