Top Five Reasons Live Poker Is Softer Than Online Poker (Part 2)

Posted 2010/05/01 by chrisinsc
Categories: Uncategorized

Last and quite the opposite of least, I conclude my list of the top five reasons that live poker is softer than online poker with the two most prominent.

2. Live Poker Demands and Rewards Patience, Online Poker Does Not

Generally speaking, the looser the game, the softer the game, and the more money that can be won. Live games are virtually always looser than online games, from starting hand to the final card, and there’s a simple reason for that which isn’t due to the skill or knowledge of the players, rather, in spite of it.

The trip to a live cardroom, and the subsequent wait for a seat, generally requires a not-insignificant investment of time, energy, and transportation. It takes sacrifice to be there.

Once in the game, a player can expect to be dealt no more than 40 hands an hour (and quite a bit fewer in an Omaha 8 or stud game). Assuming the cards are running average, a player is likely to see just one or two premium hands per hour. With only a few hours to devote to a poker session, a large percentage of players are simply not capable of “playing by the book” with their starting hand selection.

In terms of the demands it places on one’s patience, playing tight in an online game is in no way comparable to playing tight in a live game. An online player can have as many tables open as he likes, and each of those tables individually will be dealing him hands at two to three times the speed of a live game.

In addition, an online player doesn’t have to go to any effort to be in these games, aside from a few mouse clicks, and he can easily come and go at any time, for any reason.

Online players are completely free of the temporal, spatial, and opportunity constraints that live players must face.

And this isn’t just a matter of frugality with starting hands. Live players are much more likely to toy with thinner edges, to peel for more draws, to take more chances, to make more crying calls with those premium hands they had to wait so long for, and in general to push everything just that much harder in the hopes of “making something happen” than those exact same players would in an online game.

Everyone is prone to play at least somewhat looser in a live game than in an online game. It’s just a fact. And the additional action begets still more action. A game’s tightness or looseness tends to feed on itself, and the live environment encourages looseness (particularly in a game paid for by time collection charges). Everything about online poker on the other hand (rakeback in particular) encourages tightness.

Peer pressure is another factor in live games. The first time I ever played poker in a cardroom I was singled out, teased, and chastised for playing tight. The second time too. And the third. By my fourth session I found that I was playing far more hands than I had on my first, and entirely because of not wanting to have the “nit” sign around my neck. They had successfully acculturated me, and in a manner that benefitted them (and the game).

Players in live games have a number of ways of ganging up on tight players, including call-outs, ridicule, refusal to give action, or even raise/reraise whipsawing simply on principle. Even when the hazing is delivered in a playful manner, which it often is, it nonetheless starts to get under the skin of even the most stoic individual. There is a social price to pay for being a “folder” in a live game; none at all online.

Even online a game can be loosened considerably just by slowing things down a bit. Back in the pre-UIGEA days there was an online cardroom named Pacific Poker notorious for its bizarrely loose, gambling clientele. Pacific was unanimously hailed as the host of the softest games and the worst players on the Internet, and second place wasn’t even close. Many explanations were offered for the anomaly that was Pacific’s butter-soft games. In my mind, though, the games played the way they did due to the simple fact that Pacific had a feature (or I might say a non-feature) unique among the online cardrooms: you could only play on one table at a time. That, and the software was painfully slow.

Like live games, and unlike all the other online rooms, Pacific was so much looser because it ran at half the speed, and the one-table rule put patience—the resolve to actually wait in “realtime” for good hands, and not overplay them when they came—to the test. Many players, no doubt including those who otherwise played tight when multitabling at other rooms, failed that test.

When you equalize players in regard to patience, when it doesn’t cost anyone anything to “wait for their pitch,” then the players who can wield patience as a weapon in games that demand it have lost a large chunk of their edge against those who can’t.

1. Live Poker Games Exist In A (Much) Smaller Universe

Curiously, number 1 on my list of the reasons why live poker is easier—the reason that I consider to be the most relevant, obvious, simple, and important by far, maybe more critical than all the others combined—is rarely if ever mentioned when people are discussing the issue.

Here it is in one (long) sentence: an online poker game is instantly accessible to nearly everyone on the entire planet, so it can always be as tough as the best players in the world who consider the stakes worthwhile, but a live game can only be as tough as the best players able and willing to physically commute to it.

There is an absolutely staggering difference between the two situations.

Consider the poker games that might be held at a hypothetical cardroom in some rural Alaskan town… or for that matter, the poker games that are held at the actual cardroom in my somewhat off-the-beaten-path hometown of Santa Cruz, California. They can be absurdly profitable. Far moreso than the games in larger cardrooms, and certainly online. The reason is simply that the competition pool is smaller.

The key factor in the difficulty of a poker game will always be the size of the population that has access to it. And the number of people within commuting distance of any given non-private live game will never be anywhere close to even 1% of the number with access to any given non-private online game.

Selective pressures are defined (in part) by population size, so in most physical locales, the pressures acting on a live poker game from day to day aren’t even in the same galaxy of intensity as those constantly and relentlessly acting on online games.

