Differences between online and brick-and-mortar poker
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Differences in poker between online and brick-and-mortar cardrooms

Online poker is still poker. The same mathematical facts apply and the same tactics are employed. But online play is substantially different than face-to-face play in brick-and-mortar cardrooms. Success requires strategic and tactical adjustments to the new conditions.

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Differences for Online Poker

Online play differs from face-to-face play in four substantial respects:

  • Play is faster
  • Play is less social
  • Less information on your opponents’ play is immediately available
  • Less overhead is involved

On the surface these appear to be trite observations, but the effects of these differences are profound. You need to adjust your thinking and strategy. First consider the effects of each of these changes.

Effects of Faster Play

  • Two to three times more hands per hour are dealt
  • Hourly win/loss rates are magnified

Online poker games typically deal more hands per hour than a human dealer in a brick-and-mortar cardroom. The reason is that the software automates dealer actions such as shuffling the cards, determining the best hand and awarding the pot. These actions, that take a human dealer a noticeable amount of time, happen instantaneously in the online world. For example, Texas Hold’em in a brick-and-mortar cardroom typically proceeds at a rate of 30 to 40 hands per hour, but the online counterpart is often twice as fast—60 to 80 hands per hour.

Because so many more hands per hour are played, time is effectively compressed when you play online. Your expectations based on in-person play of a “typical” poker session are distorted. When playing online, your sense is that rare events—quads, straight flushes, bad beats, and multiple players holding pocket pairs—are happening with alarming frequency. Many online players become convinced that the increased frequency of rare events means that the deal is not random. When an opposing player goes on a rush, meaning receives a streak of winning hands, the rush will play out in 10 to 15 minutes and leave the others believing that the game is rigged.

Faster play also means that hourly win/loss rates are magnified and so are the swings in a bankroll. A reasonably tight, knowledgeable player can sit down in a brick and mortar cardroom with $100 to play limit $3-6 Hold’em and even with bad luck expect that money to last for two to three hours. A string of bad luck in online play can burn up $100 at a $3-6 Hold’em table in 30 to 45 minutes.

You can loose money that fast while making correct decisions. Because time is so compressed online, winning players win more money per hour and losing players loose more money per hour in comparison to their play for equivalent stakes in a brick-and-mortar cardroom.

If you are an experienced player in brick-and-mortar cardrooms and decide to switch to online play, plan on having a buy-in that is larger than your normal amount. Also consider starting at lower limits than you normally play until you adjust to the faster conditions.

Online players also have the option of participating in more than one game at a time. On a computer screen, multiple windows can be opened for play, each at a different table. It is not an activity that I recommend for novices, but some experienced players do play simultaneously at more than one table, a feat that is only possible in the online world. Again the differences between winning and losing players will be magnified by simultaneous play. On a per hour basis, more money will be put in play.

Effects of Less Social Interaction

  • Non-verbal cues are absent
  • People behave differently when their identity is concealed

When players compete face-to-face plenty of non-verbal interactions take place that have an outcome on the game. But, in an online environment there is no information on sudden changes in posture or eye movements that can telegraph an intended action before it is a player’s turn to act. It is not possible to see someone reach for his or her chips. While less information is available it also means you don’t have to spend mental energy observing the other player’s mannerisms. Even better, you don’t have to worry about your own mannerisms and the information you might be giving away. The proverbial “poker face” is not a component of online poker.

Anonymity also leads people to employ more aggressive tactics. You will see check-raises and bluff-raises much more frequently in online play than you will in-person. People are less afraid both of looking foolish and making the other players look foolish. The result is many more online games fall into the loose-aggressive category than games in brick-and-mortar cardrooms. If you are use to typical low-limit games in public cardrooms that are loose-passive, with many of the players checking and calling, the online experience will require an adjustment.  You must be prepared for frequent raises, re-raises, and check-raises—tactics that are not as frequent in “friendly” brick-and-mortar cardrooms.

Effects of Less information Immediately Available

• Opponents’ tactics are difficult to know
• Opponents’ starting hands are difficult to know

One of the biggest differences in the conduct of online games is the showdown. In a brick-and-mortar cardroom at showdown, the players often turn their cards face-up on the table for all to see. The dealer inspects the cards and awards the pot to the best hand. But the rules of poker only require the cards of a “called” hand to be shown. A player with a hand that was not called is allowed to toss the cards into the muck without showing them to anyone.

