Prolific gambling and casino game writer, professional poker player, and inventor David Sklansky is the author of 13 books and the owner of three World Series of Poker (WSOP) gold bracelets – all of which were earned in the early 1980s, well before the “Poker Boom” of 2003.
Sklansky has always been a bit ahead of his time, so it’s no surprise that he managed to create an exciting fusion of video poker and Texas Hold’em way back in 1995. That year Sklansky filed a United States patent claim on a new casino game concept known as Hold’em Challenge.
Recognizing the potential for Texas Hold’em – long known as the “Cadillac of Poker” – to captivate casual gamblers, Sklansky combined elements of the game with a tried and true classic in video poker. The result was a standalone machine operated by one player, with two card poker hands being dealt out, and the player hoping to best a pair of computerized “opponents” by choosing the best cards and connecting with five community cards to form the best possible five-card poker hand.
Unfortunately for Sklansky, his inspiration proved to be a little early, and for nearly a decade the game was nothing more than a conceptual design.
Becoming a Popular Poker Game
However, when mild-mannered accountant Chris Moneymaker somehow managed to defeat a field of feared professionals to win the 2003 WSOP Main Event, everything changed with the flash of that fateful final card. Broadcast to the world through a riveting series of ESPN documentary style shows, Moneymaker’s incredible, improbable victory delivered poker’s World Championship, along with a life-changing $2.5 million prizes.
As reruns of the Main Event occupied television screens seemingly everywhere, 2003 became the year that Texas Hold’em was taught to the masses. Housewives and college kids alike took to the tables, both live and online, learning to love the highs and lows of Texas Hold’em poker.
Capitalizing on the moment, major casino game manufacturer International Game Technology (IGT) partnered with Action Gaming, which had obtained the licensing rights to Sklansky’s Hold’em Challenge game. That year, IGT led an official rollout for the flashy new Hold’em Challenge machines, placing them in the Mirage and Caesars Palace casinos in Las Vegas for a debut run.
Largely billed as a slot machine designer and manufacturer, IGT was founded in Reno in 1975, but over the course of four decades since, the company has expanded its scope to become a worldwide leader in the casino gaming industry.
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Classified as Video Poker
Falling within the video poker classification, Hold’em Challenge was billed as a multi-hand poker game. However, despite the undeniable cultural sensation which was Texas Hold’em at the time, the game’s reliance on a video poker paradigm separated it from purely Hold’em based entries like the popular Heads Up Challenge machine.
Following the game’s trial run at the aforementioned Las Vegas casino properties, Hold’em Challenge faded away into obscurity. While Texas Hold’em was appearing in movies and attracting thousands of players to a single tournament, Sklansky’s invention failed to emerge from the crowded and competitive video poker landscape.
Nonetheless, games like Hold’em Challenge now represent artifacts of the casino gaming industry, and a glimpse back through time. As such, this page was written to commemorate the game, by putting together a definitive review of rules, procedures, and strategies.
Today, you may only be able to find a Hold’em Challenge machine on eBay as a collector’s item, but if you do, at least you’ll know how to get in the game.
Rules and How to Play
Although the game is based on Texas Hold’em poker, Hold’em Challenge plays much more closely to video poker.
With that said, if you’re unfamiliar with the way video poker machines work, head over to our Jacks or Better page for a quick refresher course on how to operate the machine and other fundamentals.
During each hand of Hold’em Challenge, a standard 52 card deck of playing cards is used. Each card in the deck holds its usual rank, and the traditional poker hand hierarchy is used to determine the winner.
Poker hand Rankings
Once again, if you haven’t played poker in a while and need to brush up on the basics, take a look at the poker hand rankings table below to see how to form each hand, and how they stack up:
|Royal Flush||Broadway straight (A K Q J 10) in the same suit|
|Straight Flush||Five consecutive cards (9 8 7 6 5) in the same suit|
|Four of a Kind||Four of same card (Q Q Q Q A)|
|Full House||Three of a kind + one pair (Q Q Q A A)|
|Flush||Five cards in the same suit (2h 6h 9h Kh Ah)|
|Straight||Five consecutive cards (6 5 4 3 2)|
|Three of a Kind||Three of same card (Q Q Q 2 A)|
|Two Pair||Two pairs of the same card (Q Q A A 2)|
|One Pair||One pair of the same card (Q Q 4 3 2)|
|High Card||No pair, highest card is rank of hand (A K 4 3 2)|
The best hand you can make is the mother of all poker hands, the Royal Flush. The lowest hand is simply your high card in an unpaired hand, while two pair beats one pair, three of a kind beats two pairs, and so on.