Soft brick and mortar games can exist for years, decades, even indefinitely if the location is right, because there simply may not be a group of players within reach who can dominate the weaker ones on a day to day basis until ultimately busting them. But the market is brutally efficient online. In fact, one of the purest available examples of social Darwinism in action is the steady increase in the difficulty of online poker games since 2003. The weak were eliminated, the strong survived… and now the super-strong are beginning to eliminate the merely strong.

Intra-state online poker (that is, games only available to state residents) is now on the table in California, and in several other states. If you’re following what I’m saying, you’ll know why I’m crossing my fingers in the hope that it comes into existence. Having only to play against the best in my state, as opposed to the best in the world, is a prospect that has me daydreaming.

Items three and four on this countdown contain several examples of filters: ways in which online poker weeds out many of the opponents you most want at your table. Yet my number 1 is kind of the ultimate “anti-filter.” By completely removing location from the list of limitations imposed on online players, the game is all too open to the opponents you least want in your way.

The convenience of online poker comes at the ultimate price. Even if you happen to be lucky enough to find yourself up against a gallery of fish at any given time online, you’d better believe the sharks are already on their way. If they want into your juicy local game though, they’re going to need Scotty to beam them up. When the playing field is small, you can have a weak game all to yourself. When the playing field encompasses the world, you never will.


Top Five Reasons Live Poker Is Softer Than Online Poker (Part 1)

Posted 2010/05/01 by chrisinsc
Categories: Uncategorized

Online poker games are nearly always much tighter, more aggressive, and all around harder to beat than live “brick and mortar” games at the same stakes (heck, at even a tenth of the stakes).

It’s not hard to bump into bloggers and message board posters making this observation, and it is rare indeed to see any who will argue with it.

But what isn’t always discussed is specifically why online games are tougher.

Because everybody loves a list, here are my top 5 reasons. Let’s count them down, in reverse order…

5. Online Poker Players Are Armed With Information

Online poker games, being as they are held over the Internet, are made up largely of “Internet folk.” The individuals that comprise Internet communities—the Internet poker community certainly included—have a tendency to be strongly characterized by a “hive mind”-like awareness and sensibility.

While online players as individuals may often tend toward uninspired groupthink (Steve Badger once referred to them as “interchangeable lemmings”), by and large they nonetheless exhibit a strong ability to assimilate, share, employ, and (possibly most importantly) value information. After all, the very world they inhabit is in essence a sea of information—instantly available and highly communicable.

As a consequence, Internet players are apt to simply know more about poker than live players, whether about math, fundamentals, basic strategy, or any other technical facet of the game. While any one player may be an assembly-line grinder that exhibits nothing more or less than the standard-issue knowledge and ability of the hive mind, that hive mind is still pretty damned sharp.

It’s unlikely that you’ll sit down at an online poker table with players who have never read or used (who don’t in fact regularly read and use) poker books, websites, training videos, and discussion forums. But the opposite tends to be the case live.

Live poker in any particular locality is more of an insular club where knowledge neither enters into nor spreads outside of it nearly as readily or quickly as it does within the online community. Ideas and information circulate primarily through “table culture”, the game evolves at a snail’s pace compared to online, and even then it’s a highly regional sort of evolution. This is why games in Los Angeles are different than games in Northern California, which are different than Las Vegas games, which are different than Atlantic City games. Online games are more uniform, the play more generically “optimal,” because that limitation of locality doesn’t exist. You have tens of thousands of players from around the globe playing tens of thousands of hands—with vast numbers of them sharing and comparing notes with one another and a strong “wisdom by consensus” emerging.

Information is power, and truly “the great equalizer” when it comes to poker skill. On average, online players show up with a lot more of it than their brick and mortar counterparts.

4. Online Poker Filters The Competition

When sizing up your opposition at an online poker table, you have to give them a few points automatically just for having successfully navigated a number of obstacles that stood in the way of their showing up at all.

Moreover, these obstacles are almost all of a type that specifically select against desirable opponents.

The first issue is the existence of the play money games. Right off the bat online sites have given tens of thousands of players a poker outlet and a vehicle through which to attain rudimentary skills and learn some initial lessons, before they’ve even made their first deposit.

And speaking of that first deposit, consider that anyone who plays for real money online must first have:

  • A computer.
  • An Internet connection.
  • An email address.
  • The technical ability to locate, install, and run poker software.
  • A bank or credit account, and one with the appropriate means and permissions to transfer funds to an online poker site.
  • The patience and commitment to figure out how to set up a player account and arrange the fund transfer.
  • The preference of playing online poker in lieu of any live games within physical proximity.
  • The willingness to trust online poker sites, and to engage in an activity that much of the public has been led to believe is illegal.

Most of that may seem simple and rudimentary, but if you’re reading this at all you’re probably in a position to take everything on this list for granted. You shouldn’t. These items really do keep a fair percentage of potential players out of the game… especially those of the “donator” persuasion. Anyone who doesn’t have that list covered is most likely less educated, less intelligent, and less “together.” In other words, your ideal opponent.

A live player, on the other hand, doesn’t have to do anything to qualify to play except walk into a cardroom (one that he’ll know is safe, legal, and trustworthy) and sit down in an open seat. It’s much easier to do on a lark, whereas playing online involves a whole process and a certain level of commitment.

