Killer Poker Online: Crushing the Internet Game
by John Vorhaus
Chapter One: True Facts of Online Poker
First fact: Online poker is not the same as online gambling. If you put your money into play at www.joyofslots.com or www.casinofishie.com or any other online gambling site I might make up, one thing is for sure: You will not win. Not in the long run. It’s just not possible, for the same reason that you can’t beat Las Vegas: If you could beat Vegas, Vegas wouldn’t be there. When you play casino games — slots, craps, roulette, etc. — you’re playing against the house, and you’re playing against the immutable house edge. While you might beat that edge in the short run, you will eventually go broke. This is true whether you’re in Las Vegas or Atlantic City or the cozy computer nook of your very own home. Playing against the house is a guaranteed losing proposition.
But when you play poker, either in the real world or in cyberspace, you’re not playing against the house. You’re playing against other players. Maybe good ones. Maybe dreadful. The odds, as such, don’t favor them or favor you. In the long run, everyone gets their fair share of good cards and bleak cards. The difference is what you do with the cards you get, and that difference is called skill. Poker skill. The house is just the host, which means that with internet poker, unlike internet gambling, you do have a chance to win.
When I speak of poker skill, I assume you already have plenty. I assume that your knowledge of poker goes well beyond what-beats-what, and into a fairly sophisticated understanding of the poker games commonly played on the internet: seven-card stud, Omaha and, especially, Texas hold’em. If I’m wrong about this assumption — if phrases like pot odds and reverse tells, or even traveling blinds and betting limits, cause you to stare off into space with your jaw gone slack — then this isn’t the book for you, at least not yet. It’s not that this is that complex a book. It’s just that it addresses the question of how to beat the online game in contrast to strategies used to beat the real world game. If you don’t know your basic poker, then you’d better go take care of that business first.
If you do know your basic poker, then you know that the standard formula for success is selective/aggressive play, where you enter pots infrequently, but when you do come, you come on strong. In my book, Killer Poker: Strategies and Tactics for Winning Poker Play, I describe this strategy as “Go big or go home.” Interestingly, this is not a philosophy that applies to online play, for reasons we will look at now.
You Need to Minimize Your Risk
“A man should never gamble,” says the sage, “more than he can stand to lose.” This is good advice in all forms of gaming, but it’s especially true for internet poker, where the speed of play and other pitfalls can imperil your bankroll in ways you’ve never imagined and can’t take steps to prevent. Whatever else you do with the information in this book, I hope you’ll take this one bit of wisdom to heart: Don’t bet big in internet poker. Why? Because then, if one of the unavoidable traps of online play happens to trap you, at least it won’t trap you or punish you in a financially meaningful way.
Consider this scenario: You’re playing hold’em online, and you’re dealt A-K under the gun. You raise; the guy behind you raises; the guy behind him raises; you find yourself taking the flop six ways, with the betting capped. The flop, mirabile visu, comes Q-J-T. The crowd goes wild! (Which is to say that you, in the privacy of your own home, go wild, jumping up and down and shouting out your joy.) A raising war breaks out, as it becomes apparent that everybody else likes their hand too. In a frenzy of betting, all sorts of cyberchips go into the cyberpot. Glee fills you to the core of your being. You’re going to win.
You’re going to win big.
Your computer goes dead!
It could be a lightning strike or a terrorist attack or an earthquake or rats gnawing through power lines. Hell, it could even be your six-year-old playing with the plugs. In any event, through no fault of your own, in a manner totally beyond your control, you’re taken out of action in a monster hand.
If you’ve played online already, then you already know that most sites make provisions for this sort of occurrence. The so-called all-in disconnect treats your sudden disappearance as an all-in wager. That’s good, up to a point, for it means that your investment in the pot up till now is protected. You’re going to win all those pre-flop and post-flop bets, and that’s not nothing. But also it’s not everything. It’s not any of the bets that you would have won on the turn and the river when your monkeyfish foes with their lesser straights and flushes and blithely bet into your monster. No need to do the math; let’s just say that your catastrophic disconnect has cost you half of what you would otherwise have won. How do you like life now?
If you’ve lost half of a lot of money, you feel real bad. If you’ve lost half of a little money, you feel a lot less bad.
All computer users, writers especially, know what it’s like to endure a computer crash at the worst possible time. Every screenwriter I know has a tale of woe about a terrific, brilliant script or scene that was lost because their computer suffered a sudden meltdown and they, foolishly, had not backed up their work. Has it happened to me? Of course it’s happened to me. But only once. After that, I learned to save my work frequently, almost obsessively, in fact, so that if (when) my computer does next crash, I’ll only lose the last ten minutes of creative output, and not the whole day’s work.
In fact, I think I’ll back up this file now.
This is called minimizing risk, and it is a vital part of your online play strategy. The sad fact is that sooner or later you will experience a catastrophic disconnect. It will happen when you least want it to, and it will cost you at least some theoretical profit, I promise. If that theoretical profit is huge, huge, huge, you will rail and curse the gods. But if that theoretical profit is a not-that-significant sum of money, you will be much better equipped, on an emotional level, to take the setback in stride. And it’s absolutely crucial for you to be able to take such setbacks in stride, for they are an absolute fact of online poker life.
