More and more players are competing online in addition to playing in more traditional brick-and-mortar casinos. Online play is so very convenient because it’s as near as your computer and you’ll seldom lack for a game. Even when it’s 5 AM where you live and there are few poker players to be found locally, it’s always prime time somewhere on this planet, and there’s always a game in cyberspace.
In one sense, making the jump from traditional casinos to online play is simple, because no matter where you play, poker is still played by the same rules and subject to the same mathematical and statistical parameters. If you have a set on the turn and your opponent has a straight or a flush, the odds against catching one of the 10 cards that will promote your hand to a full house or better on the River are still 3.6-to-1 regardless of whether you’re playing online or in a casino.
But if you’re transitioning from brick-and-mortar poker to online poker, there are some wrinkles that will take getting used to, and to succeed in a new environment there are some adjustments you’ll have to make to be successful.
If you’ve yet to play online, and are eager to download the software and jump right into a game, let’s take first things first. Make your initial foray into online poker a play money game or at least one at micro limits, like a $0.10-$0.20 or less. You’ll have to get familiar with the software, the site’s features, and the speed and characteristics of online play — and you might as well do this as inexpensively as possible. Make your mistakes on the cheap, learn from them, and apply those lessons when you move on to games at your regular limits.
Poker players in a traditional card room are used to its unique environment and to the pace of a casino poker game. Things are entirely different online. Even if you are not aware of it, when you’re playing face-to-face against a table full of opponents, you’re always gathering information about their style of play. You’re registering facts, impressions, and information by watching them play. You’re also comparing the hands they show down with their betting patterns on previous betting rounds, even if you’re not aware that you’re doing it.
In a casino poker room, you’re in position to turn your assessment of their personal behavior into assumptions about their play. Are they drinking, distracted, studious, compulsive chip arrangers, reading a magazine while playing, or brain dead to bits of information that float in the ether above the table and are there for any astute player to notice? There’s lots of tacit learning and implicit knowledge available when you’re able to look at your opponents, watch them play, and interact with them personally.
None of that is available in cyberspace. You are in front of your computer and your opponents are each in front of theirs. All you see is a screen name or alias, and on some sites, players can add a graphic of their choosing, called an avatar.
How valid is that as an indicator of your opponent’s style, playing ability, and personality? Not very. “HotBlonde21,” whose sexy picture is smiling back at you, may be a 260-pound middle-aged truck driver. You never know. The internet gives each of us the opportunity and wherewithal to represent ourselves any way we choose, and how we do so is usually at variance with the way we’d appear if you could observe us in person.
The first time I walked into the Victoria Casino in London, I was 11,000 miles from home. I figured I wouldn’t know a soul in that room, but I recognized two players. I did not know their names — not their real names, anyway. I knew them only by their card table nicknames. One was “Briefcase Alex,” because he always carried a briefcase into the poker room with him. The other, who sported a long beard, was called “the Rabbi.” Whether or not he was a real rabbi I may never know, but he looked rabbinical. While I didn’t know much about them as people, I knew a lot about them as players. I knew how they played. It was clear as day to me even though I had not played with either of them in more than nine months. I associated — unconsciously to be sure — playing styles and other bits of categorized information about their tendencies at the poker table with their appearance and mannerisms.
Physical characteristics are powerful memory pumps that won’t be at your disposal when you play online. That’s why you need to take notes on your opponents. Note-taking is an alternative to these missing memory pumps, and if you want to recall an opponent’s play, you’ll need to take copious notes about them. Online poker notes are retained from one playing session to another; they’re always there to refresh your memory. If you took notes on “HotBlonde21” three months ago, then promptly forgot all about her — or him; remember, when we’re online we’re never quite sure — there’ll be a little “flag” on Blondie’s name to show you that you have some information about that player. All it takes is a couple of mouse clicks to see what telling characteristics you’ve noticed.
Online players frequently play in multiple games. Many players will jump into three or more games simultaneously. Some online players have rigged up dual monitors so they can play in as many as eight games at once. I’m good when it comes to multitasking, but I can’t envision playing eight games at the same time. Four is the most I’ve ever played, and even then, I could not take notes on my opponents. It was all I could do to keep up with the often-simultaneous action that required me to make decisions at different games within seconds.
I was playing sub-optimally, and if you’re playing in three or more games, so will you. You won’t have the time to refer to notes or write down your impressions of your opponents. Nevertheless, when you play online you can strike a winning balance between volume and effectiveness. If you are capable of winning two big bets per hour in your favorite game, let’s look at what you might expect your results to be if you’re able to play only a bit less effectively in four games.
Suppose you figure to win only one big bet per hour in each of the four games you are playing simultaneously. At the end of an hour you rate to win four big bets playing less than your best, but that’s twice what you’d figure to win if you were only to play one game to the best of your ability and win two bets in that same period of time.
You can also drop down in limits and win as much by competing in multiple games than you might by playing in one bigger game. By diversifying, you might just smooth out some of poker’s inherent variance.
When you play in a number of games at once, you’ll probably wind up using some of the pre-action checkboxes. These checkboxes allow you to direct the software to call, fold, or raise when the action gets around to you, and allows you to concentrate on other, more compelling decisions. The disadvantage is that your opponents may realize when you are facing a real decision and when you are acting on autopilot, and they will adjust their play accordingly.
After all, if one player bets and the next player raises in a split second it’s very probable that he used a “raise any” checkbox. This usually indicates a very powerful hand, but it could also be a planned deception, and the only way you stand a good chance of knowing is by taking notes on your opponent’s playing styles.
Online poker also provides you with statistics regarding your play: how many hands you’ve played, how often you’ve called the flop or stayed to the river, or on what betting round you’re most likely to fold. While it’s often easy to deceive yourself about the selectivity and aggressiveness of your play in a traditional casino, your online stats will always tell the real story of your play.
There’s lots more to online play, and we’ll delve into some of it in future articles. Because there are now so many players who have been weaned on internet poker and are confronted with the task of learning how to play properly in a casino, we’ll discuss what players who began their poker careers online can expect when they make the jump to a brick-and-mortar casino.