Past that first set of filters, once the player has managed to get his money onto the site, comes the next filter: the micro and small stakes games.

When the floor is set so low that anyone can play at tables with blinds as small as a penny, thousands of players are able to successfully scratch their poker itch, plus learn and improve greatly at the game, without actually putting up an amount of money that would be worth a professional player’s time to win from them.

This is not the case live. Since a cardroom needs to rake at least $3 from each pot (and since chips don’t come in denominations smaller than 50 cents) it isn’t practical to spread a poker game with a big blind of less than $1 (let alone spread play money games). Anybody who wants to play poker in a casino is going to have to put more than pennies on the table to get into a game.

Because there isn’t a smaller game for them to play in, you’ll find the complete greenhorns and fish playing live at entry-level stakes of $2/$4 and $3/$6 (where something resembling real money can actually be made off of them), while online these would be considered medium stakes—filled largely with players who proved to be good enough to rise through the lower levels.

So while you may be playing for identical stakes live and online, online players have, from the outset and all the way up to that point, been faced with a rather aggressively selective filtration process that live players are not subject to. It’s a filter that keeps the weaker players either placated or shut out entirely at a far lower level in the hierarchy than they would be in the live arena.

3. Live Poker Appeals To a Softer Demographic

Online poker by its very nature is attractive to the “wrong” kind of person. Nearly all of the advantages of online poker over live—the speed of hands, the anonymity, the ability to multitable, the lower rake—are advantages in terms of convenience and hourly rate. They’re perks that have meaning and appeal almost exclusively to grinders and/or professionals.

Meanwhile, online poker is decidedly unappealing to perhaps the most ideal form of opponent, namely, the “social” or “night on the town” player. Many of the people you find in cardrooms, from the tourists to the perennial fixtures, aren’t there to win at poker. Their purpose is to make human contact, to get out of the house, to have fun, or even just to physically touch cards and chips. They may want to win, but they don’t need or expect to win, anymore than they do when playing blackjack or roulette. They’re ultimately there just to be there.

The social player is, by definition, a nonexistent demographic in the online games—a demographic that also happens to be the single most lucrative source of funds for a player who is trying to make money at the game.

There are simply a wider variety of human beings and motivations within the walls of a live cardroom than there are in an online one. Live tables can and do encompass a broader cross-section of society. The near lack of a social aspect to online poker is yet another way in which it narrows the band down to pros and wanna-bes.

Continued in Part 2…

The Moneymaker Myth

Posted 2010/02/10 by chrisinsc
Categories: Uncategorized

Chris Moneymaker

The face that launched a thousand chips?

Mike Matusow once had a favorite catchphrase that he’d delightedly chirp whenever he encountered a soft spot, a good game, a bad player, or simply a ridiculous play that made him glad to be a professional poker player during the half a decade or so of poker’s boom years that began in 2003: “God Bless Chris Moneymaker!”

It’s a cute sentiment, but the idea underlying it reflects a common misconception about the impact (or lack thereof) of Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event win.

Chris Moneymaker was not the cause of the poker boom. He was a symptom of it.

The poker explosion was already well underway by the time Moneymaker had bought into the PokerStars satellite tournament that would ultimately shepherd him on his way to the final table.

Since his Main Event win, phrases like “the Moneymaker effect” and “the Moneymaker boom” have entered the venacular of the poker community, but they are often used and understood incorrectly on the basis of what those terms actually connote.

There’s a big difference between being a pioneer or the usher of a new era and being a poster child or sign of the times.

Moneymaker is the latter.

The “effect” refers to a reaction, not a catalyst; Moneymaker was the face of the poker boom, hardly the initiator of it.


The very first seeds (what Steve Badger calls “the seed of the seed of the seed”) of the nationwide poker boom may have been planted in the late 1980’s, when flop-style poker was first legalized in California and the game made strong inroads into the public consciousness.

John Malkovich in RoundersFast forward about a decade to 1998, when Rounders was released. This Hollywood romanticization of Texas Holdem, starring none less than Matt Damon, Edward Norton, and John Malkovich, drew millions of players to the game—including by his own admission Chris Moneymaker himself—and many of these players served to populate the first online poker games, which rolled out at Planet Poker and Paradise Poker that same year.

Either or both of these two elements—the Rounders horde and the easy access and steadily growing popularity of online poker—almost certainly helped put the twinkle in Steve Lipscomb’s eye to found the World Poker Tour in 2002, and ultimately it was the television premiere of the WPT in March of 2003 (which predated Moneymaker’s win by two months) that caused all of these percolating elements to boil over.

World Poker Tour logoAs someone who came to poker just before Moneymaker had the bracelet, and was there to witness the period leading up to it, I can say with certainty (both in my case and in what I witnessed around me) that it was the World Poker Tour broadcasts, not ESPN’s WSOP coverage, that set the world ablaze. The WSOP merely fanned the flames.

Moneymaker Or Not…

It’s important to recognize that ESPN had made the decision to greatly expand and reformat their coverage of the World Series of Poker for 2003 long before they knew who the champion would be.

The broadcast of the 2003 series was on a completely different scale than the paltry coverage of previous years. It was this new, far more entertaining, hole-card enabled, reality TV, “story-driven” week-to-week format that sparked the public’s interest, not the eventual champ.

