by: Kathy Watterson and Lou Krieger©

Lou Krieger and Kathy Watterson look at some of the common questions people ask when deciding to play poker online

This column was jointly written with Kathy Watterson, my coauthor on “Internet Poker: How to Play and Beat Online Poker Games.” Some of the material in this column will be found in that book, although it will appear in a somewhat different form.

If you’ve wondered about whether playing poker on the Internet is for you — whether in play money games just for practice, in learning environments such as Poker School Online, or for real money in cyber casinos — but you just haven’t gotten around to it yet, this piece should be spot on. We’re going to answer most of the frequent questions we’ve encountered about playing poker online with facts, and with as little spin as we can muster.

Question: What’s the biggest difference between online poker and “in-the-flesh” play in a real casino, card room, or home game?

Answer: The impersonal, disembodied anonymity of the Internet demands play that is far more card-based than opponent-based. In most cases, winning play depends on first investing in good starting hands, and thereafter on making only good decisions based on what cards appear next and whatever action takes place before it’s your turn to act.

Forget “playing the player” by cupping chips as though you’re ready to call, pretending you’re ready to muck your hand by motioning toward the discard pile, or staring down a bluff. You can’t “make a play” when you and your opponents are invisible to each other. Likewise, you won’t be able to pick up many clues from other players’ gestures, either. Your ability to detect tells — particularly physical movements or verbalizations — is drastically reduced online.

One exception is that you can sometimes read into pauses, or into their absence. For example, an opponent who usually acts only after several seconds might reveal an exceptionally strong hand by using a pre-action check box to raise any and all bets in a given round. Since use of a pre-action check box ensures split-second action in turn, such use may constitute a tell. On the other hand, it may simply mean that the player ran to answer the door, grab a snack, or tend to his hand in another game. So be careful of reading too much into pauses, or lack thereof, until you’ve had a good deal of experience in online games.

Your strategy repertoire online is largely limited to the six basic actions: folding, betting, calling, raising, re-raising, and check-raising — supplemented by other poker skills, such as good game selection, good site selection, careful note-taking, astute observation of action, alertness to opponent behavior and noticing who is playing in two games rather than one, who’s on tilt, or who has been playing all night, and wise money management.

Q: What does an online game look and sound like?

A: It looks and sounds like a sophisticated video game. It’s rich in graphics, realistic sound effects, and complex split-second synchronization of player action. You’ll see a mock-up of a poker table sporting colorful chips, cards, player seats, and possibly, though not necessarily, a dealer box, with or without a mannequin-like representation of a dealer. Since all dealer functions are executed at lightning speed by the game’s software, if there’s a dealer box shown at a cyberspace card table, it’s only for show.

You’ll hear realistic sounds of cards whirring, chips clattering as pots are pushed, and the clacking of bets and raises during action. Also, you’ll be able to verify the amount in your stack or the amount of a bet or raise or pot simply by positioning your cursor above the designated chips or stacks. State-of-the-art software keeps instantaneous and accurate track of chip stacks, bets and raises, all-ins, and accruing pots.

A beep, buzzer, or repetitive sound will signal you to act if you’re distracted from the monitor. If you fail to act within a designated time, you’ll first be declared “sitting out,” but after a few rounds of inactivity you’ll be unceremoniously dumped from the table in far less time than the traditional forty or sixty minutes you may take for a meal in a casino.

You’ll communicate with other players by typing into a “chat window” seen by everyone participating in the game, but the only way to “call the floor” to make a complaint or check the history of a hand is to fire off an e-mail to customer service. As online poker casino software evolves, these procedures are likely to become faster and easier.

Q: How easy is it to get into a game or change games?

A: It’s simplicity itself. In a real casino you have to go to the podium, get on a waiting list, endure short waits or even lengthy waits of an hour or more, or perhaps join a “must-move” game before reaching your desired table — only to have to repeat the process all over again if you want to change limits or games.