A man should never gamble more than he can stand to lose. Especially online, where the reasons for losing may have nothing to do with the way you play the hand. Never play online for life-changing sums of money. Put some discretionary income into play, fine. But don’t bet the house; don’t even bet a mortgage payment. It’s bad enough to lose fair and square, but if you play online for any length of time, I promise there will come a time when you lose unfairly, possibly even unsquarely. Maybe, as in the example described above, you’ll lose a connection at a key moment in a key hand. Maybe your online poker provider will go broke and abscond with your hard-won funds. It could happen — hell, it’s happened more than once already in the short history of internet poker. Maybe you’ll fall victim to garden-variety online collusion. Anyone who thinks that the only losses they’ll absorb online will be the normal losses of normal poker play is just not paying attention. Sorry, but it’s true. Do not be this person.
When you play poker online, you want to play your best. You want to focus all your concentration and mental energy on playing perfect poker, Killer Poker, just as you would in any real world poker game. But how can you do this if, in the back of your mind, you’re worried about the solvency of your online poker provider or the integrity of internet connection or the honesty of your unseen online foes? You can’t. You will, inevitably, play less than perfectly if worry infects your thinking.
Worry will naturally infect your thinking less if there’s less real money at stake. So minimize your online investment. Do this one thing, and your online experience will be a much more rewarding and enjoyable one, I promise. It may even be a more profitable experience, because what you lose in betting limit you gain in tranquility and focus.
Suppose you want to go to a nightclub in a bad neighborhood. You can’t not go to the nightclub; your favorite band is playing. But you can’t not have the nightclub be in a bad neighborhood; it is where it is. So what do you do? You strip your wallet of excess cash and credit cards. You leave your swanky jewelry at home. You drive the old Pinto instead of the new Jaguar. That way, if your nightmare scenario comes true, if unscrupulous thugs hold you up for everything you’ve got, they’ll get less than they otherwise would. You have minimized your risk. You’ve also improved your state of mind. In the likeliest scenario, you won’t get rolled. You’ll go to the nightclub, enjoy the band, and come home with no worse consequences than a hangover the next morning. But if you’ve prepared for the worst, you’ll be much more likely to enjoy the event in the event that the worst doesn’t come to pass.
Same with online poker, only the issue is not just enjoyment but also performance. If you’re constantly worried about negative outcomes, you simply won’t play your best. And since some negative outcomes are unavoidable online, you can’t afford this worry. Which means that you must minimize your investment, and thus minimize its mental impact on you. I’m not saying that online poker is the equivalent of a night club in a bad neighborhood, but, okay, I am.
At the end of the day, this point may be moot, because most sites don’t have super-big games to begin with. As of this writing, the largest limit games routinely spread online are $20-40. Of course there’s pot-limit and no-limit action as well, and in those games you could certainly drop a wad if you weren’t careful. So be careful. Don’t let your greed for online glory outweigh your responsible approach to a form of gambling whose every technical and tactical aspect you simply can’t control.
Most Players Lose Online
If you plan to play poker online, you’d better understand this truth: The majority of people who play poker online lose money in the long run. Why? Because the majority of people who play poker period lose money in the long run, whether in cyberspace or in b&m (brick and mortar) cardrooms and casinos.
Is this true? Yes, it’s true. In the first place, most players don’t take time to learn how to play the game properly, and thus the casual poker enthusiast routinely falls victim to the genuinely skilled and educated and dedicated player. In the second place, every poker room, in the real world and cyberspace alike, charges players to play. This charge, the rake, happens to good players and bad players alike, so that, if every player were equally skilled, with each winning the same size pots with the same frequency, all players would lose in the long run. Since not all players are, in fact, equally skilled, the vast majority of unschooled players end up paying off both the house and the talented few. The combination of these factors, laziness and relentless raking, trend most players toward negative net outcomes.
Most players don’t like to admit this. They go to great lengths to deny it. They tell themselves (and their spouses, friends, dogs, clergy, anyone else who will listen) that they’re “break-even or better,” even though they don’t have the statistical evidence to back up their claim. If they play mostly in the b&ms, it’s easy enough for them to perpetuate this falsehood. They “forget” how much they bought in for. The “forget” a trip or two to the ATM. They let anecdotal memory of big wins wash away recollection of unpleasant and all-too-frequent losing sessions. Real world poker is a fuzzy environment where distinctions between poker bankrolls and “other money” can be blurred, and all sorts of denials can take root and grow.
Online, this lie is not nearly so easy to perpetrate. There are certain steps that every player must go through in order to put real money into play on the internet. These steps leave a statistical trail; one that’s easy to verify and damnably difficult to deny. Face it: If last week you moved $1000 into www.nakedpoker.com (not a real site, so don’t bother looking), and this week you don’t have it, you’ll have a hard time convincing yourself or your spouse, clergy or dog that the money went to gas, lodging or food.
