Seven card stud was formally the most-popular poker game in the world. But this changed in the early 2000s when the Poker Boom took off.
Texas holdem became the game of choice in both land-based and online poker rooms by the mid-2000s.
Hold’em always had a small following before booming. The game was introduced to Las Vegas poker rooms in the late 1960s and was played in the underground scene.
Bill Boyd, a poker player from Texas, taught other rounders on to play this game. But while many players thought that Texas holdem was fun, it wasn’t popular enough to find a regular spot on most casino tables.
This remained the case for the next few decades, with many Vegas casinos only offering seven-card stud tables. But a combination of Texas holdem being featured in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event and TV coverage shifted the dynamics of poker.
Today, holdem is easily the leading poker game. It’s so popular in fact that I wonder if any variation will ever replace it.
I’ll discuss this matter by looking at three reasons why Texas holdem will always be the king of poker. I’ll also play devil’s advocate and cover three reasons why another variant will eventually overtake holdem.
Why Texas Holdem Will Always Rule Over Other Poker Variations
Every American poker room uses Texas holdem the as the foundation for its action. Many international poker rooms also fill their space with holdem tables.
Therefore, Texas holdem doesn’t have a close rival. The nearest poker variation in terms of popularity is Omaha, which sees players receive four hole cards, instead of two.
European poker players have especially taken a liking to Omaha. These payers enjoy the extra strategy element of choosing from four hole cards.
This game has another popular variation called Omaha Hi-Lo, where you can form both a high and low hand. The pot is split by the high and low-hand winner.
Omaha enthusiasts argue that this game has a legitimate chance of overtaking Texas holdem one day. But again, you need only refer to the number of full holdem tables available in online and land-based casinos to question this argument
This makes it all the more likely that Texas holdem will remain the best poker variation throughout my and your lifetime. Here are three reasons why holdem won’t lose its popularity anytime soon.
1. Texas Holdem is One of the Easiest Poker Games to Understand
One thing that continues to fuel Texas holdem growth is that many players start with this game. In fact, some new players don’t even realize that there are other forms of poker beyond holdem.
The reason why Texas holdem continues attracting beginners is that its fundamentals are easy to understand. Here’s a quick synopsis of what players need to know to start enjoying this game:
- The big blind and small blind each post small bets to initiate the action.
- Every player is dealt two hole cards.
- Players go through a round of preflop betting.
- The flop (first three community cards is dealt).
- Players go through another round of betting.
- The turn (fourth community card) is dealt.
- Another betting round ensues.
- The river (fifth community card) is dealt.
- The final betting round ensues.
- Remaining players show their cards to determine the winner.
An old poker saying states: “Texas holdem takes 5 minutes to learn and a lifetime to master.”
Few beginners care about mastering holdem in the early going. But they love the fact that you can pick up the basics within a few minutes.
Many new players still need time to iron out the rough edges on their Texas holdem knowledge. This is especially true with understanding blinds, bet sizes, and the different streets.
But Texas holdem is easier to learn than the average poker variation. This can be seen when comparing holdem and Omaha.
Omaha has many of the same rules as Texas holdem, including five community cards, four streets, and using two hole cards and three board cards to make hands. But the fact that you need to choose two out of four hole cards makes Omaha more confusing than holdem.
Many new Omaha players struggle to understand all the different hand combinations that they can form with their hole cards. Texas holdem makes this easier by only giving you two hole cards.
One can argue that seven-card stud is the easier game to learn. But Texas holdem is simpler based on the fact that there are fewer streets, and it’s easier to understand who acts first on each street.
I’ll take things further by also saying that Texas holdem is the easier game to learn in terms of strategy. Drawing another comparison to Omaha, you only have to worry about forming hand combinations with two hole cards.
Texas holdem only has 169 distant starting hand combinations to worry about. Contrast this to Omaha Hi-Lo, where there are over 16,000 distinct starting hand combinations.
I already mentioned how tough it is to keep track of what hands you can form in Omaha. I’ve played the game quite a bit and still miss important hand possibilities on occasion.
This isn’t to say that it’s not possible to do the same in Texas Hold’em. But the chances of you missing potential straights and flushes are greatly reduced in this game.
Another area where holdem strategy is easier is the odds on calling with a drawing hand. You can use a combination of pot odds, outs, and hand equity to figure out when it’s profitable to call.
I won’t get into the specifics of these terms, because this post is about why holdem will retain its popularity. But the point is that you can come up with clear math on when it’s wise to play a Texas holdem drawing hand.
Omaha and Omaha Hi-Lo are different, because you have so many more outs to consider. And while you can still come up with rough mathematical estimations on when to call, the answers aren’t as clear as using pot odds and hand equity to decide.
