The number of players trying their hand at real money poker online is growing daily. Even people who live in the poker capital of the world, Los Angeles, play online frequently. They don’t have to drive to the cardroom, they might want to play for just an hour or so late at night, and if they have some bad live “tells” they might not give the same information away online.
Despite this, I don’t think the brick and mortar cardrooms should be concerned with online poker’s growth: quite the opposite, in fact. I believe that because one’s first trip into an online cardroom is less intimidating than one’s first trip into a brick and mortar cardroom, the online rooms are going to develop an entire new generation of beginners who will eventually learn the game and build up enough confidence to go to the brick and mortar cardrooms.
This will allow poker to expand and grow, allowing cardrooms not merely to compete for bigger shares of a finite existing market, but to compete for shares of a growing market. In this way, the poker world will be in exactly the opposite position of horse racing, whose fans tend to be older, and which for many years did nothing to attract young people to the track. Racetrack owners finally woke up and realized that they needed to develop new players for their game, and started the “Go Baby Go” television campaign, but whether that effort was too little too late remains to be seen.
Because so many experienced home poker players are venturing into online poker, hardly a day goes by when I don’t get at least one email that says something like, “Do you think online poker rooms are honest? I’m a long-term winner (or break-even player) in home games or when I go to regular cardrooms, but my online opponents keep catching miracle cards on me on the end, and my results are impossibly bad for someone of my skill level.”
While I certainly won’t make the blanket statement that all online poker rooms are honest, or even, for that matter, the blanket statement that all online poker rooms that WANT to run honest games have completely bug-free software, I think there are a lot of good, plausible explanations for the draw-outs and inferior results—explanations that don’t involve any dishonesty on the part of the cardroom or the players. Take a look at this list and see if any of the explanations might apply to you. I haven’t listed them in any particular order:
You’re forced to keep better records online. A lot more people SAY they keep accurate records than actually DO keep accurate records. Most poker players try to keep a rough idea of how they are doing in their heads, and being human, they tend to conveniently forget about the losses and remember the wins (just as blackjack players remember every time when the guy in the 3rd base seat makes a bad play and takes a card that would have busted the dealer, but forget the times he makes a bad play that takes a card that would have given the dealer a winning hand).
Many players who think they are break-even players in live games are actually losers, and many players who think they are winning players are actually break-even or losing players. Playing online, it’s impossible to guestimate your results: you know exactly how much you have to send your credit card company (or a service like FirePay or Neteller), and know exactly how many checks you’ve sent in, or received for winnings you’ve cashed out.
If you’re good with people, when you play online you have two arms and one leg tied behind your back. I consider my ability to read people one of the strongest parts of my game. I fold hands against certain players that I would quickly call or raise with against others, and vice-versa. Online, while it is possible to pick up certain tells and betting patterns (and much easier to record this information, rather than relying on your memory), far less information is available.
You’re probably more relaxed playing online. Because you’re in your home, you can easily have the TV going, maybe be reading a book or doing housework, or in some other way be multi-tasking while you’re playing. An unfocused player doesn’t perform as much as a focused player.
You’re playing more hands per hour online. Because online games tend to move more quickly than live games, you play more hands per hour. This means that if you’re a losing player, you’ll lose faster. It also means that the house rake is taking more money out of the game hourly (more hands per hour means more of everything per hour: wins, losses, bad beats, getting lucky yourself), although this is somewhat offset by not needing to tip the dealer online. It’s important to reward good brick and mortar dealers with tokes, but if you play a lot of pots, those tokes add up to a considerable sum over time.
It’s easier to click a button than to pick up chips out of your stack and push them into the pot. Playing with chips creates a lot more action than does playing with cash. Playing via clicking a mouse creates still more action. You don’t have to physically lift up chips that are sitting in your pile and hand them over to the dealer, perhaps never to see them again. You’re just clicking your mouse. This makes most players play more loosely than they should, and they were probably playing too loosely to start with.
You’re going to get beat by more miracle cards on the end because more players are staying in until the end. See reason number five. More loose opponents means more people seeing the river card, often with inferior hands (remember, they might be distracted, too). The more people who see the river, the more often a miracle card will hit the river. You’ll win a lot of money from these players in the long run, but in the short time, they can cost you a fortune.
I’ve noticed this particularly during the last week, when I have had a fabulous run playing online. I’ve won a lot of money (thank goodness, because it almost exactly equaled what I lost playing live and in tournaments in Costa Rica), but the number of bad beats I’ve taken on the river has felt staggering. How can I have won so much despite so many bad beats? Because the players who have been rivering me have also been donating a lot more than they should have on those good hands I’ve had that have held up, and I haven’t let the beats put me on tilt.
