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Once You Go Pineapple.....**



February 11, 2015 - by Ben McClelland

**This is an article I wrote for Two Plus Two magazine published in March 2014, anticipating Pineapple-OFC cash game play at the WSOP. 2014 saw the explosion of Pineapple, but is it really a grindable cash game? In the article I recommend variable-value Fantasyland for cash play. What is that? Read on.....



Once You Go Pineapple OFC...
(You Might As Well Go Variable-Value Fantasyland)


Imagine waking up one morning, going out for a coffee, and everyone around you was speaking a new language. If you were out of the Open Face Chinese scene for a couple of months, that's the way it might feel right now. Just in case you hadn't noticed, we are living in a Pineapple-OFC world. Still speaking 'Standard-OFC'? Better find a translator, and quick! Because since last summer, Open Face has been evolving, and Pineapple is the mutation that's dominating the gene pool right now.

That's not to say Standard-OFC won't retain its significance. It makes a good tournament game, a group of 4 can play (unlike 3-max Pineapple), and its core tactics apply to other variations. For some it may remain a preferred variant. Developmentally it has reached its logical conclusion, however, and one can now point to an orthodox set of rules after a year or so of experimentation.

Pineapple-OFC is in a more youthful phase with rules and variations still in flux, but the immediate appeal is obvious. The inclusion of draws and discards has infused the game with more decision points and incomplete information, players have 17 cards to find combinations with instead of 13, extra cards are dealt in Fantasyland, and the game plays bigger. Many people find once they've 'gone Pineapple', Standard-OFC seems a bit humdrum. And while the variation tweaks have made the game more interesting (and less solvable), questions remain about the game's grindability.

What is not in question, however, is its wild popularity. At the 2014 Pokerstars Caribbean Adventure, Open Face proponent and tournament winner Shaun Deeb remarked that OFC could soon usurp PLO as the next-most popular game after Holdem. The casual observer only has to listen to recent interviews by pros Will Failla and Barry Greenstein, or take a look at Phil Hellmuth's twitter feed, to see that players are moving to Pineapple. It is plausible to suggest that Pineapple-OFC could be a dominant side game at the 2014 World Series of Poker, so it seems an appropriate time to point out a few important distinctions between the Standard and Pineapple variations as it relates to edges and value.

After playing quite a bit of Pineapple, one of the first things I noticed beyond strategic differences was that it seemed pretty swingy. Similar observations and murmuring about reduced Fantasyland value from other players stoked my interest in a deeper analysis. I began to wonder if the variation in its current form was a truly viable cash and tournament game. It's so early on that there are no established BRM guidelines, grind strategies, or even standard rule sets (I have seen no less than 4 separate Fantasyland qualification systems). Even individual hand strategy is in a very elementary place.

My theory was that 14-card Fantasyland didn't hold up very well against a player getting 17 cards. I decided to test the hypothesis by setting up a human trial to measure how a 14-card Fantasyland player would fare against a normal Pineapple hand. I also measured 15-card Fantasyland in the same situation, since that rule is used by at least one online casino. In the meantime data was gathered on the non-Fantasyland hands as well. The sample size was 200 hands each, certainly not large enough to make declarative statements, but enough to identify early trends, highlight differences between Standard and Pineapple as it relates to skill and value, and to estimate the value discrepancy between 14-card Fantasyland and 15-card Fantasyland. Trial data is in a chart at end of the article.

So what did I find out?

With 17 cards to work with, construction of monster hands, getting to Fantasyland, and staying in Fantasyland are all events that occur at a higher frequency in Pineapple. That is probably no big news. But counterintuitively to what players might expect when they first pick up the game, the additional cards dramatically diminish value and skill edge under the 14-card Fantasyland setup.

Setting all 13 cards at once is a decided advantage in Standard-OFC. In a risk/reward scenario, you are compensated well for gambling to get to Fantasyland. But a Fantasyland trip in Pineapple-OFC doesn't yield the same return on investment. If you would normally expect a 10-11 point bonus when in Standard Fantasyland, you can expect more like 6 against a decent Pineapple player. And while Fantasyland occurs more frequently, it is reached by all players more often, and there is also one less player on a full table to pay you when you hit. But when you foul, it costs more. In Standard, a foul is often no more expensive than 6 points, and around 25-30% of the time, your opponent is fouling too. But in Pineapple, where fouling is less frequent and bigger hands with more royalties are made, a foul costs more, in the 10-14 point range, not counting any Fantasyland EV accrued by your opponent(s).

Frequent simultaneous trips to Fantasyland, meanwhile, create cavernous spots where the game becomes a glorified version of 'War'. When multiple players are dealt a Fantasyland of 14 cards, the value of each of which is decided by the poker gods, it's a good old game of bingo. This situation comes up often, which isn't shocking considering the relative ease of making Fantasyland with a QQ+ requirement. I estimate these skill-reduction points to occur 20-30% of the time. If you've played enough under this rule set then you know there's nothing like making a great play to get to Fantasyland whereupon your opponent crushes you whether they're in Fantasyland or not, while you figure out the best spots for the dreaded 5-pair hand. In a game where you can't fold, here 14-card Fantasyland can be a handicap that magnifies the effects of short-term variance. Considering how often 14-card Fantasyland can be beat outright by the non-FL player (more than 20% of the time), there is little compensation for run-bad.