Internet poker, then, throws the fact of our losses into sharp, undeniable relief. This has a startling effect on some players. If they fancy themselves winners in the b&m environment, and then find themselves losing online, they often feel perplexed. Worse, they feel paranoid. Knowing (imagining) themselves to be winning players, they can’t believe that they have suddenly lost all their skills. Groping for an alternative explanation, they conclude that the online game is somehow rigged against them, and this is why they lose.
Wrong. They lose because they’re generally not great players. They lose because they don’t make the strategic adjustments required of internet poker. They lose because they lose focus, or don’t treat their outcomes seriously, or otherwise fall into the plentiful and common traps of online play. They lose; only now they have to face that fact, because the harsh reality of their depleted online bankroll is staring them in the face.
So then, we have this fact: The majority of online players will lose money, just as the majority of any poker population will. Your job, then, is to be in the minority. To achieve this goal, you will have to pay close attention to the nuances of the online game. You’ll have to surrender your reliance on certain skills, such as reading face tells and body tells, and increase your expertise in other areas, such as interpreting statistical data. You’ll need an honest self-appraisal of your poker skills, and a willingness to adapt those skills in new and surprising ways. Online play requires, in short, hard work. If you’re not willing to do this work, you must simply accept your place in the majority, and be content to let your money flow to the skilled and diligent few, and to the house.
This is not acceptable to most players, nor should it be. After all, you work hard for the money that you choose to invest in online play. It only stands to reason that you wouldn’t want to pee it away if you didn’t have to. Well, you don’t have to, not if you’re willing to admit your limitations going in. So if you find yourself losing money online, don’t be so quick to blame “the system.” Don’t assume that you’re being cheated; you’re probably not. Be prepared to say to yourself, “It may be that I’m not quite as good at this thing (yet) as I need to be.” Be prepared to improve. And then you can be one of the few who reap what the hapless many may sow.
Online Play has a Unique Emotional Impact
Whether you realize it or not, you take steps to prepare yourself for b&m poker play. If there’s a drive involved in the journey to your poker destination, you spend time on that drive thinking about the type of game you’re likely to find, how long you plan to play, who you’re going to encounter and a host of other factors. Even if you’re only traveling across a casino from your hotel room to the poker room, you’re involved in a change of space, and this physical transition naturally brings about a mental transition as well. You go from “not playing poker” to “playing poker.” You enter a poker frame of mind.
Online it’s different. It’s a snap to get into a game. You can go from cleaning the cat box to posting a blind in the time it takes to click “deal me in.” Hell, you can even clean the cat box and play poker at the same time. The fact of this easy transition from not playing to playing means that the time of your mental and emotional preparation may be diminished to the point of nonexistence. You can find yourself involved in big hands and crucial decisions before you’re ready in any meaningful sense.
I’m not suggesting that you must leave your house and go walk around the block before you settle in for an online session, although that certainly wouldn’t be a bad idea. Even five minutes alone with your thoughts will help you launch your online session in the right frame of mind. Why would you not take that time? Are you that impatient to get your virtual cards in the air? Then you have a problem with patience, and this problem is only exacerbated by the speed and ease with which you can get involved in online play.
It goes deeper than this. When you go to play poker in a b&m, you’re entering a poker environment. Everything about the place says poker: the players, the table and chairs, the dealers, cards, cash and chips. Being in a poker environment helps you enter a resource state appropriate to the task at hand. Resource states are familiar frames of mind in which certain sorts of thinking take place. An artist or a writer, for instance, only starts to work productively when he enters his creativity resource state, the frame of mind in which his ideas most freely flow. Likewise, many poker players are not at their sharpest until they have warmed up, become mentally reacquainted with poker’s decisions and patterns of thought. When you put yourself in a poker environment, your mind naturally shifts into its poker-playing resource state.
But this shift takes time. Ask any writer who has stared at a blank screen or painter who has stared at a blank canvas, and they’ll tell you that nothing happens until the juices start to flow. Same with poker. You have to be in the game environment for at least a little while before your poker juices start to flow. When you jump from cleaning the cat box to posting the blind, the shift into your effective resource state can lag quite far behind.
Many players thus find themselves mentally unprepared for online play on both a conscious and an unconscious level. They haven’t done the conscious preparation work which gets them mentally ready for the challenges and choices they’re about to face, nor have they made the unconscious transition from another mental state into the poker resource state.
You can see where this is leading. If you make the jump into online play without proper mental preparation, you run the risk of playing badly to start, and losing early money as a result. This would be like taking a long flight to Las Vegas and throwing yourself into a game before you’d had a chance to recover from jet lag or other rigors of the trip. You maybe go to Vegas only a couple times a year; online play offers you the opportunity to make this mistake of impatience every time you play. No player can afford to squander the quality of the first half-hour of his session, every single session, and hope to be net plus over time.