Multi-way action tends to create even more multi-way action. Normally, most players with any experience are going to throw hands like Qc-7c away before the flop. If a lot of players are seeing the flop, though, people looking for excuses to get involved can look at Qc-7c and think, “If I flop a flush, I might collect a fortune.” Then they flop something like Jc-7h-2h, and think, “I have middle pair, an overcard, and a backdoor flush draw,” so they hang around, and sometimes they’re going to beat your Ah-Jh by hitting a seven or a queen or running clubs. You feel like you’ve suffered yet another bad beat, and start to think something is wrong with the game.
Also, don’t forget that when you pump a pot up pre-flop with a big hand, the pot odds can make it right (or at least much less further wrong than you’re likely to think at the time) for someone who seems to be drawing very thin on the flop to look at the turn card…and if the turn brings ANY semblance of hope, you’re almost certainly not going to lose that player before the river.
It’s easier to go on tilt with no one watching. If you’re a cardroom regular and start losing, you might maintain your composure because you don’t want to look like one of those idiots who loses his composure when he starts losing. You want to retain your peers’ respect, and so you stay off tilt. When you’re playing at home and behind a screen name, though, nobody except you is going to know you’re playing horribly and screaming at the computer, and your session results are going to be worse. Your opponents might realize that someone with your screen name is playing badly, but no one knows that YOU own that screen name.
Playing two games at once can double your trouble. Many players I know like to play in two games at once. Some even claim it improves their hourly rate in both games, because the increased action makes it easier for them to throw away marginal hands in one game when they have another hand waiting for them in the other. If it works that way for you, great. Many players find that playing two games at once creates the occasional mistake, such as hitting the “fold” button when you meant to hit “raise” but your computer suddenly switched you to the other game. You also can’t study your opponents’ habits as easily playing two games at once. (I’m not sure if it’s advanced age, or the amount of effort I put into studying both my opponents in general and the betting pattern on each hand in particular, but I’ve given up on playing two games at once because my results suffer. That certainly doesn’t mean you’ll have the same experience, but it is my experience.)
Note that it IS worth a drop in “hourly rate per game” if the net total units you win increases by playing two games. For example, you might win 1.2 big bets an hour playing one game at a time, but drop down to 0.7 big bets an hour per game playing two games. If that’s the case, you should play the two games, because you’re earning 1.4 bets an hour instead of 1.2.
This is all just a fancy way of saying you should track how much money you make playing one game vs. how much you make playing two games, and assuming equivalent entertainment value, your bottom line will make the decision for you.
Paranoia can destroy ya. I know a lot of people who believe you “create your own reality,” and to a certain extent, I’m one of them. If you sit down in an online game convinced that your opponents are colluding or the random card generator isn’t random, you’ll probably start playing scared, or at least differently, and I would assume that because you try to play your best game normally, if you make changes from that best game, you’re making adjustments that will cost you bets. It’s very hard to win if you aren’t confident (although overconfidence can make it almost as hard to win as lack of confidence, so try to find that happy middle ground), so if you sit down at your computer convinced one or more forces are conspiring against you, you’ll probably lose.
Just because there are ten (and there are plenty more, but ten will do for now) reasons why you might either perceive you have or actually have more trouble winning online than you do in a brick and mortar cardroom, that doesn’t prove that online poker is free of problems.
Software glitches do come up. Sometimes opponents are trying to collude against you (I don’t worry too much about this, at least not at the relatively low stakes currently available online, because most of the people trying to collude are doing so because they can’t beat the game on the square, and if they’re that bad at playing the game, they probably aren’t very good at colluding, either). It’s not even impossible for you to run into a game where the programmer left a “back door” in the system so he can see your cards. Online poker isn’t perfect, at least not yet, but one nice aspect is that switching tables when you run into trouble is usually easier than it is in a brick and mortar room.
If I can make all the statements I made in the previous paragraph, it’s pretty clear that I’m not some Pollyanna who thinks the world is perfect and everyone online is honest. For that very reason, I believe you should consider the alternative explanations for “inferior” results (I put “inferior” in quotes because my first numbered point mentioned that perhaps your results aren’t as inferior as you think they are) quite seriously. If I told you there were no colluders and no potential problems, I don’t think I’d deserve much credibility.
Nonetheless, online poker is a lot closer to perfect than most of the paranoid complaining losers would have you believe. Like most things in life, your own actions and inactions have a lot more to do with your actual results than you’re probably willing to accept. When the moment comes when you ARE willing to accept responsibility for your results, you’ll probably improve so fast, your opponents will probably think you’re colluding against them!