This week is the start of the 50h annual World Series of Poker, where players of all kinds will descend upon the mecca of the poker world, the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas. As a poker player myself, I can’t help but be swept up in the fervor of the season either. With the WSOP officially underway in Nevada, professionals and amateurs will begin rubbing elbows to cash in on six figure scores and a prestigious golden bracelet. It is every poker player’s wish to make a run for a WSOP event, and their dream to win the big one, the Main Event.
Outside of the live action, though, there are few games that really encompass the feeling found at a poker table. Oh sure, after the poker boom in 2003, almost everyone jumped on the poker bandwagon to make some sort of game to play on both the PC and consoles. Most of them, of course, were donkeys in a sea of sharks, but there are a relative few that stand out from that first wave to be the premiere poker games in the video game sphere. So, let’s highlight the six best poker video games to go all-in with.
World Championship Poker 2: Featuring Howard Lederer
At one time, Howard Lederer was a renowned poker professional, chess master, and all-around statesman for the game. Nicknamed “the Professor” for his analytic style, Lederer was a common sight on late night poker shows and the ESPN coverage. At least he was until he was charged for mismanaging funds from the online poker site Full Tilt, which was found to be siphoning players money to pay for the salaries of their CEOs, something Lederer has since apologized for. Still, credit where it's due, World Championship Poker 2 is one of the better games out in the market, albeit it is still worst among the best if you ask me.
The sequel to a horrible cash-in by Crave entertainment, World Championship Poker 2 improved upon its successor by adding online play and a more sophisticated AI; one that was not begging for action all the time but played with you to make fair hands. World Championship Poker 2 was also the first game to have online poker back in 2006, a feature that allowed players to mix it up in small-scale tournaments with others across the PC, the PlayStation 2, and the original Xbox.
The game was never really sophisticated, but it had its moments. Its career mode was robust enough to be noteworthy and worth a challenge, and the game offered a variety of poker variants outside of Texas Hold’em; a huge plus that made it a fun time online. Overall, World Championship Poker 2 would be overshadowed by bigger and better games, but for a starting player it is probably one of the more fun experiences you can get, especially considering the cheap price.
Poker Night at the Inventory
Ok, this is technically more of a gimmick game over anything else, as the main draw is to see a cast of C-list internet celebrities play cards with the player. Then again, nothing can quite capture the home game feel than a bunch of characters swapping stories and playing as casually as possible after a hard day of work. There is certain charm that Poker Night at the Inventory provides in that sense making it undoubtedly one of the more fun games on this list.
Perhaps it is because of its simplicity. Each character has a certain playstyle the player can exploit for their gain, and even earn rewards for Team Fortress 2, a gimmick that was actually enticing considering the low cost of entry. The banter was ultimately a big draw, as is the ability to pick up on the pre-made poker tells for each character. Much like the characters themselves, they are often exaggerated and obvious for those paying attention.
Poker Night at the Inventory is perhaps the most "video game" title on the list ultimately. It certainly doesn’t shoot for the simulation market like most Poker games do, it instead went for comedic effect and star power of well-known characters. Its sequel did the same thing, and arguably improved on the formula, but it was sadly discontinued last year due to expiring licenses. Still, the original is available for players on Steam who want to kick back, hear some stories, and rake in the occasional pot.
World Series of Poker 2008: Battle for the Bracelets
The World Series of Poker games are supposed to represent the excellence and pageantry of the big leagues of poker everywhere. Yet, it took three games for it to finally do that. After an abysmal cash-in and a lukewarm second entry, the third and final WSOP video game was able to capture at least a modicum of what makes the WSOP special.
The big draw for the WSOP video games is the star power for sure. Featuring over 20 professional players and their likenesses, voice overs, and endorsements by both major casinos and Harrah’s entertainment, Battle for the Bracelets is packed with star power and AAA delivery, despite being a borderline budget title by Activision at best. At times it comes across as an advertisement for Las Vegas and a bunch of corporate sponsors, but much like poker itself during the mid-2000s, it felt authentic to the overall experience.