To guard against this, you must be prepared to, well, be prepared. Treat every session as a serious affair. Take a moment, or two or three, to collect your thoughts and plan your strategy before you jump into a game. The mistakes you don’t make early are ones you don’t have to overcome later.
Here’s another emotional danger of online play: The visceral impact of poker is less potent online than it is in the b&m. If you lose a big pot in a cardroom, you see those chips go away and you see your stack get smaller. Online, the only thing that changes is a number on a screen. It’s all too easy to treat that number as insignificant, all too easy not to feel the loss, deep down in your gut where it counts. When that happens — when you disconnect from the emotional impact of losing — you run the risk of not caring whether you win or lose.
Now keep in mind, being emotionally involved in the game is not the same as experiencing fear. A lot of players, in any poker environment, have the problem of fearing to lose. You might feel that the natural emotional disconnect of online poker would free you from that fear. But draw the distinction between not fearing and not caring. When you don’t care about the outcome, sloppy play, poor decision-making, and stunning losses can result.
It’s easy to forget you’re playing for real money online, and it’s easy thus to become careless about what you do. This underscores once again the need for a serious approach to the recreation of online play. It’s a given that you will enjoy online poker more if you play well and win money. Neither of these things will happen if you don’t attend to the real emotional differences between online play and the b&m experience.
It’s Hard to Play Your Best Game Online
When you play poker in a cardroom or casino, you’re not just emotionally prepared; you’re also behaviorally prepared. In service of perfect poker, you attend to all sorts of useful little procedures. You put on your poker face, so that you present the image you wish to present to the other players at the table. You increase your awareness of other people, drawing information about your opponents through your eyes and ears, and collating this endless stream of sensory input into hypotheses about tendencies and tells. You note the number of chips you have (counting and recounting them, perhaps) and consider your stack size relative to others at the table. You monitor play at the other tables, to see if a richer opportunity awaits you elsewhere. You do all of these things automatically, because you’re in a poker environment, and that very environment, through habit and long experience, instructs you to do so. Immersed in a rich sensory stew of poker, you find it easy and natural to enter your zone of quality poker, and play your best game.
Not so online. Sure, you’re still getting visual and auditory cues, but these cues are representational, not real. And I’m not talking about the difference between real world and online tells; there definitely are online tells, and we’ll get to them in due time. No, what I’m talking about is that when you’re playing poker online, your poker information comes from a limited source — your computer screen. You’re accessing a poker environment, but you’re not immersed in it, and the difference will impact your play.
Then there’s the matter of focus. As we discussed above, everything in the b&m environment reminds you that you’re playing poker. You’re in a place where poker is played, surrounded by other people doing the very same thing, in a room dedicated to that pursuit. But when you play online, sitting in your swivel chair in front of your computer, you’re in a place that’s only used for poker on a part-time basis. Looking around my home-office, I see a place where I write my books, balance my checkbook, talk on the phone, send and receive email, read, listen to music, watch TV, play Hackey Sack, and sometimes sleep. Looking around your home-office or cozy computer nook, what kind of space do you see?
As an exercise, take a moment and list all the uses you put that space to. You will be astounded to discover what a tiny fraction of your time in that space could possibly be devoted to poker.
Whatever else it may be, then, your internet poker terminal is in no sense a pure poker environment. It has dozens of distractions built in, and these distractions will definitely conspire to erode your focus. When you play poker in a place where you’re used to doing other things, it’s hard to bring your best concentration to bear. The impact of this is greatest during your first days of online poker play, but it never completely goes away.
If you don’t yet have long experience playing poker online, you also have a great deal of unlearning to do. Many of the strengths and skills that you rely upon to succeed in the real world simply will not serve you in cyberspace. I, for instance, have collected countless extra bets by trading on my playful image. With a natural tendency to do outrageous things anywhere anyway, I parlay this tendency into “antics” at the poker table, which obscure the true quality or nature of my play. I call it “lulling my foes into a false sense of stupidity,” but it’s not a skill that serves me well online, for the obvious reason that they can’t see me dressed like a leprechaun or tearing up a twenty-dollar bill and swallowing the pieces with my orange juice. Nor, for that matter, can I see their hands shake when they have big tickets.
This, then, is another reason why you don’t naturally bring your best game to the online experience. You don’t have your usual bag of tricks at your disposal, and it takes time and training to fill a new bag. Especially when you’re first starting out, you may find yourself feeling vaguely hamstrung by what you can’t do online.
