The old adage "It takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master" is commonly applied to No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em, currently the most popular form of poker played in tournaments and home games across the country. The rules are simple: Two cards are dealt face down to each player, five "community cards" are shared by everyone, and players combine the two cards in their hands with those on the board to make the best five-card poker hand they can. And yet within these parameters are infinite possibilities for creative strategy and psychological gamesmanship, and the best players make sound decisions based on how they read their opponents. In short, it's a people game, which is one of the reasons video-game poker has always come up embarrassingly short of the real thing. The other big reason is that poker needs to be played for stakes, or else there's no motivation for playing it well.
Arriving as the poker craze continues to wane, the long-delayed Stacked makes a valiant effort to simulate the real thing, introducing "Poki" software that supposedly makes reads and adjustments based on how you play. Of course, that doesn't stop AI players from making inconsistent or irrational moves (all-in with 3-4 suited in a multi-way pot?), so don't bother trying to get a read on them. Career mode starts you off with a renewable $2,000 bankroll to use in cash games and tournaments; as you advance, you can unlock new environments and up to seven of poker's young elite, including Josh Arieh, Evelyn Ng, David Williams, and "Kid Poker" Daniel Negreanu himself. Negreanu also conducts a helpful "Poker School" and pops in to give situational advice, much of it out of sync with the action.
Beyond the game: Play-money games are available at many Internet poker sites, and they're faster, more user-friendly, and free. And even the graphics aren't much worse than the cruddy last-generation look of Stacked.
Worth playing for: Flawed as it is, Stacked improves on poker games past and isn't a bad learning tool for beginners. Until IBM develops a Big Blue for poker, this will have to do.
Frustration sets in when: Bad beats are part of the game, but suckouts on inexplicable plays are like salt in the wound.
Final judgment: If you're old enough to play online for nothing, why spend $30 for an ugly interface and weak action?