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A shorter version of this article originally appeared in NOW Magazine's May 19, 2005 issue. It can be accessed at www.nowtoronto.com/issues/2005-05-19/goods_next.php

What you need to know before playing poker online

Rob only needs a few minutes to wipe that stupid grin off your face in a game of online poker.

It's not just that he has more experience than you (which he does), and it's not just that he uses tools you've never heard of to see real-time statistical analysis of your play (which he also does), but it's that he's a better card player than you are.

In Amsterdam, Rob gave us a tour of the Palace where he and some of Europe's top poker players live. It's a beautiful five-storey building from the 1880s complete with tower, minaret and closed-circuit TV.

Rob doesn't play much in live tournaments yet because he's still cutting his teeth playing online. He plays two or three tables of shorthanded 10-20 or $100 head's up (two player) sit & go tournaments at a time for eight hours a day, six days a week. He typically makes a few thousand dollars a week, but that varies.

Rob also manages the training floor in the Palace. This is where a few college-age kids earn 9 euros an hour to play $100 sit & go's. While they remain profitable (winning more than 52% of their games), they keep their job - but none of their winnings. Rob reviews their hand histories, questions them on their play and helps them develop into better players. The pros upstairs sometimes offer tips, too.

The environment breeds success through pressure, encouragement and a high attrition rate. The kids that survive become great players. When they're good enough, the Palace will bankroll them in live tournaments where they get to keep a small piece of their winnings.

Rob is a nice guy from Vancouver, someone who used to play in indie bands and hang out on Commercial Drive. He helps run a business that eats aspiring poker players for breakfast. He's that nameless, faceless guy silently waiting for you to sit down at his table and challenge him to a game.

There are a few other things you should know before placing bets online.

First of all - and most importantly - the game itself is fair. You always play against other people (not robots with artificial intelligence) and the sites make their rake no matter who wins. The deck is not stacked in favour of new players or losing players, and the odds of getting good cards or bad cards are virtually the same as they are in Vegas. People who complain about bad RNGs (Random Number Generators) or sites being "fixed" are just angry about their own loose play or bad luck.

If you don't know how to play, then learn before placing your bets. Don't just memorize starting hand percentages; educate yourself about strategy. Read Doyle Brunson's Super System, Bob Ciaffone's Middle Limit Holdem Poker and David Sklansky's The Theory of Poker - required reading for anyone who isn't just playing for fun.

When getting started, play for free. Every site has play money games and "freeroll" tournaments with no entry fees and real money prizes. Find a site you like, that works well on your computer, and that has good support. But don't think the level of game play will be the same when you play for real money - people play very differently when their cash is on the line.

If you have questions, ask. Join one of the excellent online communities like PokerForum.ca or the 2+2 forums and participate. Also, read up on the rec.gambling.poker usenet group and try to recognize people with a high signal-to-noise ratio (less advertising and more content).

The benevolent and always entertaining poker blogger community is another extraordinary resource for people. Joseph from LasVegasVegas.com, Pauly from the Tao of Poker and G-Rob from Up for Poker all write evocative daily commentaries on their challenges, failures and victories. Follow them and learn.

While the online poker table is level, the players certainly aren't equally-equipped.

Some players use tools such as Poker Tracker to track and study the hand histories of everyone they've ever played against. With the GameTime+ add-on program, these stats are overlayed on their screen in real-time. If you're playing against someone using these tools, over time (as the inconsistent value of good luck diminishes) they will understand your play better than you do and empty your wallet.

Taking the Poker Tracker idea to the next level, PokerEdge has recently emerged as a subscription service. It tracks the play of everyone using the software and - providing exponentially greater data than Poker Tracker - everyone they've ever played against. At last count, 596,577 players on one poker network were being tracked with this software (possibly including you).

When you sit at a table and instantly know the stats for the fish (prey) and the sharks (predators), you become a veritable T-Rex eating munchkins in the land of Oz.

Businesses like the Palace all use these tools.

If you don't want to be a munchkin or a T-Rex, get off the yellow brick road.

These tools only support about ten sites now, so you have 271 alternatives (action.pokerpulse.com/rooms.htm) if you don't want to take or give that advantage. There are many other paths to choose from.

When selecting a poker site, do your research. Read their policies on privacy, security, collusion prevention, earning deposit bonuses, cashouts and customer service. Many sites now include information about their RNGs (ParadisePoker.com even regularly has theirs reviewed by Pricewaterhouse Coopers) and what algorithms are used to shuffle their cards, though not too much information anymore. In 1999, PlanetPoker.com infamously had their RNG hacked by white hat hackers - after giving away too much information - and had to rebuild it from scratch.

The user experience you will have while playing on different poker sites varies tremendously, for more reasons than just those previously listed. Check n Raise Poker.com (a no-download Java-based poker room that supports Mac & Linux users) has some cool features that no other sites do (like a highly-customizable "My CnR" web portal with users' hand history, balances, buddy lists and poker news), as well as great support and innovative tournament formats*.

Alternately, TruePoker.com has a unique 3-dimensional table environment while FullTiltPoker.com has a cartoonish atmosphere (though you will often find some of the world's top pros - the site's co-owners - sitting at tables there) and the new PokerHost.com has a very stolid, dry design.

At the end of the day, however, if it's action you're looking for (a guarantee of finding the game, stakes and limit you want whenever you want it), PartyPoker.com and PokerStars.com are the places to go. Those last two may not provide the most enjoyable user experience online, but their strong promotion and early industry positioning have given them strength in numbers that guarantees action 24/7.

Most importantly, make sure to protect yourself while you're deciding where to play. Know your limits. Pick a site that allows you to set your own daily/weekly/monthly limits (PokerRoom.com is recognized as the best in the industry for this), if you think you can't stay within them. Be responsible, and remember that this is supposed to be about entertainment and having fun.

If you're going to take playing poker online seriously, then KEEP TRACK of your wins & losses, like all the pros do. Use a notebook or excel spreadsheet to track your sessions and keep good notes. See how well you're doing over time and whether or not you're actually winning.

People who tell you they never lose are lying, and ought to ask themselves a question or twenty.

Everyone loses sometimes, and bad beat stories abound. Even the great Daniel Negreanu (who went to A.Y. Jackson Secondary School in North York with me) has had the snot beaten out of him at many tables, and writes about this in his blog at www.fullcontactpoker.com.

Rob, while he was charming, impressive and fascinating, had a tedious number of his own bad beat stories - though his deep analysis was well-regarded. Besides which, he's certainly given many more than he's received.

If you're going to play poker online, these are all things you need to know. Play safe, and may the cards fall in your favour.

* Disclaimer: Jeffrey Haas, this article's author, is Director of Marketing for Check n Raise Poker.com

 

Related Reading:

The Wikipedia entry for "Online poker"
PokerPulse.com - The source for online poker industry stats
Pocket Aces - Internet Gambling Legality In The USA (PDF)
Gambler's Anonymous
My interview with Bob "The Poker Coach" Ciaffone
The exhaustive poker links section on LasVegasVegas.com
Texas Hold'Em for Beginners
The Poker Tracker Guide