Even those who still want to cite Moneymaker as the father of the boom must concede that he was thrust into the position because of 2003’s newly-expanded coverage, which was driven by 441 Productions (ESPN’s production contractor for the telecasts), specifically Executive Producer Matt Maranz.

He, and Lipscomb, are names that deserve far more credit than Moneymaker’s for poker’s ascendance.

Sam Farha

It coulda been Sammy

If Sammy Farha had bested Moneymaker in their heads-up battle, I have no doubt that the ensuing months and years would have unfolded about the same way as they did.

Who knows, perhaps the same folks who credit Chris Moneymaker’s doughy, everyman “that could be me!” appeal for the explosion of interest in poker would instead be crediting Sammy as the calm, suave, baller that made people say “I want to be him!”

After all, Moneymaker was not the first amateur to win the event. Robert Varkonyi did so just one year prior.

I don’t know, or know of, a single player who names Chris Moneymaker as their personal inspiration for getting into poker, or of any credible source that qualifiably credits him for enlisting any particular mass demographic.

The myth that Chris Moneymaker “started the poker boom” (or that a win from a new hope like 2009’s Darvin Moon could create a neo-boom), is nothing but a meme. It was seeded and spread by pundits soon after the day Moneymaker won, as a way of explaining what was happening. But the explanation ignores reality, and is unsupportable by hard data.

It may be easier to see my point in reverse: is it even possible to competently argue that the poker boom would not have happened if someone besides Moneymaker had won the main event in 2003? I’d challenge anyone to attempt it, with the prerequisite that they acknowledge The World Poker Tour already being the number one show on The Travel Channel when Moneymaker was awarded the bracelet.

The Great Poker Explosion of 2003 was a unique event that occurred due to a confluence of a number of favorable economic, technological, and cultural factors, one of which may have been Moneymaker’s championship run, but one that played a minor role at best.

The Great Winrate Fallacy

Posted 2010/02/03 by chrisinsc
Categories: Uncategorized

There seems to be an informal consensus among the online poker community that when you combine a tracking software-derived winrate with some magic arbitrarily-defined minimum number of hands that produced the winrate, then poof, you can “know” whether or not, and to what extent, you can expect to be a winner or loser at some specific form/structure of poker. The corollary is that if your “sample size is too small” then your results are just noise, and nothing can be concluded from your winrate.

This is all message board mythology. It’s complete BS.

A winrate is worthless without context (and maybe even with context), regardless of the size of the sample attached to it. The whole idea that a winrate can indicate confidence in future results, or even state anything meaningful whatsoever about past results, is mortally flawed.

There are numerous game factors in poker that a winrate fails to reflect in any way. A winrate is just a final tally. It doesn’t tell the whole story, or really any relevant part of the story at all, regardless of the size of the sample it’s coupled with.


The winrate as a meaningful entity depends on two blanket assumptions that, in most cases, can’t be made:

First, that the characteristics of Hero’s play were, are, and will remain consistent and uniform. In other words, Hero’s playing ability never improves, changes for the worse, or tilts (or that in cases where Hero “factors this in” that he will do so in a way that correctly adjust his effective winrate, which is math that we certainly can’t trust Hero to do).

Secondly, and far more importantly, that Hero’s collective opponents, and the characteristics of THEIR play, are and will continue to be uniform as well.

This—the opponent factor—is where the “winrate + large enough sample size = confidence” myth completely breaks down.

In poker, the rate at which one wins or loses depends far more on the collective play of one’s opponents than on his own. But the modern online horde of poker players tend to be marvelously self-centered about their own stats—such as their “see flop” percentages, aggression factor, winrate, etcetera—as if stats have some fixed and absolute meaning or “optimum” outside of the context of opponents (which of course they don’t).

Adjusted for rake, my winrate is and always will be far higher in my local brick-and-mortar Omaha 8 games than it will be in any online game, and higher still in my home game. That has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with my competition.

The tendency of many players to fixate on themselves is partly due to the nature of online poker, where one’s opponents are faceless, and, under most circumstances, in a state of constant flux. Rarely will Hero play against the exact same lineup day after day or even hour to hour, particularly at lower stakes. The irony is that this constantly churning mass of opposition makes Hero’s winrate even less meaningful than it would be in a live setting, where the player population and other game factors tend to be more consistent.

The fact that Hero wins one day at one table and loses the next day at a different table (or wins at two open tables while losing in two others) is at least as much a function of the difference between the dynamics of one lineup and the next as it is of luck or variance.


Using a winrate as a basis of confidence in predicting how Hero will fare is a little like blind-betting on a basketball game when you only know one of the two teams that are playing, or on a presidential candidate when you don’t know who is running against him.

To place any sort of confidence in a winrate is to assume that the ebb and flow of luck is the only factor that causes fluctuations in Hero’s day to day results. As long as the game environment remains dynamic in terms of players and even seat positions (as poker does by nature) this simply couldn’t be more wrong.

If the composition of Hero’s opponent pool changes from hand to hand, day to day, year to year, with old opponents leaving, new opponents coming, and existing opponents changing and evolving (or de-evolving) in their play, and Hero does the same, Hero’s winrate will never “stabilize.” No sample size will ever be large enough to state anything confident about Hero’s potential results, because the variables are not fixed.

