Poker Hall of Famer and 1983 World Series of Poker champion Tom McEvoy famously described no-limit hold’em as “hours of boredom followed by moments of sheer terror.”
But the advent of online poker some 23 years ago has since accelerated assorted evolutions of the game. And one particular evolution — or devolution, in the minds of some — has excised most of the boredom and made sure that there’s never a long wait for the terror. Then that terror turns out to be short-lived and players’ endorphins don’t have to idle long before they can sign up for more of it.
Depending on which online poker site you check, these games are called “Spin & Gos,” or “Spins,” or “BLAST” poker. There are slight variations between them, but what they all have in common is they are three-handed sit & gos (one-table tournaments that start not at a scheduled time, but whenever three seats are filled), the blind structure is somewhere on the hyper-turbo spectrum, and the prize pool is determined based on a spin of a virtual wheel before the first cards are dealt.
It’s poker for people who like a healthy dose of luck spilled into their skill game, who like to dream of hitting a jackpot for up to 10,000 times their buy-in, and who want to play without a substantial time commitment. It’s a modern extreme of short-attention span hold’em and a prime example of integrating online casino-style gaming into poker. And whereas a few months ago you couldn’t find it at any legal Pennsylvania online poker site, now it’s available with three different PA operators through four different skins.
And it’s overwhelmingly popular.
Wait … wait … spin … go!
Launching in November 2019, PokerStars was the first site to come to Pennsylvania following the 2017 passage of a gaming expansion bill, HB 271. But it took another year and a half for the site to add the Spin & Go games that were popular in New Jersey and in other countries. In May, ’Stars finally introduced PA players to Spin & Gos, with buy-ins of $1, $5, $10, and $25, and respective maximum prizes of $1,000, $5,000, $10,000, and $25,000.
Those 1,000x wheel spins are rare — PokerStars says the probability is 1 in 100,000. In more than nine out of every 10 Spin & Gos you play, the prize pool will either be 2x (lousy value in a three-handed, winner-take-all game) or 3x (fair value, with no rake). The larger prize pools are all less common: A 5x hit comes along 8% of the time, 10x is a 1% shot, 25x happens 0.1% of the time, and you can play around the clock for months and never see a 100x, 200x, or 1,000x.
According to PokerStars, the rake comes out to 7%.
Players start with 500 in chips and blinds at 10/20, with three-minute levels. Sometimes games end inside one or two minutes, and sometimes they stretch to about 15 minutes. But typically, you’re looking at a five- to 10-minute time commitment.
PokerStars did not respond to a request for comment for this article, so Penn Bets was not able to get clarity on whether Spin & Gos finally launched in Pennsylvania in direct response to competitors offering similar games in the state. But it would seem awfully coincidental that PokerStars finally put a little wheel in its deal right after BetMGM Poker PA and Borgata Poker PA, both powered by the PartyPoker platform and sharing a player pool, launched in April.
Party on with alternative options
BetMGM and Borgata both launched with PartyPoker’s Spins tournaments available from the get-go.
“For players who enjoy tournament play over cash play but can’t dedicate the time to one long event, sit & go provides a great alternative option. The Spins product we currently offer in Pennsylvania also provides an interesting offering, by introducing the chance at a life-changing payout usually only available in a casino product and increasing game speed,” BetMGM Vice President of Gaming Matthew Sunderland told Penn Bets. “We’re pleased with early adoption of Spins in the Commonwealth and expect that momentum to continue as the product launches in BetMGM’s other states of operation.”
There are a few more price-point options for PA players with Spins compared to Spin & Gos: $0.10, $0.25, $1, $5, $10, $20, and $55. The top prizes possible at most price points are equal to 200 times the buy-in, with the minimum 2x payout hitting nearly 50% of the time and the 200x occurring just once every 500,000 games. The rake comes out to between 5% and 8%, depending on the buy-in level. Like Spin & Gos, Spins games feature three-minute blind levels and last a similar length of time before a winner is crowned.
The most recent addition to the Pennsylvania online poker landscape, WSOP — which joined the party in July — offers a couple of twists on the format with BLAST sit & gos. For starters, the jackpots range higher, with a 10,000x multiplier possible. (The price points in PA are $0.10, $1, $5, $10, $20, and $30.)
