Differences Between Online and In-Person Poker

An excerpt from the book "The Intelligent Guide to Texas Hold'em Poker" by Sam Braids

With the growth of online poker, much can be written comparing the experience of online poker to that of a real cardroom. If you have tried one venue and not the other, or must decide in which venue to begin, here are some general considerations.

Much lower limit games exist online than are found in a real cardroom. You can start your real-money poker career online much cheaper than in a real cardroom. It is possible to find $0.25–0.50 Hold’em games online, whereas stakes that low would never produce enough profit for the house in a real cardroom (the lowest limit games found in real cardrooms are usually $2–4).

Online play has much less overhead than a real cardroom. As a result, it is easier to be more selective about the games you choose to join. If you go to a real cardroom, you must incur the travel expenses. For many people, the travel is out-of-town with expenditures required for airline, taxis, dining, and overnight stay. Even if you live close to a real cardroom, it costs money to drive your car and park. At the tables, waitresses will provide drinks and snacks, for which they expect a tip. Dealers also expect a tip from each pot that you win. All of these expenses are in addition to the rake the casino takes for conducting the game. To profit from play in a real cardroom, all of these expenditures constitute overhead that must be paid from your winnings before a profit is realized.

Psychologically, overhead makes it difficult to be selective with the games in which you choose to compete. All poker books stress the need for choosing the right game, one that is within your betting limits and populated with enough poor players to be profitable. Much has been written on choosing the right seat at the right game. But suppose after spending substantial time and money getting to a cardroom, you can’t find an ideal seat at a good game. Naturally, you will play in the available seat in whatever game is underway.

Another feature of online play is the impossibility of violating conduct rules during play. You cannot act out of turn, place string bets, see other player’s cards, show your cards to others, or squirrel money away unseen in a table-stakes game. The software rigidly enforces the rules of the game and precisely displays all the game parameters. At all times, you know precisely the number of active players, how much money each has, and how much money is in the pot.

In the privacy of your home, you can have poker charts and tables open to aid in your decision-making, and make notes as you play. It is easy to know the exact pot odds (a concept that will be discussed in the next chapter) when you bet because the exact amount in the pot is displayed and you can tape a chart on odds from this book above your computer screen. The chart in Chapter 4— Minimum Pot Size for Correct Pot Odds—is especially useful for online play. When online, there is no one blowing smoke in your face, an uncomfortable distraction to many. If you do smoke, no one will complain or ask you to move.

In contrast, poker in a cardroom is a social event. Players talk, joke, and get angry with one another. If you get confused, people help you out. The waitress brings drinks and snacks. The dealers switch tables frequently and banter with the players. There is sensuality in a cardroom that fancy graphics and sound effects cannot create on a computer screen: the feel of the weight of real chips when you bet, the stiff shiny cards that you lift slightly off the table to view, the many kinds of people that play poker—all races, ages, professions, and economic backgrounds.

The social environment of a cardroom also means you can observe mannerisms and gestures that are clues to your opponents’ thoughts, which are called “tells.” Is someone who was staring off into space now paying close attention? Is someone so anxious to bet that their chips are in hand well before it is their turn? Is someone visibly disgusted with the river card? Obviously, none of this is observable online. However, that does not mean online play is completely free of “tells.” Online players have their own response rhythms that will vary with the decisions they make. Most poker room software allows the player to click an action button at any time before their turn, even though the action will not be executed until it is their turn. Pre-planned actions show up as instant responses, a possible “tell” that the player had an easy decision to make. Players may also use the instant response buttons as a bluff. Player personalities, as manifested by their betting patterns, are discernable in any environment. A player who bets aggressively is obvious both online and in-person.

My recommendation is that if you are learning poker, go online and check out the resources. Participate in play-money games as a way of learning the mechanics and structure of the game. However, the first time you play for real money, do so in-person, in a cardroom surrounded by people you can observe and talk to. Do not play online until you have developed a good poker sense and can know immediately if the game situation is not working for you. However, once you are comfortable with poker and know yourself and your limits, online poker allows you to play anytime from anywhere.