From a grind perspective, 14-card Fantasyland may not provide enough EV to overcome variance and rake. If profit after rake boiled down to getting to Fantasyland more often, you would need to average 3 more Fantasylands per hour than your opponents, at 15 hands/hour at $5/point, to make an hourly over $125. Playing a $2 game at the same win rate would put you in the $50/hr range. I'd like to see more data but it seems highly unlikely this win rate is even attainable due to the frequency of monster hands and Fantasyland trips Pineapple generates for players all around the table.

Is 15-card Fantasyland the answer to these problems? At first glance, it would seem a fair adjustment. The 15th card results in a higher frequency of Fantasyland monsters like quads and straight flushes, making repeat trips much more frequent, and it often can remove blocker problems that prevent big hands like boat/flush/trips from reaching full blossom. But data shows a mildly shocking trend: The one extra card balloons 15-card EV to around double 14-card EV. And while that helps with rake and variance, it doesn't do anything to improve skill edge and will simply favor bigger bankrolls. With a 12+ point Fantasyland EV, the game under this setup follows an aggressive line as premium value is found in Fantasyland, and when the dust clears it's deeper pockets that will be left standing. You wouldn't want to sit with less than 500 points in any one buyin, putting a traditional BRM strategy in the 10k point range (I recently played live heads up with a friend who dusted off 350 points in about an hour). Given the choice between 14-card and 15-card Fantasyland I would prefer to play 15-card, but it seems like it would be hard to attract recreational or low stakes players under this setup.

So how could a variable-value Fantasyland rule improve Pineapple? If the concept sounds complex, it's not: You are simply rewarded with more cards when your Fantasyland make is of a higher quality. For example, QQ gives you a 13-card Fantasyland, KK gives 14 and AA+ gives 15. [ I personally would like to see 16-card FL awarded for trips in front, but let's stick to the task at hand.]

Infrequency is rewarded in other forms of poker, and that's a system that should be utilized here. A royal flush in Holdem, for example, is superior to an inferior straight flush, and the player holding the most probability-infrequent hand gets the most value. Something that seems obvious in OFC, but the data also supported, is that it's harder to get to Fantasyland with AA+ than it is with KK or QQ, in that order. Fantasyland was reached 128 times in 600 total hands played by the non-FL player; of those makes, 48% were QQ, 34% were KK, and 18% were AA+. So if it is harder from a probability standpoint to reach FL with AA+, there ought be a commensurate return on frequency, in this case a higher number of Fantasyland cards to work with, bringing a higher EV to the 'harder' play.

Variable-value Fantasyland adds skill back into the game as well. Throwing the first pair of Queens you see into the front row is not nearly as skilled or 'gambly' a play in Pineapple as it is in Standard, as you have 4 additional cards with which to find a supporting middle and back row. The degree of difficulty goes up incrementally, however, when setting for KK or AA+ to take you to Fantasyland. So there ought to be commensurate reward for good decision making and proper gambling. An experienced player should be better at knowing how to set starting hands, when to gamble, when to abandon ship on draws, when to adjust to opponents, and so forth. If you make a great play to get to Fantasyland with AA+, you will reap max benefits under the variable-value system. In this situation, if your opponent has simultaneously gotten to Fantasyland but with inferior holdings to yours, you can still expect around 6 points (AA v. KK) to 10 points of value (AA v. QQ) because of the different number of cards you each will be dealt in Fantasyland. You'll get the 15, they'll get 13 or 14.

For the grind, you'd also be able sit a bit shallower, and you'd be able to hold onto your stack longer, with the ubiquitous QQ Fantasyland only rewarding an EV of around 2.5. The emphasis at the table would be to outsmart your opponent during the hand before Fantasyland with a focus on overall hand strength or by trumping their front row pair and inflicting max pain while in Fantasyland. I believe this would enhance the game by encouraging players to think about all aspects of what makes a strong hand or a strong play, and not just 'try to get to Fantasyland' every hand.

Perhaps most importantly, variable-value goes a long way to solving the 'Bingo' problem. In tiered levels of Fantasyland commensurate to the quality of their Fantasyland make, players would no longer have to accept their fate being doled out by the poker gods. Variable-value offers a way to remove a lot of the randomness a static 14-card or 15-card Fantasyland system creates.

Open Face Chinese is carving out its niche in the pantheon of poker games. The explosion of popularity 2013 saw is transforming into real staying power. Some believe it won't become 'real' poker and thus bracelet-worthy until there is betting and bluffing, and I'm not sure I disagree. I think we will see even more variation experimentation in 2014, with betting and folding emerging. Pot-limit and limit variants are currently in early experimentation. But Pineapple-OFC in its current form is here now, and it's dominating the scene. So can variable-value Fantasyland improve the game?



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