Most of this unpleasantness is avoided online. You simply click on the game of your choice if a seat is open or, if the table is full, click on a waiting list for the desired game. A pop-up screen plus a sound signal beckons when your seat is ready. As long as the volume is turned up on your computer, you can be busy away from the computer until your seat is ready. Many game types and betting limits are available, including a wide range of tournaments.

Don’t like the game? Simply click to exit and get on a waiting list or simply take a seat at another table by clicking on an empty seat. In a real casino, you’d have to move your chips — not to mention notifying the floorperson or “brush” and getting permission to move in the first place. Changing games through the podium can be tedious and time-consuming, and often not even possible if a game has a very long waiting list.

Online, you just click and go, and you won’t have to consult anyone. Often you can be in a different game within five seconds. And you won’t have to rack those cumbersome chips you just won, as they are automatically added to your online account. When you arrive at your new table, you’ll be given the option of buying as many chips as you like, as long as you have the money in your account to purchase them.

Q: Can I play in more than one game at a time, unlike in a real card room?

A: Yes! Many online poker rooms allow and even encourage you to play in two or more games simultaneously. After all, they rake more money this way. It’s easier at some online casinos than others to segue from screen to screen (meaning table to table), so if you want double or even triple action, try out several sites offering multiple game play to see which has the most congenial software. And yes, you may also play at more than one site at a time if your computer is up to the job — meaning, in general, that it’s anything better than a dinosaur.

Q: Exactly how much will I know about my opponents, and how will I know it?

A: Beyond what you observe of their play, you’ll know only their made-up screen names and the city, state, or country the player declared as his place of residence when he signed up to use the site. However, very little policing seems to go on regarding verification of this information, since such obvious phonies as “Planet Earth,” “Skid Row,” “Doghouse,” and “Beyond the Rainbow,” have been spotted even in cash games online.

Opponents’ handles are customarily accompanied by colorful visuals such as computer composite figures or avatars, photos, or cartoon caricatures submitted by players or created through software at the site. These “stand in” at cyberspace tables for the live people they represent.

Q: But aren’t players likely to choose handles and avatars that are misleading or deceptive?

A: Yes, and most do. Screen name “Granny Hannah,” predictably accompanied by a composite avatar or photo showing a bespectacled old lady in a rocking chair darning a sweater, is likely to be a 25-year-old card shark from Atlantic City. Be forewarned: When it comes to identity, little online is what it appears to be. So you may as well join the crowd: Choose your “handle” and accompanying avatar carefully to mask your identity and playing style. Once you’ve submitted them, you may not be able to change them, so put some thought into what name and image will represent you online.

Q: How can I compensate for the scarcity of information about my opponents?

A: You can easily take notes online. Note taking is awkward at in-the-flesh games, where you’re forced to walk away from the table or grab a few stolen moments between hands to scribble something beneath the table. More and more sites are providing convenient screens for note taking. By all means, use them. Depending on the site, you may be able to save these notes to your hard drive. If your site doesn’t offer this capacity, keep important notes in a physical notebook or in a spreadsheet, since notes taken in any given session will do you no good if you can’t use them days or weeks later.

Q: But couldn’t a wily opponent continually change names to keep me from tracking his play?

A: Internet poker casinos recognize that the only way you can remember an online opponent is to remember his play. Therefore, requests for screen name changes are usually denied unless someone has an excellent reason, since a name switch could give someone an unfair advantage. Remember: Choose your screen name carefully — you may not be able to change it!

We hope this answers some of your questions about playing poker in the brave new world of cyberspace. If you haven’t ventured there, you might just want to give it a try. After all, where else can you play in your jammies? And instead of a drive, all it takes is a few mouse clicks before you arrive on site. Whether you play for real money or decide to get your feet wet in play money games, we think you’ll like playing online. It’s especially convenient on those occasions when you can’t get to a brick and mortar casino to play. When the poker bug bites you but you don’t have the time to play, or the baby sitter doesn’t show up, and even when you’re at the office and the boss is away, poker in cyberspace is a nice alternative to traditional casinos.

Lou Krieger is the co-author of ‘Poker for Dummies

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