Consider the presence of a single “live one” at one table, on one day, giving away bet after bet, or buy-in after buy-in. If you’re a slightly losing player over some large number of hands, and you happen to run across this fellow, and you keep ending up in favorable situations against him, and his idiocy knocks you into the green, does that mean you’re now a “winning player?” No. It means you ran into an idiot who handed you a bunch of money.

So, do you remove that session from your database so that the goofball doesn’t “throw off your winrate?” Maybe so.

But then… if you do that, what about that other guy who was tilting that one time and paid you off in all those hands?

Or what about the night that you were tilting?

Or the time when the red pro sat down at the table and beat you all silly and you were just happy for the opportunity to get in and play hands against him?

Or the hands where you misclicked?

Do you see? As you go deeper down the rabbit hole of the “unique” circumstances that came along to artificially affect your winrate, you’ll begin to notice that these “unique” circumstances are constantly popping up, day after day, session after session.

Unless the exact same players take their exact same seats and play the exact same form/structure of poker every single time with an unwavering level of skill, and the players never tilt, or focus, or bluff, or anything else, in any different measure than they ever have, then the data set is hardly a data set at all. It is, instead, an endless succession of unique circumstances and situations, with only the rules remaining fixed.

Yes, the ups and downs of the cards, and even the situations, will theoretically cancel out over time, but the game dynamics will not. They change drastically in the short term; and in a more subtle manner over the long term (edging, most likely, toward increasing difficulty). Variance is a pipsqueak of an issue when compared to the much larger and more complex issue of an ever-evolving game environment.

Variables Within Variables

There’s a whole lot more to consider when it comes to the winrate/sample size question. Even assuming a game environment where Hero and his opponents are static entities, the sample size that Hero would need in order for a reliable winrate to stabilize would vary widely based on:

1. The form of poker (holdem? 5 card draw? Omaha 8?)
2. The betting structure (no-limit? spread limit? fixed?)
3. The number of players (heads-up? 6-max? 10-handed ring game?)
4. Hero’s playing style (aggressive? tight? loose?), and any highly particular and persistent tendencies (either favorable or unfavorable) that Hero exhibits
5. Skill/playing style of any one given opponent
6. Characteristics of opponents as an inter-relating collective, and any possible overriding tendencies (which in some cases could be extremely exploitable)

Some specific examples: A high/low split game will not require as large a sample as a straight-high game, since split games entail less variance. Seven card stud would need a larger sample because it has generally more variance than razz. Limit games are steadier since they revolve around the aggregate results of many subtle decisions made often, with the bet sizes having a close relationship to the blinds, whereas big bet games revolve around the results of critical decisions made less often, and with bet sizes that frequently dwarf the blinds. A player with a loose-aggressive style will need a larger sample than a player with a tight-aggressive style (since the former style is inherently higher variance). And so on.

Point 6—collective tendencies—merits special attention. I used a similar example in a previous post, that time in relation to rake, but let’s assume that we’re playing some fixed-limit poker variant, or even a rotation of several, with 9 opponents, all of whom have three bizarre proclivities: One, they play only the top 25% of hands. Two, they play them to the river without exception. And three, if they have the nuts after the last card they will bet/raise. If they do not, then they will check/fold to any bet.

Now, obviously, in the real world one will never find players who play this badly, and Hero will crush the game if he plays the rather simple style needed to beat it, but here is the point: Hero’s winrate will stabilize in an extremely brief span of time. You wouldn’t need 50,000 hands, or 10,000 hands, 1000 hands, or even 500. Hero would know quickly approximately how much this game was worth. And again, the form of poker doesn’t matter in this case. Almost all that matters in creating Hero’s winrate are the particular, massively exploitable quirks which Hero’s opponents exhibit.

The above list could go on well past 6 items, but I think the point is made. One might argue that confidence ratings which include the standard deviation in their calculations will automatically “bake into the cake” many of those sorts of phenomena, but many other factors simply can’t be reduced to math. And, in any case, there are still plenty of armchair sample-sizers who don’t take standard deviation into account, and I expect to see them continue to fly in out of the blue on poker boards with the bold assertion that “you need 50,000 [or whatever] hands at a game before you have any idea whether or not you’re a winning player” (though they’d still be wrong even if they did take standard deviation into account).

A player with a 1 million hand database, a standard deviation of 15, and a winrate of 2BB/100, with all hands coming from one stake and several sites over 7 years of online play has a very different data set than a player with a 2BB/100, 15-standard-deviation winrate over 1 million hands at one stake that he just spent the last few months grinding out on PokerStars. Identical results, but both samples are HIGHLY problematic (and for totally different reasons!) when it comes to any sort of statement or prediction.

It’s All Noise

In terms of winrate, poker can’t be treated the same as a card counter would treat blackjack, a game where the rules, the basic strategy, the opposition, the standard deviation, and all other factors remain perfectly static, and a reliable winrate inevitably emerges after a quantifiable number of hands are played. Many “winning” poker players, though, seem to take for granted that their playing field isn’t constantly moving and shifing around them.