Playing Hold’em Challenge
These are the simple steps to playing Hold’em Challenge.
Step #1: Placing Your Wager
To begin the game, you’ll need to place an initial wager. This bet can be any amount of your choosing, so long as it meets or exceeds the machine’s minimum. For the most part, you’ll find $1 minimum machines and many players opt for a base bet of $5, depending on their bankroll limitations.
Step #2: Pocket Cards are Dealt
After selecting your wager amount, a hand begins when you press the “DEAL” button. This causes the virtual dealer to distribute three two-card hands face up.
Step #3: Pick Your Starting Hand
The player’s only decision point occurs next, as you’ll need to select one of the three two-card starting hands to play as your own. The other two hands will be considered to be held by a pair of computerized “opponents,” but in effect, they are played by the unseen dealer, similar to the setup in blackjack where players take their hand up against the dealer’s hand.
Step #4: Five Cards are Dealt (Flop)
Next, the virtual dealer will then distribute five cards face up along the middle of the screen. These five cards represent the three card “flop,” the single card “turn,” and the single card “river” used in Texas Hold’em, Omaha, and other poker variants.
Also known as the community cards, these five cards can be shared by each of the three hands in play. The objective of Hold’em Challenge is forming the best possible five-card poker hand (according to the hand rankings table described earlier in this section).
Use the Community Cards to Make a Strong Hand
You can use one or both of the two cards in your starting hand to fit in with the community cards and form a five card poker hand. On some occasions, the five community cards themselves will create the best possible five card poker hand, in which case you’d simply be “playing the board” while using none of your starting cards.
As you can see, based on the community cards, any two-card starting hand has a chance to win each pot. Obviously, choosing good starting hands gives you a better shot at making a strong five card poker hand, but the role of randomization ensures that good hands can lose while bad hands can turn up winners.
Step #5: Comparing Hands & Getting Paid
Once the five community cards have been exposed, the game will automatically determine the best five-card poker hands made by each two-card starting hand.
When your five card poker hand ranks as the best on the table, you’ll be paid out according to the paytable.
Step #6: Start Another Hand
Once the payouts have been settled, the virtual dealer will reshuffle the deck and a new hand will begin when you press the “DEAL” button.
Hold’em Challenge Pay Table
|On-Board Royal Flush||2000 for 1|
|Royal Flush||100 for 1|
|Straight Flush||25 for 1|
|Four of a Kind||10 for 1|
|Full House||3 for 1|
|Flush||3 for 1|
|Straight||3 for 1|
|Three of a Kind||2 for 1|
|Two Pair||2 for 1|
|One Pair (Jacks or better)||2 for 1|
|Low Pair||1 for 1|
|High Card||1 for 1|
|Tie||1 for 1|
*All pays are on a “for one” basis rather than a “to one” basis, meaning you won’t get your original wager back, just the pay amount)
Hold’em Challenge Example Hand
As an example, let’s imagine that we’ve put up a $5 wager and the following three two-card starting hands have been dealt out: Ks Qs, 9c 7d, and 5h 4h.
Based on these three hands, we’d likely select the Ks Qs (or the strongest hand at the moment) to use as our own hand. Of course, part of the fun inherent to Hold’em Challenge – and Texas Hold’em in general – is playing lesser hands and connecting with the community cards, so it’s all up to you.
After selecting our hand (Ks Qs), the other two hands (9c 7d and 5h 4h) will be highlighted as “opponent” hands.