You don’t have to feel vaguely hamstrung. You can feel articulately and specifically hamstrung, if you just spend a moment to explore the issue more fully. With that in mind, I’d like you to do another exercise. (If you’ve read my other books, you know that I’m big on exercises, especially written ones, which allow you to investigate your play in a thorough, logical and concrete way.) Catalog what you perceive as the strengths of your game and ask yourself whether you think each strength will serve you online. I’ll start you off.
|LIKELY TO BE
AN ASSET ONLINE
POKER STRENGTH OR SKILL
Did you do the exercise? If not, I urge and exhort you to go back and do it now. With this book, as with all tomes that try to teach you something, you only get out of the experience what you put into it. So do this exercise. In fact, do them all. They cost little enough in terms of time, and only slightly more in terms of frank introspection, but in all cases pay real dividends when you play. In case you hadn’t heard, no poker player can hope to excel if he’s not willing to be honest and articulate with himself about himself. And while it’s easy to be honest about your strengths (“I project a damn good table image!”) you may find it harder to be honest with yourself about your failings (“My voice cracks when I’m bluffing”). But take heart! Some of those failings may actually be failings no more once you get online. (Who cares whether your voice cracks, e.g.) So let’s do the exercise again, only this time list some holes or leaks in your play and speculate on whether those leaks are likely to hurt you online.
|LIKELY TO BE
A LIABILITY ONLINE
|Tendency to play too loose||X|
|Tendency to go on tilt||X|
Some of your flaws, then, will actually hurt you less online, because the online environment doesn’t give them a chance to do damage. For the ones that can hurt you, though, be warned that they can hurt you a good deal more, for the simple reason that you’ll see a lot more hands. Where a b&m table might throw down thirty hands an hour, you could see twice or even three times that many online. If you do the same thing wrong over and over again in the real world, you’ll repeat that mistake a whole lot more online.
Here’s another reason you’re likely not to bring your best game to the virtual table: No one is watching! In the real world, we often make choices based on how we are perceived or how we want to be perceived by other players. A lot of us, for example, don’t like to get “caught” playing bad hands out of position. We fear the disapproval of our poker peers. Now, one could argue whether this fear is sensible or not, but the fact remains that, in a live game against real people (especially people we know), pure human pride will often keep us from getting out of line. Not so online. Online, you’re anonymous. Hiding behind a screen name and/or an avatar, you can justify all sorts of crazy plays that you wouldn’t let yourself get caught dead doing in a real world game. Draw to an inside straight? Why not? It only costs a bet, and who’s to know? Run a hopeless bluff? Why not? It probably won’t work, but who’s to know? The fact of this anonymity will blow serious holes in your play if you’re not careful. It’s amazing how, out there in the b&ms, peer pressure keeps us on the straight and narrow. In cyberspace, that peer pressure is gone, and its absence can have a noticeable negative effect on our play.
Not to beat the dead horse of this, but I really do encourage you to participate in this book in a meaningfully interactive way. To help you do that, I’ll pose this question, just as if I were your high school teacher and this were a pop quiz:
Based on everything you know (or don’t yet know) about internet poker, why do you think you may be unlikely to play this brand of poker at the highest level of your skill? Write down your observations here, or in a separate notebook or journal.
You’ll be surprised how much better you play if only you become aware of the reasons that you might not automatically play so well.
Everything Happens Faster Online
When you go to play poker at a b&m, you put your name on a sign-up list, and you wait to get a seat. They may have a spot open for you already, in which case you are seated immediately — immediately, that is, except for the time it takes you to convert your cash into chips, rustle up a chair cushion, wait for some player or players to switch seats, wait for your blind, and so on. “Immediately” in this case, can take several minutes or more.
When you go to play poker on the internet, you put your name on a sign-up list, and you are seated immediately. In the time it takes for some not-very-complex software to load, you will find yourself choosing from among the available seats at the table. You bring your cyberchips with you when you come, so you don’t have to flag down any chip runners. You’re sitting in your own chair at your own desk, so if you need cushions, you already have ’em. If other players want to change seats, they either did so before you arrived, or they’re out of luck now. You may still have to wait for your blind, but even that wait will be a fraction of its Real world equivalent, as a function of the faster play of hands.
And that’s just getting into the game. Now think about all the simple “process” things that happen faster in the online realm. Shuffling is done automatically, in nanoseconds. Cards are dealt in the blink of an eye. Bets are placed at mouse-click pace. There’s no pot to push. If the pot is split, the calculation is done instantly. There’s never a deck change or a dealer change, no wait for players to be seated. All the business of poker happens at breakneck speed online. How do you think this will affect your play?
You’ll have much less time to think about things, that’s for sure. Suppose you take a bad beat. In the real world, you’ll probably have half a minute or a minute (the time it takes the dealer to scramble, shuffle and deal) to collect your thoughts before you have to make another poker decision. This time may be just what you need to calm down, regain your composure, get over your bad beat, and keep from going on tilt. But take that same beat online, and you’re faced with another decision again almost immediately. The emotional fallout from the last hand can carry over much more easily to the next hand, because the next hand is upon you so fast. You may find yourself on tilt before you know it, because you face your next decision literally “before you know it.”
There are certain circumstances where the pace of play online can seem infuriatingly slow. Watching another player’s time-out clock count down can seem to take an eternity (and make you want to reach out through the phone line and strangle the chowderhead who’s slowing down your game). But this lull is only relative to the overall accelerated speed of the online game. It merely points out by exception that online poker is fast beyond fast compared to the Real world game.