But the more impactful variation is on the game-play front. Blind levels only last two minutes, and there’s increased pressure to play faster — both in terms of speed and aggression — because if the tournament isn’t over after six minutes, all remaining players are automatically all-in every hand until there’s a winner. So you’re spinning a wheel at the beginning of the game, and you’re effectively spinning another one at the end of it if you can’t complete your game inside six minutes. This is bad news if you possess superior skill in playing short-stacked poker, but great news if you want your time commitment almost guaranteed to be capped at about 6½ minutes.
“These games are perfectly suited for players on the go, as most games finish in under seven minutes and can be played on a mobile device,” Danielle Barille, director of WSOP Online, told Penn Bets. “BLAST poker games are great for the player looking to build their bankroll quickly and have fun playing exciting, fast-paced poker.”
A WSOP representative also shared that “BLAST is the most popular sit & go game on WSOP.com, and abundantly more popular than the traditional sit & gos.” In Nevada and New Jersey, the $1 and $5 price points have been the most popular, whereas Pennsylvania players apparently like to play just a bit bigger: “There’s not enough data to tell what’s the most popular price point at the moment, but it is trending towards the $5 and $10 BLAST games,” according to WSOP.
Shortcut to poker millions
There’s something undeniably thrilling about a format in which, as evidenced during one particular international PokerStars game last March, a buy-in of $250 can result in a win of $1,000,000 inside two minutes:
Another week, another $1M Spin & Go winner. 🤑 pic.twitter.com/F6BtTQi1yS
— PokerStars (@PokerStars) March 11, 2020
But not everybody loves the format:
Lol 300 chip starting stack? Can you make poker any worse?
— Sup (@suhdude_sup) March 11, 2020
Especially for old-school poker players, particularly the types who avoid the casino games in the pit because they don’t believe in gambling without a skill edge, hyper turbos can be seen as an affront to what the game has long represented. But they can also be seen as a perfectly viable option for other players even if perhaps the format isn’t for them.
Ryan Hagerty, a poker pro who placed fourth in the U.S. bracket of the 2020 online-live hybrid WSOP Main Event, says he hasn’t played these games in a while, but he did dabble in them when they first came to his home state of New Jersey and enjoyed playing them, calling them “a fun way to try to get a big hit.”
“I have never been a fan of the casino side, and for the greater part of my gambling career, I have stayed away from it,” Hagerty told Penn Bets. “However, these Spin & Gos and BLASTs are a pretty cool way of mixing the two together. The skill isn’t completely lost, compared to if you sat down and played something like roulette or slots.”
Good or bad for poker?
Ryan Laplante, a Las Vegas-based pro who won a WSOP bracelet in 2016, says he’s only played a handful of these games himself, preferring more standard-format tournaments, but he sees upside and downside — though more of the latter — in this hyper-turbo trend.
“They are good for the game in the sense that they get people to play poker who normally might not,” Laplante said. “They are often bad for the industry, though, in the sense that most of their rakes are exceptionally high for the amount of play they have, which is predatory on the types of players that prefer the more high variance/low edge style of play.
“It would be ideal for poker to be seen more as the skill-based game that it is, so we can further the growth of legalization and the perception of the game from the rest of society.”
Hagerty has a similar, if slightly more positive, take.
“Anyone who plays one of these should know that it isn’t really the skill version of poker and is more of a lottery/luck type of thing,” he said. “I’m pretty neutral on its benefits for poker. It definitely is a nice attraction for people who want to try to win big without playing for a bunch of hours, but it could also be somewhat of a trap if you are playing a lot of them and punting off every time you don’t hit a big payout.”
That last note hits on a key strategic point: When the minimum prize pool is hit — as it is nearly half the time — many players don’t play the best version of their game and make non-optimal decisions as they look to either win or lose quickly and move on to the next game.
And yes, there is such thing as optimal decision-making in this format. There is skill involved, even if sheer luck can easily overwhelm it in any given single game.
“There is a definite skill involved in knowing what to shove and call off in these spots where [chip] depths are shallow, and in being able to navigate post-flop at short stack depths,” Hagerty said. “Sure, the variance is much higher, but there are edges to be had here if someone wanted to grind these out.”
Grind away at the site of your choosing, Pennsylvania poker players. Practice responsible bankroll management along the way, of course, but enjoy this very 21st-century form of grinding in which “hours of boredom” will never be an issue.