But in brick and mortar cardrooms, players show cards far more often than the rules require. Exceptionally good hands—quads, straight-flushes—are often shown off when there are no callers. Bad beats are frequently shown to make the point that the hand was played correctly even though it lost. In the social setting of a brick-and-mortar cardroom everyone wants his or her play to look good to the others. The result is that everyone has the chance to observe the kinds of cards people play and the reasoning behind the plays.

Because the “dealer” in an online game is a computer program that is both infallible and all knowing it is not necessary for everyone to show their cards at showdown. In an online cardroom, the option to show your cards at the end of a hand exists in the form of a check box or pop-up menu in the software interface. Most players do not select that option. At showdown only the called hands and the winning hands that called are displayed. The software instantly mucks losing uncalled hands.

Players who do show their hands are usually selective about it and do not show every hand. You could be set up if you take too seriously what you are shown. What this means is that it is much more difficult to know your opponents’ tactics.

Knowing your opponents’ starting hands is even more difficult online than understanding their tactics. Few starting hands are ever revealed online, and a loose-aggressive playing style has come into vogue where players enter hands and raise with just about anything.

However, I have a reason for use of the qualifier “immediately” for available information. Unlike brick-and-mortar play, computer programs record every action taken in a hand and compile vast databases that can be analyzed. The cardrooms do this to look for suspicious betting patterns that might indicate cheating. But, the software that allows players to participate in the game also records hand histories on their computers. Players can go back and review the hands and decisions made. Most software also has a “players notes” feature that allows users to record observations about opponents for use the next time that opponent is encountered.

In recent years, third party software has proliferated that performs sophisticated statistical analysis of hand histories. Many of these analysis programs will work in “real time” meaning the user can have analysis performed and updated while playing and the software provides advice on decisions during the hand. With the software like Texas Calculatem and Poker Office it has become possible for players to achieve mathematically perfect play.

For example, a third party software package Poker Office works alongside the player interface for dozens of online poker rooms. It computes the probabilities, pot odds, and hand rankings as each hand is played and overlays that statistical information on to the graphical interface the used to play. It statistically models the playing styles of all the game participants and provides statistical summaries and player icons to represent each style. All of this is done in real time so that much of the guess work for the mathematical aspects of decision-making is eliminated.

Some players question the ethics of using third-party software for these purposes. However, there is no practical way that online poker rooms can police the use of any assistance during play, whether it is computer aided or another person. Players need to be mindful that their actions during play can be monitored, recorded, and analyzed by sophisticated computer software.

Effects of Less Overhead

  • You do not need to win as much to turn a profit
  • You can be extremely selective about the games you play

The biggest advantage to online play is that aside from the rake, there is almost no overhead involved. What I mean by overhead are the costs associated with going to the cardroom. You do not have to free up an entire afternoon or evening to travel. There are no expenses incurred for driving, parking, and eating. Not having a real dealer to tip is a significant savings over the long run.

In fact the absence of real dealers means that online cardrooms can spread games with much lower stakes than in the brick and mortar world. Finding stakes lower than $2-4 is rare when a real dealer must be paid to run the game. Cardrooms cannot afford to pay a dealer if the stakes are too low. But online, you can find an extremely wide variety of stakes for low-limit games. There are $0.02-0.04, $0.05-0.10, $0.25-$0.50, $0.50-$1.00 and $1-$2 games found online as well as the more familiar $2-4, $3-6, $5-10, and $10-20.

The absence of overhead also means that you can afford to be much more selective in game choice and table choice. This is the single biggest advantage to playing online. Long run success in poker requires finding games that are both within the limits of your bankroll and your abilities as a player. If you consistently play at stakes too high in relation to your bankroll there will never be a “long run” because a run of bad beats will wipe you out. If you consistently play at tables with tough tight-aggressive opponents it will be difficult to win enough to cover the rake.

The availability online of small stakes games means that a modest bankroll of a few hundred dollars can support poker play over an extended period of time. Online play also allows the simultaneous observation of dozens of tables before deciding to take a seat. You can play when a specific desirable opponent becomes available.