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Genre: Board & Card
Min OS X: 10.2    RAM: 128 MB    Hard Disk: 50 MB

Poker Academy Pro
May 10, 2005 | Mark Sabbatini

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If you're a Mac owner planning to play Hold 'Em poker for real money, this is the program to consider. Whether it meets your needs is open -- even seemingly welcome -- to debate.

Poker Academy Pro is not marketed as a game and, at $100, should not be treated as one. That means meeting tough demands in a software field struggling to offer tools serious players need, since computers are ill-suited to capture the intelligence and humanity of real-life games.

Give BioTools credit for recognizing this. They emphasize Poker Academy Pro's university-level artificial intelligence research, and maintain a user forum with frank and active discussions about AI and suggested improvements. Much of this occurs at a level far beyond casual players, such as dissecting graduate and PhD papers about poker and/or AI theories. Users knowledge in Java can also use a free plug-in to create new AI "bots."

The cumulative opinion from users, reviews and poker pros is this is one of two programs at this price range worthy of consideration as a professional tutorial on personal computers. It is considered more flexible and configurable, but less intelligent and suitable for in-depth analysis, than the Windows-only Turbo Texas Hold 'Em by Wilson. Having gotten something of an immersion course in advanced poker theory during the past several weeks -- playing numerous consumer and pro software packages, reading a variety of research papers and tutorial books, and getting familiar with today's table scene in real and online casinos -- the collective opinion seems accurate.

For those who absolutely balk at Windows, Poker Academy becomes the Hold 'Em title of choice by default. Otherwise things get murkier. It may seem extreme to spend a few hundred dollars for a cheap PC or roughly $200 for a Virtual PC emulator, but someone who may play -- and lose -- thousands of dollars obviously needs to invest in the best product for their needs. Top-level experts often find glaring inadequacies, much like world-class chess players who are able to beat nearly any software version. Finally, recreational users will be better off with much cheaper options; a list of Mac titles is at the end of this article and their features are detailed in separate reviews.

Free demo versions of programs are common, but Poker Academy's may be more valuable than most because of these factors. The demo is limited to 20 hands before they repeat -- not nearly enough for an evaluation of its artificial intelligence, but plenty for novices wanting to learn the interface and basic rules of Texas Hold 'Em.

Playing for serious money
Poker Academy seemingly assumes users have some knowledge of the game from the start.

An eight-page user manual is a less than ideal "getting started" guide, mostly describing its in-depth analysis tools. The program isn't much better, showing a couple of potentially confusing dialogue boxes upon startup, with assistance for beginners relegated anonymously to the Help menu.

The first dialogue box creates a new profile or selects a previously created one. Next a "select table" box asks users to choose from 15 pre-configured Hold 'Em variations, with little description about the features and differences between options such as "Heads-up Jagbot" and "No Limit heads-Up 1."

The in-game help is more a reference than a step-by-step guide, although the basics of Hold 'Em and the rank of poker hands are explained in the final section. The tutorial is an online 24-slide multimedia guide apparently written in Flash; it seems BioTools could have made it part of the desktop package, saving users the need to be connected to the Web. There's a few hitches, such as stating the opening player can raise but not check without defining the terms until three slides later, but overall it's friendly enough for novices.

The main game window is attractive in an understated way and relatively free of icons and clutter. Users can change the table and floor graphics to one of a few preselected options, and toggle a few simple animations and sounds, but there's less emphasis on these than other Mac poker titles.

Instead the emphasis is intelligence and gameplay options most users will want to tweak almost immediately. There's also a prominent "deal hand" button for those wanting to play immediately. The next section focuses on a "get-acquainted" round of 15 hands against five randomly picked virtual opponents.


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