Will this have an impact? Of course it will, and not just in terms of tilt risk. It can also make breaks difficult to take. In a Real world game of hold’em or Omaha, for example, if you’re moving into early position, you know that it will take at least a few minutes for the blind to reach you, giving you time to go to the bathroom or catch a breath of fresh air or whatever. Online, that blind is never more than moments away. The call to action is continuous. It’s hard to tear yourself away. And it’s easy to experience mental fatigue. You see hand after hand after hand, with no respite. Things start to blur.
The composition of tables changes so quickly, too, and this has an impact as well. If you’re playing $3-6 dealer’s choice at the Player’s Club in Ventura, California, a nice little three-table joint with a crew of reliable regulars, you’re likely to see the same faces, or mostly the same faces, throughout a whole evening’s play. That kind of thick consistency never happens online. Your foes come from all over the world. They come and go in seconds. You may not even have noticed they were there. Just when you’ve drawn a reliable bead or read, they vanish into thin air.
This accelerated pace of play is not all bad, of course. If the hands are coming at you fast and furious, it does tend to focus your attention and keep your head in the game. There’s literally no time for the mind to wander. Also, whatever real edge you have over your opponents will be magnified by the speed of play. If you make better decisions than they do, you want to be involved in as many decision situations as possible. The online environment is a realm of many decisions. Get your foes leaning the wrong way and you can keep them off balance for a long and profitable time.
Assuming they’ll stick around for that, for another thing you can do very fast online is leave the game. A mere click of the mouse and you’re history. And with so many other games going on all over cyberspace, there’s very little reason for a player to stay put in an unfavorable situation. It’s not like they’ll have to wait long for a seat elsewhere. It’s not like they have to drive anywhere. Thus, you’ll find, it’s infuriatingly easy for the fishies to wriggle off the hook.
But don’t worry. There’s plenty of other fishies out there, just waiting for a chance to nibble the bait, for the fast pace of internet poker is especially appealing to action junkies. Whatever real poker skills they may have are mitigated by their desire to just… be… involved. Some extremely bad players actually prefer online poker to the b&m experience precisely because the pace of play is so fast. If they have to fold — which they can’t stand to do — they know that this hand will end and another will start very soon.
So the speed of online poker can be both a blessing and a curse. The effect it has on you will depend largely on your approach to the game. If you’re just in it for the buzz, well, you’ll get plenty of buzz, but you probably won’t make money. If you’re looking for profit, and you’re prepared to adjust your game to the accelerated pace, then you may find a hospitable home online.
Boredom is Your Number One Foe
This true fact of internet poker may seem a little counterintuitive at first. How, one may wonder, can the game be boring when the pace of play is so fast? Who has time to be bored? You’d be surprised. If you’ve never played online before, you will be surprised. Even though you know that the next hand is only seconds away, those seconds can seem like hours. Why should this be?
For one thing, the very speed of internet poker creates its own expectation for more speed. Once you become accustomed to the pace, a certain subjective reality sets in. Fast isn’t fast anymore. You find yourself frustrated by any little delay. Periods of time which are insignificant in the b&ms become intolerable online. You had to wait how long to get a seat? Two minutes?! Unconscionable! That guy took how long to fold his hand? Ten seconds?! Unbearable!
But the biggest reason for online poker boredom concerns the way your mind receives information about the game. When you play in the real world, immersed in the total poker environment, everything you see and hear and feel contributes to your overall understanding of the scene. There is abundance of nuance, from the way your opponents say, “Check” to the feel of your chips in your hand as you shuffle them. You are, in a sense, in an ocean of poker — on a sensory level, a richly satisfying place to be.
Online it’s different. All your information comes from one source, the computer screen right in front of your eyes. Even if you have all your audio options turned on, you’re getting at best a dozen different pre-programmed sounds. No matter how textured the graphics of your online site (and some of them are pretty good) you’re still just looking at representations on a screen. Instead of a sensory ocean, you find yourself sitting by a single stream, a data stream. The information available to you is not rich and it’s not complex. In this situation, it’s easy to feel understimulated, uninvolved… in a word, bored.
This boredom is very dangerous. It can cause you to do many things detrimental to your play. It makes you chase hands with bad cards because you can’t stand to be out of action. It makes you turn your attention elsewhere, so that you miss valuable information about your foes. Worst of all, it motivates you to fill your environment with other sources of information (distractions) such as television, music or telephone calls. To fight the enemy of boredom, you must be content to stare at the screen, the whole screen, and nothing but the screen for all the hours that you play. Can you do this? Will that be enough sensory input for you? If it’s not, then you have a problem.
A problem, alas, that I share.