There is simply no way to produce a meaningful winrate without certain strict and specific game factors having been nailed into place over the course of the sample.

People should not even bother asking “how many hands in the sample?” before asking “how consistent were the game circumstances?”, the second being relatively far more important. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to apply a figure to “game consistency.”

Given a sample size of 1000 hands against the same 9 opponents versus a sample size of 50,000 hands against hundreds of opponents, and asked which sample was more telling about Hero’s prospects, I’d take the former in a heartbeat. (But then, of course, I’d have to know what question we were trying to answer.)

The fundamental problem with focusing on winrate in and of itself is that it puts Hero and Hero’s play at the center of the universe, when it’s “the universe”—the collective play of Hero’s opponents relative to his—that matters so much more. Nothing else even comes close, certainly including the comings and goings of the cards/situations. Even if Hero’s play is exactly the same every single time he sits down, the game never is.

Winrates are the new starting hand charts—a crutch that anxious poker players gravitate to in order to try to simplify an issue (in this case, “am I a winner, or a loser?”) that is enormously and irreducibly complex.

Contemplating the Rake

Posted 2010/02/01 by chrisinsc
Categories: Uncategorized

A horror story you might enjoy:

Poker rake draining money awayOne night eight friends, each about as good as any of the others at poker, decide to spice up their weekly home game and go out on the town.

They head to their local casino for the “real experience”—with professional chips, cards, and a flesh-and-blood dealer. They ask for a dedicated table, just for them. Business is slow this night, so the cardroom manager shrugs and obliges.

The group decides to play fixed-limit Texas holdem. Each player brings $100 (and only $100) to play with, and they decide to make it a marathon—the game ends in 10 hours, and no player can leave until time runs out or he has gone bust, whichever comes first. No rebuying, no new players from outside. Sounds like fun.

The dealers average 30 hands an hour. The players offer tips at a reasonable buck or so per hand. For a time, all is laughs and fun.

Then, sooner than anyone had expected, a couple of players go bust.

Then another, and another.

Less than 8 hours later the game has been reduced to a heads-up battle, and now one player is all-in. He loses the hand.

The last man standing, who the others happen to regard as the best player in their group, looks down at his stack, counts twenty-four $1 chips, frowns in confusion, tosses one to the dealer, and walks away.

Funny Math

There was $800 on the table when these friends sat down to play eight hours before.

The sole survivor, the best player of this brood, not only failed to capture a dime of his opponents’ collective $700, but walked away stuck for most of his own buyin.

Seems bizarre doesn’t it?

Not only should this result be unsurprising, it was, in fact, a mathematical inevitability.

Recall that the cardroom dealt about 30 hands an hour, and we’ll say that they raked $3 from each pot (reduced to $2 once the game got shorthanded). Adding on just $10 per hour in tips (and these guys were actually tipping more than that) would ensure the disappearance of an entire rack of $1 chips from the table every hour—a full buy-in for each of the players in this game!

Make no mistake, regardless of how any one hand or series of hands went down, of who was lucky and who ran bad, of who played the best and who played the worst, the rake outplayed them all.

If this example looks familiar to you, it’s because I adapted it from a similar one in Ashley Adams’ “Winning 7 Card Stud.” I was shocked when I first read it; I thought he had to be wrong. But the math is plain.

What Rake?

Poker rakingAn alarming number of the poker players I encounter never even consider the rake, are dimly aware of it at best, or don’t think it’s a significant issue. After all, what’s $4 or $5 out of those $80 pots you’re dragging, right?

Even among those players who think about rake, there’s a popular cognitive fallacy that goes along these lines: “you only pay rake in the pots you win, and it’s only a small piece of the pot, so it’s impossible to ‘lose’ to the rake.”

Here’s the problem: this theoretical $80 pot was not won in a vacuum. It doesn’t take into account all the bets that you made and lost on your way to winning it, nor of how much of that $80 is money that you personally invested in the pot.

If you lost $60 in earlier hands before winning that pot, and you invested $20 out of the $80 now being pushed toward you, this pot is really a $60 “net win”, and you’ve actually done nothing but break even overall.

But what if the pot hadn’t been raked? What if you’d been shipped $85 instead of $80 for a $65 net win? Now you’d be up $5 overall.

Repeat this sequence of events (invest $60 in losers, then win $65 in a winner) 10 times over and you’d be up $50.

In the raked game, though, where the house is taking that additional $5 from every pot you win, you’d still just be breaking even. Add a dollar to each pot in tips, and you’d actually be stuck $10.

And it will keep adding up.

The human mind is innately poor at recognizing and getting a handle on these sorts of phenomena. The rake feels painless and insignificant, because at any given time it’s overshadowed by the sound and fury of the moment. All we see is the $80 coming toward us.

Imagine a game that was run “on credit”—identical to any other raked game except that you were under a binding contract to cover all at once all the rake from the pots you won, payable at the end of the night (or week, or month, or whatever period you agreed on).

Let’s say you played 1000 hours in this game, and you were an $8,500 winner. You won 2 pots per hour, and owed the house $5 from each pot—a total of $10,000.

You’d have to hand them every dime of your winnings, plus $1,500 more. Congratulations.

