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

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…

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