I’ve been playing Texas Hold ‘Em Poker online like mad these past couple of days, partly because I’ve been sick (and thus, unable to leave the house) and partly because it’s one of the few games I can play while "working," and wouldn’t you know it, playing online is totally different from playing in real life.
The most obvious difference is that you will likely be using play money if you’re just starting out. I’ve only played at CardPlayerPoker and PokerStars, but I imagine it works in generally the same fashion at the other providers: basically, you’re given 1000 chips upon sign up, with which you can join any of the play-money games (there are usually over a thousand games running concurrently, so you’ll never have trouble finding a spot). All your winnings become part of your bankroll, and you can use them to join bigger and bigger games (although still within the play-money zone). In case you lose your chips completely, they’ll be automatically refilled so you can play again. Sounds like a great deal? Well, sorta.
The play-money dynamic makes No-Limit Hold ‘Em a bit weird, to say the least. For one thing, nobody is afraid of an all-in. I’ve seen people join tables and just go all-in every round, hoping to catch a miracle flop (fortunately, you can only bankrupt yourself up to 3 times per hour, so annoyances like this will inevitably self-destruct). The other major difference is that about 80% of all the players that joined pre-flop will see the river, even those with the slimmest drawing hands. This means you have to be aware of even the least likely of possibilities, and bet accordingly. (This evening, for example, my Queen-high flush got trounced by a 6-10 straight flush; how often does that happen in real life?)
It took me two days of going bankrupt every 15 minutes before I figured out how to play at a decent level online. The annoying thing is that the stuff I’ve learned is unlikely to be useful in the real-life games I play with my friends every weekend. But here they are anyway, because it’s fun to list these things down:
1) Play stupid. Don’t make big raises and expect people to get scared and fold. Don’t attempt to get someone to "bet into" you, because chances are, they’re holding better cards. Don’t take checking as a sign of weakness; most of the time, they just do it because everybody else is doing it.
2) Don’t make big raises, even when you’ve got the nuts or premium cards in the pocket. The blinds are normally at 5 and 10, so anything over a hundred is a fairly large raise, especially pre-flop. The idea is to keep the game steady. When you’re playing online, tilts start at the click of a mouse, and you don’t want to set anyone off and then have everyone join in. The reason why you don’t need to raise is because you will make a decent profit just by getting everyone to call (because nearly everyone will join each round), which brings me to my next point:
3) Join each round. Play everything you get, even the 2&7’s. However, only do this if you followed rule #1 and #2 to the letter. Because nobody is raising, and because you are making small bets, it doesn’t hurt to lose 10-30 chips to see a flop and/or a turn. Obviously, you’ve got to know when to quit as well, but I’ve won some really huge pots with the worst hands that just magically morphed into trips or full-houses over the course of the round. As long as you’re only burning a small amount of money with the wasted rounds, it’s alright, because the payoffs tend to be really big as well.
4) Don’t look for tricks. This one was the hardest idea for me to get rid off. Generally, you want to treat every bet as a genuine one unless you are up against an obviously stupid player. If someone bets heavily after the flop, you should take that to mean that he hit something. Don’t waste money trying to catch bluffs because other people will do that for you (almost) automatically.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of others ways to confuse your opponent than by bluffing, and this is why this rule is tricky to follow. Checking when you have the nuts is something I see a lot of, for example, as well as quietly calling after a big raiser every round. So although you can rest assured that bluffers will be caught, slow-players will often get right by you. The good news is that if you pay attention to rules #1 and #2, misreading the occassional slow-player will rarely cost you the game.
And lastly, the most important lesson I’ve learned from playing online, which coincidentally serves to highlight yet another way that the internet-based game is different from my real-life one:
5) If you don’t like the table, leave. There are literally thousands more out there for you to choose from.