If you thought that was painful, imagine what it would be like for the players who were already stuck before rake collection!

Small Winners, Big Losers

Imbalanced scaleA zero-sum game like poker necessitates that, for there to be winner(s), there must be at least one loser.

But rake futher necessitates that, for there to be winner(s), the loser(s) must be further in the red than the winner(s) are in the green.

The more hands that have been played between these players, the wider the chasm between the winners and losers will be, growing indefinitely.

You could have three superior players beating six inferior players at a steady rate, but with each of them only up between (say) $20 and $100. Meanwhile the six losers could be stuck hundreds of dollars each.

It’s just a matter of how long they’ve all been playing together. Eventually any (or all) of our three winners could slip into the red, and again, even while steadily and decisively beating the inferior players on bet-for-bet, decision-for-decision terms.

It’s because of this relentless rake-drain that it’s almost a given that a population of even modest winners can only be supported by a population of significant and rapid losers.

Winners need donators, opponents who are willing to essentially set fire to money that they bring into the poker economy from outside (much of which will go to the rake, and therefore right out of the poker economy again).

This losing set of players must either be willing, expecting, even happy to lose, or in pathological denial that they are losing.

But given a population of players to whom winning is important to each and every player, where they all earnestly and genuinely want or need to make money, things are going to get ugly.

That’s because someone must pay the rake, therefore someone must lose. It’s just a matter of who.

Rake will eliminate all but the very best from the game, and much more aggressively than mere skill inferiority would. When “the very best” are all that’s left, the rake will begin to feed on them too.

What you have in raked poker is a cold, efficient system that viciously punishes and eliminates the weak, even when the “weak” aren’t playing all that badly, perhaps even playing rather well (if there is such a thing in absolute terms).

Without constant infusions of “new money” and or “new blood,” raked poker becomes a cancerous, wholly counterproductive activity.

Negative Sum

Not zero-sumWhen there is a rake, poker is not a pure zero-sum game, and that’s an understatement. It’s not simply a matter of “decisions versus decisions; skill versus skill”, which is the romantic ideal that the poker industry is selling.

There comes a point where any skill gap between a player and his field becomes totally drowned out by rake. This is a problem that goes grossly unacknowledged day after day by many a “good” player.

I was watching a tough limit $3/$6 Omaha 8 game on PokerStars the other day, thinking about what a marvel it was that these people were able to suspend their disbelief.

Each was sitting around a virtual table with other serious players who had risen through the lower stakes, circumvented the restrictions of the UIGEA (ie, jumped through hoops to get their money onto the site), and opened themselves to literally the entire Internet-connected world in terms of competition, and survived that Darwinian contest.

By showing up, each of our heroes was implying that he felt, despite it all, as if his skill edge would be enough to overcome that $1-$3 per hand ($100-$300 per hundred hands), that PokerStars was funneling off of the table as steadily as the clock was ticking.

Rake eats skill for breakfast. (And lunch, and dinner.) Each player can exert massive effort and discipline to secure an edge over the others, but there’s an invisible player in “seat zero” who is gobbling away at those extra bets our hero is making or saving.

If every player in the game achieves anything close to relative parity in skill, all of them must, and will, be losers in the long run.

Even against inferior opponents, a player is in a constant race against the rake. He has to take the money off the table at a faster rate than the rake is.

The existence of a rake elevates winning at poker from being a straightforward matter of consistently making better decisions than one’s opponents to being a much more difficult matter of making significantly, perhaps impossibly, better decisions, even as variance and luck slow the process down.

In a game like poker that so often comes down to fine decisions and tiny edges, is it realistic to expect that you can play that much better than your opponents?

Your “customers” have to carry the burden of the rake, your expenses, and your winrate. Do your opponents seem as if they are willing and able to pay both you and the cardroom for the privilege of being there?

If you play poker to make money, the answer to both of those questions had better be yes. Otherwise, you and your tablemates are all the proverbial “sucker”.

There is absolutely no point in playing in a raked poker game without at least a few card-carrying losers. This, however, is a lesson that a good proportion of players (especially in online poker) have yet to learn.

This is also the danger of players making poker a “lifestyle”, a sport, or a professional pursuit—sometimes there simply aren’t any good spots available. But if one has his life arranged such that he must play, and must put in indiscriminate volume (rather than wait only for good spots), then he has dug a trap for himself and is essentially working for the cardroom.

Rake is a subject that every poker player ought to sit and contemplate from time to time, and in the specific context of the games that he plays in.

Failure to recognize and consider the ways in which the rake is, or may be, affecting the game, the players, and oneself is a critical leak.

Lucky And Good

Posted 2010/01/09 by chrisinsc
Categories: Uncategorized

A few months back I came across a study performed by Citigal and funded by PokerStars set up to examine the relationship between skill and luck in poker.

Here is the report.

Here is Cigital’s write-up.

And finally, a column about it in The Wall Street Journal.

I wouldn’t know where to begin in describing the flaws with the “science” behind this “study,” but when you’ve got a major online poker site footing the bill for such a thing, you know right off the bat that good science wasn’t their first priority, and that there may be the teensiest of biases in its construction.