As a poster child for attention deficit disorder, I long ago discovered a simple truth about myself: The one thing I want to do more than anything is many things at once. In a nightmare of overstimulation, here’s how I might find myself fighting boredom during an online poker session:
I’m playing two different games on two different sites. I have a word processing program open and I’m taking notes on my opponents and also recording my own thoughts and observations about the game. Across the room, not quite outside my field of vision, there’s a baseball game on TV. But the sound is off, because I’m listening to Steely Dan on the stereo, trying for the umpteenth time to figure out who Katy lied to, and why. I have a headset telephone, so my hands are free to type and click as I chat with a friend who knows nothing about poker and can’t understand why I’m alternatively so animated (I won!) and anguished (I lost). I’m drinking coffee (maybe even Irished). There’s a yo-yo in my desk drawer that I toss from time to time. The printer on my desk is spitting out pages of my latest script. Now the fax machine comes to life, and I deal with some correspondence from a client overseas. Of course I’m answering my email. I’m answering the doorbell too, if it rings. Scratching my dog behind her ears. Drawing doodles on a scratch pad. Clipping my nails. Nursing a sneeze.
That’s almost enough stimulation for me. Almost…
If you think I’m exaggerating, trust me I’m not. Hell, I’m playing poker online even as I write these words (and playing again even as I edit them). I’m not recommending this as a strategy, not by any stretch of the imagination. I’m merely pointing out the fact that many online players – even guys who write about it — run the risk of being bored, and the further, bigger risk, of fighting that boredom with other stimulation sources.
If you’ve already played poker online, I would ask you to jot down a truthful list of all the things you’ve done while doing that.
If you’ve not yet played online, survey your home office or computer nook and list all the possible sources of distraction that could threaten your efforts.
Boredom can be fought. Soon we’ll discuss weapons to use against it. But don’t imagine that the answer to boredom is distraction. That’s a deadly combination. It’ll eat your bankroll alive.
Online Play Will Not Necessarily Improve Your Real World Performance
A lot of people get into internet poker in the mistaken belief that it will help them fine-tune their poker play and make them monsters at the table in the b&ms. Nothing could be further from the truth. (Okay, some things could be further from the truth — for instance, looking at a picture of supermodel Marloes van der Heijden on the internet will not magically make her appear at my door.) While virgin players will gain some useful understanding of the poker’s structure and rules, and even a sense of relative hand values, online poker differs so much from online play that, in general, what you learn online will not translate into triumph in the real world.
Some reasons for this are self-evident. As we have already discussed, the kind of information you glean in a b&m poker environment is much different from, and much more rich and varied than, the data you collect online. Suppose you become triumphant in the online game. You still know nothing about how to search body language for tells, nor about how to use your table image to manipulate your opponents.
And again, real world poker makes demands on a player that internet poker does not. If you drive to play poker, you’re likely to be at it for some number of hours. (If you fly, you could be at it for days.) Stamina, then, is an asset to your play in the real world. Online, if you get tired, you quit. In the b&ms, if you get tired, you’re much more likely not to quit. How will a dozen hit-and-run sessions online prepare your for the rigors of the real world marathon?
On the other hand, the accelerated pace and self-induced distraction problems of internet play can teach players valuable lessons in concentration and patience. If you are able to play a solid, tight game on the internet, where the temptation to play too loose is so great, it’s possible that the discipline you acquire through this exercise will serve you well in the real world too.
But it’s more likely that if you learn how to beat the online game, you will have only learned how to beat the online game. A lot of your success in internet poker depends on your ability to manipulate certain kinds of data — data that are not available in the b&m realm. To take one example, online play offers you the possibility of keeping extensive written records about your opponents’ performance, records you can update, and also refer to, while you play. If online player TulsaChronic check-raises on the turn with a flush draw on board, you can go back and examine your book on this player and see what he’s done in the past in similar situations before you decide to call, raise or fold. Try this in a b&m cardroom — “Time, please, while I leaf through my notebook” — and see how far you get!
Skill at storing and interpreting data, then, becomes a weapon in your arsenal of online play, a weapon that you can’t use nearly as effectively in the real world. Yes, you can keep a mental book on the players you face, but the physical book, the kind of data bank you can assemble and refer to in online play, is not generally available to the real world player. You have to rely on your memory — a memory which may actually have atrophied through use of the online crutch of visible, written records.
Your strength at online play, then, can cause you to overestimate or misinterpret your overall poker skill. You can believe yourself to be an excellent player in general, even though your record of success exists only within the confines of online play. To stretch a metaphor to the snapping point, just because know how to water ski doesn’t mean you can snow ski too.
In sum, beginning poker players can get a certain amount of educational value out of playing poker on the internet, the same sort of value they’d get from a decent piece of poker simulation software. And whatever your skill level, you can enhance and increase your skills in the online environment, and make yourself a more formidable foe in that environment. But if you think that logging a thousand hours at www.worldseriesofcyberspace.com is going to prepare you to triumph at the World Series of Poker, you’re probably leading yourself astray.
It’s not entirely out of the question that you would lead yourself astray on purpose. People playing poker, especially those who are playing and losing, often find themselves looking for reasons to keep playing poker, or to play more poker, or to play for higher stakes. If you’ve got a jones for internet poker, you might very well find yourself justifying that jones in the name of “sharpening your skill set.” This is, of course, a cheap rationalization, and a threat to those who indulge in it.
