Thursday, July 19, 2007

Parlaying Success

A couple of months ago I played several hands of Parlay. This is a Poker/word-game that I reviewed last year. I thought it was excellent then, and even though I couldn't put together a decent word to save my life in this recent game, I still enjoyed it quite a bit.

Parlay has a unique mechanism whereby you collect a hand of 7 cards from a normal 52-card deck, with each card also featuring a letter. Then you try and simultaneously put together a top-rate 5-card Poker hand and a good word of up to 7 letters.

After each player has assembled his final hand of cards, he then decides whether to stay (betting that he has a better total hand value than anyone else) or fold.

If a player folds he earns points equal to the value of the letters he used to form his word, and then he's out. If you have a decent ability to form words you can get 50 points a hand just by doing this.

If a player stays he must add up the total value of his hand. This is the value of the letters in his word, plus a length bonus for words of 5 or more letters. Then the players compare their Poker hands, and whoever had the best Poker hand gets to add the value of his letters again. But, this is an all or nothing affair: whoever stayed and had the highest total value gets all his points, while everyone else who stayed doesn't get anything, not even his letter points.

My review includes a picture of a nice example. One player formed the word "quirt", which is worth 55 points for its letter, plus another 15 for its length. He also had three 2s which won the Poker hand, giving him 55 more points for a total of 125. The other player formed the word "deposit", which earned 50 points for its letter, plus 100 for its length. His Poker hand was just a pair of Queens, so he didn't get the Poker bonus, but his 150 points still beat the other players 125.

Chaos, Risk, and Reward

In talking about our recent game, a few players opined that it was too "chaotic" or too "lucky". They felt like they couldn't accurately assess whether their hand was good enough to win or not, and thus whenever you decided to stay it was a crap shoot.

I disagreed. I don't find Parlay chaotic or lucky; I find it heavily dependent upon risk/reward. Players can stay in with a half-good hand because they hope it's good enough to win, but the lower the point value they stay in with, the higher the chance they lose out.

The "deposit" player that I mentioned above probably didn't have much doubt he was going to win. He could have hoped that his pair of Queens might win the Poker hand too, bringing him to a total of 200 points, but really he shouldn't have been counting on more than 150. Though the three 2s was a better hand, it wasn't necessarily a better winner. That player should have probably counted on earning 70 (word + length), with some probability of the full 125 (word + length + poker).

Continued experience could tell you which of these values was likely a winner and which not, just like it could tell you which of the Poker hands were likely to be a winner. Using that information is then exactly what turns a game of this sort into risk/reward and not a crapshoot.

Gotta Know When to Fold 'Em

Ironically I say that having "fold"ed every hand except my last-round-I-had-to-go-home-Hail-Mary. In other words, I never though the risk was low enough or the reward was high enough, so I just kept earning my 50 points a turn. Not being able to form a word of more than 4 letters helped keep me from being greedy (because it meant there was never a "word length bonus" that I'd only win if I stayed). Before that last round I was in second place out of five, suggesting my slow plodding way was winning out--mostly.

As I was packing up that night having finished up Parlay I came to realize that the game's play was actually very much like the gameplay of Texas Hold'em--whose success it was clearly meant to build upon.

In Texas Hold'em your standard turn is to look at your cards, assess their value, determine their value isn't high enough, then immediately fold. In a typical 10-player hand of Texas Hold'em the vast majority of people usually fold out, and an even higher number would if two players weren't forced to ante up, just to keep the game from breaking.

I suspect Parlay would seem less chaotic to some if they took the Texas Hold'em mindset: Assess the value, then fold, unless you've got a great hand.

(It should be noted that Parlay is a lot more fun, even when folding, since you still get to make a word, and thus earn points based on your cleverness.)

Alternative Bids

Part of the reason Parlay can seem chaotic is because of the blind-bidding. Sure, you might have an atrocious hand, but what if everyone else drops out? In that case your atrocious hand could win, and you effectively double your points thanks to the Poker bonus. Especially if people were moaning and groaning about their hands, shouldn't you take that chance?

The difference between sequential bids and blind bids can make huge differences in games of any sort, and I think this displays it well. So, I offer the following alternative:

Try Parlay with open selection of stay or fold sometime. Make sure you rotate the dealer, then when players are ready have them choose stay or fold clockwise from the dealer. I expect it'll make players a less likely to hope for a big win on nothing, and thus more likely to only stay in when they assess their hand as good.

Keeping players from taking a less viable strategy can often be a great way to reduce the apparent chaos of a game.

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