Say whatever you like about Xbox Live avatars, but there's no denying that they have some of the best poker faces around. Until now, the profit-making potential of avatars at poker tables has gone largely untapped, but in Full House Poker, you finally get an opportunity to put your Mini-Me's brilliantly blank expression to work. You're not in for an easy time, though; while this Xbox Live Arcade game's colorful visuals certainly make the tables look inviting, the opponents that you sit at them with are every bit as ruthless as those you might encounter in less-charming casino locales. What really separates Full House Poker from the competition is that, regardless of whether you're playing against AI pros or online amateurs, it does a great job of rewarding you for playing well even when your stack of chips is shrinking.
Your profile in Full House Poker is persistent across all modes of play, and your success is measured not only by how many chips you're holding but also by your experience level. The two often go hand-in-hand, given that you're surely doing something right if you've managed to turn the 2,500 chips that you start with into 1 million. But experience points can also be earned for losing with a strong hand that you weren't crazy to stick with or for knowing when to fold a lousy hand, for example. It's a great system that lets you make progress even when you're hemorrhaging chips, and because it's your level rather than your bankroll that unlocks new customization options for your avatar and casino, every hand you're dealt takes you a little closer to a new outfit, a new deck of cards, or a new style of furniture.
In case you're not familiar with the rules of Texas Hold 'Em, Full House Poker offers a number of helpful text and video tutorials that should get you up to speed in no time. And, if you're still having trouble remembering that a full house beats a flush when you're seated at the table, you can simply tap the left bumper to see a complete list of possible hands in order of strength. Some of your AI opponents overplay their hands with alarming regularity, but with this option, there's no reason for you to do the same unless you have a deliberately aggressive style. That's certainly the case where some of the AI players are concerned, but all too often, even those who aren't described as "aggressive" or "bully" appear to take an all-or-nothing approach. You might see them either fold before the flop (the first three cards that are dealt into the middle of the table) or bluff their way to the river (the fifth and last card that's dealt into the middle) and go all-in when any slim chance they might have had of getting a winning hand has already passed them by. Games played against the AI pose an enjoyable challenge, but it's unfortunate that when characters deviate from their regular play styles, it's almost always to do something stupid.
Full House Poker's AI players are at their best in the Pro Takedown mode, in which you're challenged to take down nine very different characters in head-to-head competitions. Sometimes these challenges resemble prolonged tugs of war as large piles of chips move back and forth, which are really satisfying to win. Each pro requires a different approach, but these characters with names like Rachael Raise, Sonny Skye, and Rai Singh still overplay their hands horribly on occasion. As a result, if you're lucky enough to be dealt a great first hand, it's entirely possible to take them down before the dealer button has even changed hands, which is great for your bankroll but not much fun.
Unsurprisingly, Full House Poker is at its best when you go up against other players online. Both ranked and unranked games are available, and if you have trouble finding a game to join (or just enjoy being a host), you can create your own and invite other players into your customized casino. Online games feel quite different from those against the AI, though perhaps not in the way that you'd expect. Ironically, because bankrolls are persistent across all modes, real players are far more likely to be cautious with their chips than their reckless AI counterparts. There are no real consequences for either if they lose big, but where AI characters seemingly have infinite reserves to draw upon, you're given only 2,500 chips to get your career back on track if you lose everything. Furthermore, to win big, you need to have enough chips to sit at the high-stakes tables, so if you start running low on chips, you might find yourself having to sit at tables that were previously beneath you or even unable to participate in pro takedowns because you can't afford the buy-ins.
Regardless of how your bankroll is looking, you're always allowed to participate in regularly scheduled Texas Heat events. These nicely presented tournaments last for only 25 minutes each and emphasize experience points over chips so that you have a chance of being named the winner even if you don't have the biggest stack. There are three different tiers of table, and depending on how well you're doing, you can be demoted or promoted mid-tournament. If you lose all of your chips, you move down a table, freeing a spot for the chip leader at that table to move up. Messages regularly flash up at the bottom of the screen to let you know how you're faring against other players and how well your friends are doing. You can also see players at adjacent tables and even hear cheers go up from them after a big pot is won. It's all pretty exciting, and when the tournament finishes, you're not only rewarded with chips and experience points, but also with special customization options (a polka dot deck of cards or a gold suit for your avatar, for example), as well as a percentage of the chips that you were holding at the end.
You could be forgiven for thinking that you simply don't need Full House Poker. After all, it costs 800 Microsoft points and there are plenty of online poker games out there that can be played for free. Few are as welcoming for newcomers or as good looking as Full House Poker, though, and none let your avatar perform tricks with chips while wearing a Halo: Reach helmet and your favorite game-logo T-shirt. If your poker face isn't good enough for you to be a high roller in Vegas, know that there's a lot of fun to be had living out that dream vicariously through your avatar.