So we return once again to the fundamental question: Can you tell the truth about yourself to yourself? Win or lose, are you able to look at your participation in online poker and say, “I’m doing this for fun or for modest profit, but in any event I’m doing it because I want to, not because I have to”? Can you play poker online for clear-eyed, conscious reasons, or must you dress up your involvement with transparent lies? If the latter, then I submit to you that you may have the sort of problems that playing more internet poker will only make worse.
Online Play Magnifies Mistakes
By accelerating and compressing the pace of play, online poker causes bad players to play worse — sometimes much worse. If there are holes in your game, and you do not take steps to fix them, you can anticipate losing a lot of money in online play.
Part of this, as we have already seen, is simple mathematics. If you’re playing twice as many hands per hour, your overall quality of play will reveal itself twice as fast. This is something that people rarely take into account in cardrooms and casinos: The leisurely pace of play actually keeps bad players from hurting themselves too badly. They just don’t have enough time to do that much damage. Online, the pace is anything but leisurely; it’s breakneck.
And break-wallet too, for the amount of time you have to make proper choices is truncated. Sure, you can take your time online. You can pause to study your decision, up to a point. But soon you’ll see the time-out counter ticking down onscreen, warning you that you have 20. 15. 10. 5 seconds to call, raise or fold. Nor can you ask the dealer for more time; when you run out of time, you’ll be treated as all-in, or in certain circumstances folded out, whether you like it or not. Under pressure of that sort of deadline, you’re at risk for all sorts of rash and ill-considered actions. And even without the pressure of the deadline to stimulate your (foul) play, the fact that everyone around you is acting so quickly will naturally make you tend to act quickly too. Before you know it, you’re making decisions you’d ordinarily never make, just because you’re not taking the time to contemplate your options.
Further accelerating the pace of play is the fact that many online games are played short-handed. If you get in a game with just three or four players, you can easily find yourself on a merry-go-round spinning wildly out of control. The common decisions of poker — compounded, perhaps, by your unfamiliarity with short-handed play — confront you much more frequently, over and over and over again.
Let’s consider just one example. Richard is a pretty good all-around poker player. He’s selective-aggressive in most respects and doesn’t have too many gaping holes in his game. One identifiable flaw in his play is his play of blinds. He defends too liberally pre-flop, and surrenders any flop he doesn’t hit. Savvy opponents know this; they know that they can make money by raising into his blind and then betting any board that looks the slightest bit scary. In the b&ms, this flaw doesn’t hurt Richard all that much. He typically plays in full games, and thus sees maybe three or four big blinds an hour. If he plays one or two of them incorrectly, this leak costs him at most a few bets per hour.
But in his online incarnation, RichardTheLionheart, he often finds himself playing in short-handed games. Instead of defending three or four blinds an hour, he’s now exposing his weakness as many as 30 times per hour. A tolerable leak in live play has become a monstrous sinkhole online. Poor Richard.
Why, you might ask, does poor Richard allow himself to play short-handed if he knows he is at such risk? In the first place, he may not know he is at risk. It’s the nature of many mistakes to be invisible to their victims; Richard may think he plays his blinds just fine, thank you very much. Second, if Richard is like most online players, he doesn’t mind short-handed play; in fact, he likes it. He has gotten used to the accelerated pace of play, and would rather be in action than not. There’s even the possibility that Richard only plays short-handed, or even only heads-up, because he fears online collusion and reasons that playing short-handed minimizes this threat; that playing one-on-one eliminates it altogether.
Poor, as they say, Richard.
It’s a curious phenomenon of online poker that people who wouldn’t be caught dead playing short-handed in the real world actually gravitate toward short-handed games online. Short-handed play is bliss for action junkies: Stripped of all the normal social aspects of sitting around a poker table with other human beings, the online version of the game offers the distilled thrill of pure action, pure buzz. In a full game, a reasonable player will throw away the majority of his hands, and then have to sit waiting patiently for his chance to play again. In a short-handed game, the player who throws away a reasonable number of hands is going to be back in action that much more quickly. If action is your inducement, then short-handed play is the place you want to be.
A place, alas, where your mistakes are magnified and multiplied.
But don’t forget that your strengths are magnified too. Suppose you’re not poor Richard, but rather the savvy adversary who has identified this whole hole in Richard’s play. You would naturally seek the opportunity to play short-handed against Richard, and if you could get that opportunity, you could punish him relentlessly, just on the margin of the mistakes he makes in playing his blinds.
All of which underscores a fundamental truth of poker: Good players beat bad players in the long run. It just so happens that, online, the long run arrives much, much faster. Thus we can expect those who lose to lose more online.
And thus you have another reason to tread cautiously as you enter the online realm. No matter how good a player you think you are, chances are there are problems with your play that you deny, or even actually know nothing about. If you throw yourself into online poker without thoroughly and critically examining your play, you will most likely fall victim to the Draconian reality of online play: For players with limited skills or flawed decision-making ability, it definitely makes a bad situation worse.
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