Possible Hands Made with Community Cards
Let’s run through a few possibilities so see how the community card system works.
|#1||Should the five community cards show something like Ad Jc 10h 8d 5s, each of the three hands in play would connect in one way or another. Our Ks Qs hand would form an ace high straight (Ad Ks Qs Jc 10h), while the “opponent” holding 9c 7d would also make a straight with an inferior Jc 10h 9c 8d 7d combination. As for the “opponent” holding 5h 4h, they’ve managed to make nothing more than one pair of 5s (Ad Jc 10h 5h 5s)|
Using this community board, we’d win the hand with an ace high straight, beating the second best straight, while both hands would beat the single pair.
|#2||If we change the community cards to something like Kh Qh 7h 7s 3s, however, the order can be flipped on its head.|
Using these board cards, our Ks Qs would connect to make two pairs of kings and queens (Ks Kh Qs Qh 7h). The “opponent” holding 9c 7d would beat us, though, connecting to make three of a kind in 7s (7d 7h 7s Kh Qh). But both of these hands would be losers, as the 5h 4h has filled in a flush (Kh Qh 7h 5h 4h).
Best Places to Play Hold’em Challenge
Unfortunately for fans of Hold’em Challenge, the game appears to be entirely defunct at this time.
Searches through the IGT website return only promotional materials published back in 2003 and the company’s current Games Archive shows no entries for “Hold’em Challenge.”
As of this time, no brick and mortar casino properties carrying the game can be located.
You can search on eBay and other sites specializing in antiques and collector’s items, but as for actual brick and mortar casino play, Hold’em Challenge has gone all but extinct.
Finally, no online adaptations of the game have been created or licensed by online casino software providers.
Strategic Considerations for Hold’em Challenge
With a game like Hold’em Challenge, the role played by so-called “penalty cards” – or cards you know to be discarded despite their potential value to your hand – complicates the pursuit of perfect strategic play.
With three two-card starting hands to choose from at the beginning of each hand, the goal of the game seems simple enough: select the best two-card starting hand and leave the others for your computerized “opponents.”
However, the four cards you choose to discard can often be those which you’ll be needing to help improve your hand, and navigating these penalty cards is the key to playing your hand correctly.
Penalty Cards Example
Let’s run through an example of penalty cards in action to see how this concept works in Hold’em Challenge.
|#1||The three, two-card starting hands dealt out are as follows: Ah Kh, As 4h, and Qh 10h.|
|#2||Obviously, the best of the bunch is the Ah Kh for a suited ace king high, but consider the community cards you’ll be looking to land in hopes of improving. With two hearts, you’d obviously like to see three more appear to give you an ace high flush.|
|#3||As you can see, the 4h, 10h, and Qh are all exposed already, and by choosing the Ah Kh combination, you instantly send three penalty cards away and out of commission.|
|#4||What about landing an Ace for a strong one pair hand? Well, the As will also be discarded when you choose the Ah Kh, so you’ll only have two aces left in the deck to work with.|
|#5||Throw in two cards that could help you make a straight, a straight flush, and a royal flush (the Qh and 10h) being discarded as penalty cards, and suddenly choosing the Ah Kh as your hand isn’t such an obvious decision.|
This example is extreme of course, and oftentimes the penalty cards out there won’t be so blatant. But learning how to think about all six exposed cards, and how they work in relationship to one another, is essential for playing Hold’em Challenge correctly.
Analyzing Hold’em Challenge
Of course, the added level of variables introduced by penalty cards, combined with the sheer complexity of community card poker games like Texas Hold’em, makes analyzing Hold’em Challenge accurately next to impossible.
Don’t believe us? According to acclaimed casino game theorist and mathematician Michael Shackleford, who runs the invaluable Wizard of Odds gambler’s resource site, Hold’em Challenge contains no less than 418,597,840,861,200 possible hand combinations. In Shackleford’s estimation, it would take his computer roughly 220 years to complete an analysis of this game, so for all intents and purposes, players must rely on their own card sense and instinct (along with a fair dose of luck) to play Hold’em Challenge optimally.
Another strategic element to keep in mind is the role played by the house edge. For Hold’em Challenge, players must overcome a house edge of 1.39 percent – which is quite reasonable when compared to other casino gambling options.
However, when it comes to video poker, this house edge rate is actually about three times higher than the 0.46 percent rate found on traditional Jacks or Better machines. From a purely strategic perspective, video poker players can find much better bets than Hold’em Challenge.