2. Texas Holdem Is the Brand Name Poker Game
Earlier I mentioned how some new Texas holdem players don’t even know that there are other poker games. While this isn’t always the case, it shows that Texas holdem is easily poker’s biggest brand name.
This trend can be traced back to when Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 WSOP Main Event. Moneymaker, a small-time accountant, beat a field of 839 players to win the $2.5 million top prize.
The Tennessee native won his $10,000 seat in the Main Event via a $40 PokerStars satellite. PokerStars then used this average-Joe-to-poker-champ story in its marketing campaigns immediately afterward.
Moneymaker became a minor celebrity and a major celebrity in the poker world. Many people who heard Moneymaker’s story flocked to Texas holdem in the ensuing years.
New poker players wanted to become the next amateur to win the Main Event. And Texas holdem was the vehicle they used to make it happen.
This trend has never really stopped. Texas holdem is still known as the preferred poker variation above all.
Most poker tournaments feature holdem, especially with regard to main events. Meanwhile, Omaha, seven-card stud, Razz, Badugi, H.O.R.S.E., and other variants are only seen in side events.
Some casual poker players are unaware of these poker variations. But almost everybody is aware of Texas holdem due to its widespread fame.
3. Texas Holdem Makes for Good TV
Another advantage for Texas holdem is that it’s the perfect poker game for TV. This wasn’t always the case, though, when holdem poker tournaments were broadcast without the hole cam.
A hole cam shows viewers what hole cards each player has. This keeps audiences more entertained because they can better tell what each player is thinking.
The hole cam was first introduced in 1999, when Late Night Poker used a cam during its airings on British Channel 4. Soon thereafter, the WSOP and World Poker Tour (WPT) also began using the hole cam.
The combination of Texas holdem and the hole cam have made poker more palatable for TV audiences. This has fueled the success of many poker shows over the years, including the following:
- WSOP broadcasts
- WPT broadcasts
- European Poker Tour (EPT) broadcasts
- High Stakes Poker
- Poker After Dark
- Celebrity Poker Showdown
- NBC’s National Heads-Up Poker Championship
- Poker Night in America
- Late Night Poker
Texas holdem has always been the featured game of choice in all these shows and tournament broadcasts. But why haven’t other poker variations earned the same TV prowess as holdem?
A key reason why is because Texas holdem is built for television. Players only have two hole cards, which makes it easier for audiences to decipher what the pros are doing.
This isn’t to say that Omaha can’t also make for good TV. But the four hole cards look like more of a mess on the screen.
A game like Razz, where players are dealt seven cards throughout a hand, looks even worse onscreen. This is also a lowball game, meaning the commentators would have to keep reminding viewers that the lowest hand wins (i.e. A-2-3-4-5 is Razz’s best hand).
Considering that Texas holdem is built for TV and streaming, casual viewers learn how to play holdem and enter poker through this same variant.
Why Texas Holdem Will Be Overthrown by Another Poker Variation
It feels like Texas holdem dominance over the poker world will never end. You need only look at the number of full holdem tables at a land-based or online poker room to see this logic.
Keep in mind that seven-card stud spent over five decades atop the poker landscape. It was only until a combination of the Moneymaker Effect, WSOP coverage, and Poker Boom that Texas holdem overtook it.
Many people in the 1970s and 80s would’ve thought anybody was crazy for suggesting that stud would eventually be knocked out of the top spot. But the unthinkable happened over a decade ago, and Texas holdem is easily the most-popular game.
This makes it remotely possible that holdem itself could one day be overthrown. Here are three reasons why it’s possible that another poker variation could become the most widely played.
1. Texas Holdem Is Saturated with Good Players
The fact that so many people get their start with Texas holdem also makes it a difficult game to beat. The reason why is because new players eventually want to improve their skills, which leads to learning strategy.
You can find Texas holdem strategy materials all over the internet. This makes it easy for the average player to quickly get up to speed on the fundamental and intermediate concepts.
Of course, not everybody becomes an excellent Texas holdem grinder. But many players study enough strategy to hold their own on tables.
This is a big reason why many professionals have gravitated towards other poker variants to improve their chances of winning. Moving to a less-heralded poker game can be lucrative when you learn the strategy and are ready for other new players.
Another problem with Texas holdem strategy is that it’s easier to master than Omaha. Some might debate this, because holdem features more preflop betting decisions.
But the fact that Omaha players have four hole cards to deal with adds another dimension to the strategy. You also must be better at dealing with bad beats and tilt in Omaha, because you’ll get sucked out on the river more often.
Omaha Hi-Lo is even tougher, because you must decide what hands can win both the high and low portion of the pot. This is different from both holdem and regular Omaha, where you only have to worry about forming the best high poker hand.
Considering how saturated Texas holdem is with good players, I wouldn’t be surprised if another poker variation featuring more-complex strategy becomes the new favorite.
