The Heads-Up Challenge Machine Review

The Heads-Up Challenge machine is, as you might guess by the name, a machine which allows you to play heads up poker, either against a human opponent or the computer. At its heart is a fairly high-spec PC which is plenty capable of handling what’s required. The PC is hidden beneath the table-style case, which allows players to mimic the experience of facing off across the baize of a standard poker table.

First impressions are good, the free bar stools provided with the machine are comfortable (or at least were for most, one of the slightly less junior members of the Mob team wasn’t so keen) and the table is at such a height that one can quite happily play standing. The machine itself is very solidly built, with a flat high resolution display creating the table top playing area. The screen seemed to be well sealed off to withstand a spillage, as it will undoubtedly be used as a table for drinks whilst playing. I admittedly didn’t dare test this out however, nor its resilience to a Hellmuth style tantrum with fists pounding on the screen, which again it looked like it could handle.

Play is fairly intuitive, with only three buttons for each player to use, plus a trackball for controlling the bet size. The left and right buttons are used to check/fold and to raise, with an on-screen prompt as to what options are available, whilst the central button is used to peek at your otherwise face down hole cards on the screen just below it. Using the edge of your hand to press this allows you to cover your hole cards in a similar way that you could in a real game, which is a nice touch. To make a bet or raise, the trackball is pushed forward or backwards to adjust the size of the bet. For players who haven’t used a trackball or are used to the numeric keypad for changing bet sizes in online play, this will take a couple of games to get used to, but it does have the benefit of allowing you to ‘throw’ it violently forward to make an all-in move, much more satisfying than dragging a slider and clicking ‘bet’! In a commercial environment, the trackball also has the advantage of being more resilient than a keypad.

Our review model was very much set up as a machine for commercial use. When you boot it up you have the choice of playing single player, heads-up against a human opponent or a heads-up shootout competition with up to 8 players. Of course there’s nothing stopping you from having a heads up shootout with as many players as you want, if you want to do the draws manually. Now, here is the current problem with the machine, there is a lack of customisation available, you are stuck with the same blind structure each match, and whilst that structure will be a good one for most, a turbo style game but with a bit of play, you would expect to be able to at least alter the starting stack and number of hands per level in a machine for home use. The other real missed opportunity is that you are limited to purely no-limit Texas hold’em. Whilst this is probably fine in an arcade or pub, with the machine costing around £5100 + VAT, you would expect more games to be available. With the guts of the machine being a PC the software is obviously upgradeable and we were told that existing machines will be able to be upgraded with the expected future software updates, allowing customisation of structures and the addition of other games such as Omaha. One nice and unexpected touch is the addition of a high score table, which caused some rivalry at Mob headquarters.

So, why spend so much on a machine that just does the job you could do yourself with a deck of cards? For a start, it definitely has ‘I want one of those’ quality. We were sorry to see it leave the Mob office where we have all the chips and cards we could need to play. Playing on this was fun and quick. Dealing heads up games is tiresome. Even if you have a very good dealer, having to shuffle, riffle and deal for a hand which is probably going to play out on average in a few seconds means not many will have the patience. A shame because heads up play is a very pure form of poker, with cards mattering so much less than in a ring game. Of course you can get that speed playing online, but then you are losing the social aspect and crucial tells, and most importantly the ability to really rub your mate’s face in it when you beat them. Then again, you lose out on some of live poker’s better aspects too, squeezing out the cards virtually is never going to be the same, but personally for playing heads up this is a price I am willing to pay for the speed and ease of play.

For home use, I think the price tag is just too much for most people to justify, although the machine itself is built extremely well and I’m sure it will be cropping up in a few high stakes players’ games rooms in the near future. With the promised software upgrades [since this review was written one is already in place and there is a choice of starting stacks] and with more games and customisation available, it will certainly broaden its appeal but it’s still going to be restricted largely to commercial sales at that price. As far as its worth commercially goes, I expect to see the machine appearing alongside quiz machines and pool tables in pubs very soon, with pound coins lined up on top and the purchase price very quickly being covered.

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The Heads-Up Challenge Machine is available in the UK from Cosmic Video Amusements