40 million people play poker regularly, with 15 million of those playing online for real money. In comparison, only 5 million are playing home poker games each month. The figures suggest that those who may have played casual home games from time to time before are often turning to online sites to get more regular action. It is important for those who are opting to change from a real-life setting to a virtual setting, to be aware that there are some major differences between the two games.
The biggest difference online is obviously that you can’t see your opponents. In the home game setting you can observe the other players and try to work out whether they are bluffing or not when they bet on a hand. Skilled players will use psychology to tell if a player is lying or not. Dr Leanne ten Brinke, a forensic psychologist at the University of California, claims that people generally have a good instinct to know if someone is lying. To spot the bluffer, players need to observe their opponents and see how they normally act. Then if their behavior changes they are likely to be lying. Poker players capitalize on this by calling if they believe that their opponent is bluffing.
In an online setting, the main tool that players can use to their advantage is statistical analysis, which can be used to examine players’ betting patterns and spot anomalies. This is the way to find the bluffer without having any visual cues. Indeed, this kind of data examination is happening behind the scenes at major poker tournaments now. Players sitting at the final table in televised events such as the World Series of Poker have a team of analysists quickly processing the information available. They will then be able to inform the player in intervals which of their opponents are most likely to go showdown before a flop, the average time a player voluntarily puts chips in a pot, and other things to help players make decisions.
Online players don’t need to be this serious if they merely play for fun, but they should nevertheless try to adhere to a basic strategy. 888poker, for instance, advocates playing “tight to aggressive”: that is, playing relatively safe in the early stages of tournaments and aggressive towards the end. Players should also try to keep track of the amounts others tend to bet on certain hands. For instance, if they have a strong hand they may check or bet low to entice others to call and build up a large pot. If, however, they have a lower chance of finishing with the winning hand, they may bet large amounts to try to make their opponents fold. When choosing how much to bet yourself, it is therefore important to mix up your bets to stop people getting a read on you.
One other major difference between the home game and the online game is that perhaps more patience is required online. There are often thousands of players taking part in an online poker tournament, and successful players will bide their time while those numbers are whittled down. This can sometimes mean staying awake for hours on end. It is imperative to be highly focused.