2. AI Programs Are Learning to Solve NL Texas Holdem
Computer scientists have been using poker to test the quality of their artificial intelligence (AI) programs. And Texas Holdem is the variation that AIs are programmed to beat.
These programs are being developed to help cure diseases, draft military plans, improve car safety, and perform countless other tasks.
Creating the ultimate poker bot isn’t the end goal for these computer scientists. But it’s becoming a byproduct as they put their programs against some of the world’s best pros.
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) held its first widely publicized contest in 2015. Their poker bot, “Claudico,” played 20,000 hands of no-limit Texas holdem against poker pros.
Doug Polk, Dong Kim, Bjorn Li, and Jason Less are considered among the world’s best online Texas holdem poker pros. The players received $100,000 donated by the Rivers Casino and Microsoft Research to compete in the contest.
Bots had solved limit Texas holdem up to this point, because it’s heavily based on math. But many questioned whether AI could defeat top no-limit holdem players, because this game involves more-complex decisions and incomplete information.
Few were surprised when the pros beat Claudico by $732,713 in the $50/$100 NL Texas holdem competition. Li won $529,000, while Polk chipped in the second most with $213,000.
Polk commented afterward that Claudico made good plays in some spots, but had strange bet sizes in others. “Betting $19,000 to win a $700 pot just isn’t something that a person would do,” he said.
CMU continued working on the project and developed a more-advanced AI called Libratus. This program took on another group of four pros in a 2017 contest dubbed “Brains Vs. Artificial Intelligence.”
Libratus faced off against Kim, Les, Jimmy Chou, and Daniel McAulay. The pros split a $200,000 prize pool, with each player receiving a portion based on their performance against the AI.
Libratus soundly defeated the pros over the course of 120,000 NL holdem hands, winning $1,766,250. Tuomas Sandholm, a professor of computer science at CMU, was ecstatic about how his team’s AI performed.
“The best AI’s ability to do strategic reasoning with imperfect information has now surpassed that of the best humans,” said Sandholm.
One of the key ways in which the CMU team upgraded Libratus is by improving its bluffing abilities. This adds a strategic element that only humans were previously able to do.
A team of experienced computer scientists developing AI that can beat poker pros is different from an amateur creating an online poker bot to play online for them. But CMU’s Libratus experiment shows just how far AI has come in poker.
And the fact that these scientists are targeting Texas holdem, rather than Omaha, seven-card stud, or another poker game, means that NL holdem will be “solved” one day—if it’s not already.
The online Texas holdem bots will also be improving. This combination could lead to players exiting online holdem and only playing the game in live situations.
But any poker variation that hasn’t been farmed out by advanced AI and common bots could gain popular in the online realm.
3. Texas Holdem Could Evolve into a New Combination Game
Perhaps the most-likely scenario for Texas holdem being replaced is for the game to evolve into something new.
I’ve discussed some of the problems with the game up to this point, including improved player pools and AI that has likely solved NL Texas holdem. This may create the need for holdem to evolve in order to remain popular in future decades.
An example is Holdem X, which is a unique Texas holdem variation that was released in 2016.
This game is played much like regular holdem. But the twist is that you can use “X Cards,” which have special attributes that manipulate gameplay.
X Cards can do things like give you an extra hole card, pair your top card, pair your bottom card, change a card’s suit, add a sixth street, and re-deal a street.
You have a points budget before the beginning of a poker game. And you spend these on selecting three X Cards to use against your opponent.
I’m not saying that Holdem X will ever become big. After all, it’s been out for a few years and has yet to gain serious traction.
But adding new wrinkles to an old game would make Texas holdem strategy fresh and force AI/bots to solve new problems.
Another possibility is that another card game similar to poker gains widespread popularity. Hearthstone, which was developed by Blizzard Entertainment, is a good example of this.
Hearthstone combines World of Warcraft-like characters and card decks to create a poker-style game, except with a fantasy element.
Daniel Negreanu, Bertrand ‘ElkY” Grospellier, and some other poker pros touted Hearthstone in the mid-2010s. The game hasn’t overtaken Texas holdem in terms of popularity, but it has developed a strong cult following.
Like Holdem X, Hearthstone may never gain the worldwide popularity that Texas holdem has. But it shows that hybrid card games can become popular among the masses.
I don’t see Texas holdem being replaced at the top of the poker food chain by another variation for a while. This game commands most of the space at poker rooms and is preferred for TV and streaming.
Hold’em also has simpler strategy and rules than other variations, which attracts new players. But it also has enough complexity to where experienced holdem players don’t get tired of the game.
Texas holdem will likely remain the preferred poker variant for at least a few more decades. But as I explained with seven-card stud, things can change over time.
While holdem may be far more popular than other poker games today, another variant or even an entirely new card game could capture everybody’s attention.
That being said, I’ll be interested to see how Texas holdem popularity plays out in the coming years.