So what's the deal with poker? Five years ago, it was a fringe activity, played by Americans on television but scarcely anybody else. If you asked most people they'd say it involved getting dealt five cards, swapping them at some point, after the first round of betting maybe, but only once, then something about bluffing, before finally a winner is declared at random, who subsequently gets shot for duplicity.
We're much better educated now, and Nazara is taking advantage of the fact by reviving a classic poker licence that should really have been put to use before now. Originally a film starring Matt Damon, Rounders is the story of a talented poker player who falls on hard times and then has to claw his way back up. It's gold.
Rounders Poker is steeped in the atmosphere of the film, with moody monologues spouting gruff nonsense like, "If you can't spot the sucker after 30 minutes, you are the sucker." (Why does there have to be a sucker?)
It makes a half-hearted attempt to capture the film's look, but graphics are not its strongest suit. There are only two faces, for instance, ineffectually disguised in several ways, with the inevitable result that it looks like a Monty Python film with only two pythons.
After watching a cut-scene in which Mike loses a huge sum of money to a man called KGB Teddy, you're launched into the game penniless. You borrow money from an acquaintance in order to build a bankroll, and then enter a series of games, selectable from an isometric map screen. The object is to beat Teddy at the end of your fifth virtual day, working your way towards the possibility of victory by playing at progressively high-stakes venues.
At Greeks, the buy-in is just $100, with a minimum stake of $5 ($10 if you're on big blind). This is a good place to take the $500 you win at the University, but once you're a bit more flush you might want to go to somewhere like Binghampton, where the buy-in is $500 and the minimum stake is $15/$30. You can even go to The Taj if you've got $5000 to burn.
If you're short, on the other hand, you can work as a delivery man, ferrying goods around for relatively small change at the cost of a few hours of your time. Or, if driving a truck sounds too much like honest work, you can bail your buddy Worm from jail and use him to cheat by revealing what cards one of your opponents has whenever you succeed in a rhythm-timing sub-game. If you fail, back to jail Worm goes, and you lose more time.
And it's all very nice. Although it's relatively easy to make progress at first, the dosh carrot is never far from your nose, and even once you've outgunned KGB Teddy there's still mileage in going back and seeing if you can make the final encounter easier for yourself.
Rounders Poker gives you different ways of managing your time and money, offering a range of paths to success, but it's to the game's credit that it never gives you a respite from the actual poker. You can tweak a few variables, take a few risks, but the only way to get anywhere is to play cards.
The game's poker brain is for the most part sound, although it doesn't really engage in the more complex behaviour of bluffing or artificially raising the pot by under-betting before the river (the final card) gets laid. That is, your opponent's betting almost always reflects the strength of his hand rather than any strategy he might have.
More difficult opponents are those who play conservatively, folding weak hands before the round gets underway so that you win scraps at a time and then, unless you're lucky, lose the big pots.
There are two variants of Texas Hold 'em to play: closed and open betting. Most are closed, which means that you can only raise by pre-determined amounts. Hardcore poker fans might baulk at this restriction, but for the casual audience at which Rounders Poker is aimed it helps far more than it hinders, relieving you of the burden of making ill-informed choices. On the occasions when you do get to bet openly, it's a nuisance.
There's a multiplayer option, and while the server wasn't exactly a full house when we looked, we were impressed with how easy it was to get a game going. The money's fake, of course, but that's to be expected.
Playing with real money, in fact, would be to miss the point: poker has come this far out of the shadows because people have started to detach the cash from the cards, without which smoky taint it stands as a deep and unbelievably addictive casual game. Unlike its hardcore siblings, Rounders Poker has nothing to do with gambling. It's all about having fun.