Sunday, May 13, 2012

Should No Limit Holdem Players Want Antes in Their Games?

Two of the main triggers of the poker boom in the 2000's, the movie Rounders and ESPN's well-produced broadcast of the WSOP (especially the Moneymaker victory), both specifically glorified the game of no-limit holdem. Rounders famously quoted Doyle Brunson calling NLHE the "Cadillac of poker games." Brand-new poker players came to the casinos looking for holdem games, especially no-limit holdem games. Before long, veteran stud players migrated to the no-limit games hoping to prey upon the newbies. The result is that, compared to holdem games, stud games have plummeted in popularity since the 1990's. Today, stud games feel downright antiquated.

One distinguishing feature of stud games is that they use antes, and, as a result, antes now seem as antiquated as the stud games they're used for. Actually, while antes are almost never used in NLHE cash games, they do usually come into play in the later rounds of tournaments. This is cause for consternation among some tournament players, mostly because the antes increase the effect of luck as compared to skill. Perhaps ironically, then, one place you can occasionally see antes in NLHE cash games is in the very high-stakes games, where you might expect the players to want to maximize the importance of skill. The reason they like antes is that many of these top players have recognized the problem I mentioned midway through my previous post on jackpots: standard NLHE has very little action if everyone in the game is playing a strong, solid, tight and aggressive game. To fix this problem, top pros have sometimes decided to add antes to their games. So, should the rest of us be advocating for the introduction of antes into our NLHE games? Probably, but let's look at the major considerations.

1. Maximizing winnings.
2. Having an enjoyable social experience.
3. Having a pure, intellectually stimulating game of poker.

All three factors have opposing forces that I will attempt to weigh against each other.

1. Maximizing winnings: If you are a strong player with a given set of opponents, your EV will probably be slightly improved if you are using an ante. With more action, you will be correct to play more hands, and this will give you more opportunities to use your superior skill against your opponents. Also, there will be more money in each pot, which means more potential profit. There are two major drawbacks, however. First, your expected volatility will certainly rise substantially because the antes directly increase the luck factor and, with more money being bet, you will effectively be playing higher stakes. This will possibly force you to move down to lower stakes. Second, your typical opponent's biggest weakness, playing too many hands, will suddenly become much less of a liability. Your weak opponents will be playing better even if they fail to adjust for the introduction of the ante. This is all subjective, but my guess is that these factors give a bit of a net boost to EV.

The previous paragraph assumes "a given set of opponents," but we must  also consider the effect on the player supply in an ante game versus a no-ante game. In the short run, only good players seem likely to want to use antes. The first players who will want to make the move to "ante NLHE" are those who are confident in their ability to adjust to the new strategic challenges posed by the introduction of an ante and those who recognize the problem I just described with NLHE losing action if you are at a table of solid players. We can expect that these players are better than average, and they will certainly not be novices. Despite this, I think that in the long run, bad players will really enjoy the antes. Having more action and higher volatility is way more fun. If we can get to the point where antes are no longer a novel concept, novices will be happy to play with them. In the long run, which is what I'm primarily concerned with in these blog posts, I think the antes will attract more bad players than good players because of the increased luck factor. Another small net positive for EV.

2. Social experience: For most people, getting to play more hands is more fun. Sure, there will be the odd player who likes to sit back and wait for AA or KK, but who needs those guys anyway? Others will object to the increased luck factor, but just as many will enjoy it. In the short run, some players will be put off by the novelty of antes, but others (such as myself) like thinking about novel strategic situations, and in any case the novelty will wear off. A net positive.

3. Pure, stimulating game of poker: Some purists, including yours truly, are just concerned with having a robust, stimulating, fairly-played game, unencumbered by factors introduced by the casino such as jackpots, rakes, or confusing rules or promotions. The antes affect none of these factors except that they have the potential to engender a much more stimulating game by discouraging tight, nitty play. Some purists additionally want a traditional or low-luck game of poker. For these players, the antes may be a problem. From my perspective, however, the antes represent a major boon to the game itself.

Many of the factors above relate to my personal preferences, which may make it hard to convince other players (or my readers) to come to my side if they are not already so inclined. For example, if you understand the importance of having luck in a poker game (this is what attracts the bad players) but you still think it's better to try to minimize it, there's not much I can do to convince you that antes would be a good thing. Also, my approximations on the effect on EV are certainly up for debate. However, if you agree with me on these factors (and you should!) then you'll agree that introducing antes is a really good idea.

I wonder whether we can ever really make the jump to adding antes in lower stakes games. Perhaps it's like the QWERTY keyboard: research shows it's not optimal, but it's just not worth making the switch. It's not surprising that the high-stakes NLHE games were the first to adopt antes. Nobody playing those stakes is going to have an issue with getting outside their comfort zone to play a slightly novel form of poker. (Well, maybe Andy Beal.) They're not worried about scaring away new players, and they are looking to maximize the amount of action in their games. It's also possible that these high stakes games have fewer action players and are thus more prone to going cold.

All of these factors that encourage the use of antes diminish as you go down in stakes. What I think needs to happen for antes to become prevalent is for enough regular players to realize that the top pros are playing with antes. When that happens, the game will no longer look as weird and novel as a Dvorak keyboard. In the meantime, regular players can advocate for antes by convincing their fellow poker players that antes are a good thing and by asking their floor men to make "interest" lists for ante games.


Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree. The best thing about antes is that they effectively increase the size of the game but in a subtle, more acceptable way than making a couple players post large amounts in the blinds. And increasing the size of the game is great, not only as you mention because it stimulates more betting and a more interesting game, but also because it makes the effect of the rake more negligible. Casinos should be expected to love and hate antes for this reason: love it because it may stimulate more players, but more probably hate it because it might reduce their winnings a bit.

Anonymous said...

The idea that the Dvorak keyboard was somehow better than QWERTY was debunked years ago.

Liebowitz, Stan J. and Margolis, Stephen E., The Fable of the Keys. Famous Fables of Economics, Dan Spulber, (ed.), Blackwell Publishers, 2002; Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 1-26, April 1990. Available at SSRN:

Keith said...

Thanks! I probably should have done more than 30 seconds of research on that. In my defense I was only using it as a metaphor. The point is that it probably wouldn't be worth making the switch to whatever keyboard is optimal.