The poker is no slouch either. It is evenly paced, features a decent AI scheme and enough tournament events to have some fun with your play money bankroll. Throw in a few cash-game variants and extra challenges like the “Beat the Brat” challenge, featuring poker champion Phil Hellmuth Jr, and the amount of activity in Battle for the Bracelets is well worth the entry fee. In truth, the only thing lacking in Battle for the Bracelets is constraint. It becomes tiresome to see the same AI opponents and final tables stacked with only big names. The tournaments’ themselves are formulaic in their approach, right down to how players can be eliminated. Despite the flaws, Battle for the Bracelets is the closest poker game to reach the lofty heights of a Madden title—a AAA presentation wrapped around a creamy budget center.
A few years back, I did a preview of 505 Games Prominence Poker, a free to play poker game that was billed as a “poker RPG” of sorts that included a progression system and a bluff mechanic. The preview was negative, pointing out the inadequacies of the title from an AI perspective and from the relative thinness of its offerings as a game.
My opinion has changed since then, as Prominence Poker, in 2019, is a much more complete package now. For starters, all of the game's single player levels have been released, and a new affiliation system was added to give players some extra rewards of play. Second, the computer AI has improved somewhat, at least offering more of a challenge that doesn’t include shoving all-in each time and getting lucky. The main draw, however, is their online competition system; Prominence Poker dropped the RPG aspects and shifted to a 6-max style sit-n-go tournament structure for online play, which has become a great way to sharpen a players skills and earn some rewards with the game's progression system.
One more advantage Prominence Poker has is it’s modern. Prominence Poker is the only game on this list outside of Poker Night at the Inventory that can be played right now on modern consoles, a huge advantage when you consider that poker video games today are much rarer than they were in the heyday of the mid-2000s. Though it started off rocky, the free-to-play options in Prominence Poker make it an easy sell for anyone willing to take a crack at it, making it one of the few Poker games to still stand out today.
Full House Poker
Admittedly, Full House Poker is not the best poker variant available to players. However, it was once the only online game in town that lets you trade chip stacks with real opponents, especially considering that it is an Xbox 360 exclusive title designed for online play. If the other games on this list are for the hardcore crowd, Full House Poker is for those who would just want a simple home game every week, a chance to lock horns with players across the country for a bit of fun.
The big draw is the 30-player tournament-sized fields that you can play in, as well as the Texas Heat matchups, a variant that lasts a half hour and has players ranked based upon how well they do, with three winners per table of 30. Touted as a spiritual successor to the avatar game 1 vs. 100, Full House Poker is fast and loose, but never serious.
Yet, that is the charm Full House Poker has. Sitting down and not taking the game so seriously, both with random strangers and trusted friends, is what poker is all about. Full House Poker captures that intangible fun factor that many poker games fail to realize is just as important as having poker variants and star-power, and that made it the most fun game on this list.
Stacked: With Daniel Negreanu
If Full House Poker is the casual man’s poker game, Stacked is the hardcore player’s choice. Stacked is perhaps the best poker video game ever made; one that really is among the leaders in simulation-styled experiences that the likes of Madden and FIFA tend to deliver. The reason for this claim is actually quite simple. Stacked is the only poker video game to feature the specially developed Poki AI.
I discussed this aspect before when I wrote about Stacked for Gaming Obscura, but the Poki AI is an artificial intelligence created through a decade of research by the University of Alberta. Using sophisticated stat tracking, the Poki AI is the only AI that adjusts itself to how the player plays, as opposed to settling down in a predetermined style like most other poker games. So, unlike other games with a more static AI, Stacked has the most challenging simulation experience you can get right out of the gate, assigning over 10 different strategy matrices to players at any given time with over half of them adjusting their play-style to combat the player.
Stacked is not without its faults. Most of the other features common in most poker video games, from full on character customization to actual poker variants, are slim or non-existent in the overall package. Stacked is also a grinding experience, since it was designed to be a poker teacher for amateurs looking to sharpen their game and take a super realistic approach to accomplishing that. Despite those shortcomings, Stacked is the best poker game you can get by virtue of being the most challenging on the market, and for hardcore card players, it’s perhaps the only good poker game out there if you can find a copy.
Admittedly, the transition to the virtual world has not been kind for poker. Aside from a few successes and the occasional game cropping up on Steam, there really hasn’t been much of a splash of poker games outside of actual card rooms. Still, whether you call it a phenomenon or a fad, poker is a game that has been played for years before video games came to be, and will no doubt make a comeback someday, defying the odds to formulate a winning hand to play.
I hope you enjoy this list of games to check out on your own. What do you think of the list? Do you have any suggestions? Please leave your comments below.