In any case, both the methodology employed, and the conclusions reached on the basis of the methodology, are grossly simplistic.

Even as someone who loves the game, and even though I disagree with some of the arguments they present, I find myself closer to siding with the detractors quoted in the Wall Street Journal article than with those who supported the study. Cigital did not, as the quoted Harvard professor opined, ask or answer “just the right questions.”

Silly Data

Poker is a game with a chance element and a skill element. This can be conclusively demonstrated with the most basic logic, and much more easily, directly and effectively than the study did.

The real question is how much of one and how much of the other are involved. On that front, the study was a bust. Noting that most Texas holdem hands end without a showdown is not exactly a watershed discovery, and makes only the most elementary of statements about the relationship between luck and skill in the game.

But then, even if Cigital wanted to demonstrate some constant and fixed relationship or ratio, they couldn’t, because there IS no such thing.

Assembling a large sample of online real-money Texas holdem hands above microstakes and noting that 75% of them ended without a showdown says this: that a large number of hands end without a showdown in one particular form of poker, in real-money online games.


If you assembled a hundred million hands of the play money games, or just about any low stakes live game, or Omaha games, or stud games, or five card draw, you’d get the opposite result – 75 to 95% (or more) of hands WOULD go to showdown.

The study even acknowledges a determined shutout of play money and microstakes games from the sample. Why? Because they were afraid there’d prove to be “more luck” in the play money games? What about live, low-limit games? Or Omaha, stud, or draw games? If the study seeks to make a blanket statement about poker, then avoiding poker games of certain stakes, classes, and categories stands in direct opposition to that goal.

Ratio, Shmatio!

The truth, despite beliefs to the contrary and the efforts of amateur theoreticians on poker discussion boards to try to break it down: there IS not, and cannot, be a fixed ratio between “skill” and “luck” in poker.

Skill and luck are moving parts that depend totally on context. The factors of the game, including the rules of the form of poker being played, the players involved in the game, the forced bet structure, and a lot more, determine what the ratio will be.

For example, in a pot limit Omaha 8 game where Player X and Y are making very good decisions, and Players, A, B, C, D, E, F, and G are all clueless players who make extremely bad decisions (they don’t understand hand values, they call pot-sized bets with weak hands when X and/or Y have fearless bets with nut hands time and time again), Player X and Y will have an enormous edge over Players A-G. They will absolutely destroy the game, and quickly too. Luck will be as much of a factor as ever in any one hand, but over a (brief) span of hands, luck will have virtually no impact on X and Y’s superior skill.

But in a PLO8 game where ALL the players – A-G plus X and Y – are each about equal in skill and making very good, near-optimal decisions, no player will have much of an edge, if any, over the others. (This is a reality that many in today’s grinder-versus-grinder online environment are in grave denial of, because they have a vested interest in believing in their own edge.)

Meanwhile, in a fixed-limit, high ante seven card stud game where Players X and Y are up against a weak field of Players A-G, X and Y are going to be there a while, and luck will have a louder voice. Luck works differently in each of the games.

The Operative Factor

Inherent differences in structure/form aside, luck is more of a factor among uniformly skilled (or unskilled) players, because when the skill is equalized, there’s nothing left but the luck. In the long term though, even that will vanish, since there is no such thing as “long term luck.” Everyone will eventually get the same cards and situations. And any one or two players who actually have some small edge will need to play tens of thousands of hands for this to emerge in their results and for the “noise” of short term luck to disappear.

But the larger the skill differential in poker, the less of a factor luck is, and the more quickly and surely skill will crush non-skill. This is why a very bad player (relative to his opposition) loses all of his money nearly every time he plays, and why less-bad players lose more slowly, and why, among the more equally-matched players, the money tends to seesaw.

It’s also not just a matter of how skilled or unskilled players are relative to one another, but the particular ways in which they are skilled or unskilled. A very aggressive and unpredictable but in many ways unskilled player is going to cause a skilled player a lot of trouble. The superior player’s earn may take a long time to stabilize. Whereas luck will exert virtually zero influence in a match between a skilled player and a milquetoast who calls all bets to the river and folds when he does not have the nuts.

So, the skill:luck ratio completely depends on the game and the opponents. A skill edge gives one a huge advantage against an unskilled field, but among all good players, skill often plateaus, and nobody has much, if any, advantage.

Over the past few years, with the availability of books, training, discussion, and accelerated experience, poker games everywhere (particularly online) have suffered from this “plateauing” of skill.

Poker—once a game of “find and fleece the suckers”—is often nowadays more of a tic tac toe match between the proficient, with short-term luck, and ego, obscuring what’s really happening. When everyone knows the optimal moves, it’s essentially one tied game after another, except that in poker every hand must have a winner, so it takes longer for the “meta-tie” to work itself out.

In any case, whether or not poker is a skill game is not up for debate. Since decisionmaking is involved, it’s a skill game by definition.

The question of the conditions under which skill can prevail over inferior skill, and to what degree—that’s the relevant one, requiring a far more complex methodology. Try again, Cigital.

(Note to PokerStars: if you’re looking to pay someone to do another study of this kind, anyone with a copy of PokerTracker and a hand history database could get this exact data in a matter of minutes. Hit me up next time.)