We explain why you should drag yourself away from your monitor and start playing in the real world
Poker’s old guard often reveal in interviews how they were taught to play poker by their grandmothers/uncles/brothers etc. It’s not a story you hear too much these days. More often than not most fledgling poker players nowadays have picked up the game through whichever online site sucked them in first and, for a large majority, the live version has only ever been a spectator sport.
Which is a shame, because live poker has so much going for it. The heft of a chip, cards scudding smoothly across baize, peeking at the upturned corners of your hole cards and the spiritual connection to poker’s legends are all part of the experience. Sitting hunched over a monitor lacks the romance. It’s like that other internet cash cow, porn – it’s okay but the real thing is a lot more fun.
Online poker definitely has its advantages. The guy with the Phil Ivey avatar across the table could be anyone, and he can’t see you pumping your fists, screaming with rage or giggling at your own cunning. It’s comfortably impersonal. But to use a line that Brad Pitt’s character almost utters in the film Fight Club, ‘How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been heads-up in a poker club?’
If you’ve spent your poker existence being driven blind from too many hours in front of your monitor, playing in brick-and-mortar cardrooms can be overwhelming the first time. When you’re playing online all you have to worry about is how people bet and whether your beer is empty, whereas in a live game there are actual conversations, chip tricks, waitresses and a myriad other distractions.
Concentrating and reading your opponents are definitely harder as a result – but it just takes practice and a little experience. You need to ignore the frippery. Chip tricks, for example. Chip tricks say, ‘I know what I’m doing,’ and they exist to put off newbies. But they also say, ‘I’ve spent far too much of my spare time teaching myself how to do this,’ which is a better way of looking at them.
Then there are sunglasses. Greg Raymer or Marcel Luske can get away with them, and so can you in the glare of the big money events, but at your local £10 rebuy tournament they scream ‘fish’. The kid in the shades is more likely to be disproportionately concerned with how he or she appears than a circling shark.
Appearances can be +EV (expected value), however. One old story has a visitor to Vegas sitting next to a loud, Hawaiian-shirted tourist who wouldn’t shut up. Observing his tablemate for a while, however, the visitor noticed the ‘tourist’ was playing solidly and aggressively and had doubled his buy-in. It transpired later on that the man in the Aloha shirt was a local who made a nice bit on the side by fleecing actual tourists. ‘Why,’ he said, ‘would I want to look like a local?’ Which could be read as: Why should you be bothered if anyone spots you for a first-timer?
Tells are another feature of reallife poker that can be a lot easier to spot than they sound. They’re not always Oreo cookie-easy, but they’re not always too subtle, either. Here are a couple of examples from one of my first live tournaments:
• The action was folded to me in mid position. I raised four times the big blind, exhaled contentedly and sat back in my chair, grinning. Everyone folded and one chap muttered, ‘Bullets, anyone?’ He was right, too. Paying attention to how you appear to everyone else is one more thing to bear in mind.
• Later on, I also spotted my first bona fide live tell. The player to my right re-raised another player all-in. It became a stand-off. Ennio Morricone could have written a soundtrack. The two men were staring at each other across the table, unblinking and expressionless – except that the re-raiser’s neck was throbbing like a bullfrog. It turned out he was nervous because he was bluffing. The first was an embarrassing but useful lesson; the second was incredibly satisfying. This is what live poker has over its online cousin. It adds a whole new dimension – literally – to the experience.
If you’re still nervous here are a few general tips to take in before you take the plunge:
• Always read the house rules before you sit down.
• String betting is probably the most common beginner’s error. If you’re raising, you must announce your intention clearly and move all the chips you wish to bet into the middle at once. Doing this in two movements constitutes a string bet. It will be pounced on, as will saying ‘I call – and raise’, because your opponent may react differently in the short time they think you are calling, which could be free and unfair information for you.
• Chatting about hands in progress – even when you are uninvolved – is another big no-no. Wait until the hand is finished before you discuss it with anyone.
And remember that at the moment London’s Gutshot club is fighting a test case against the 1968 Gaming Act. The case stems from the old argument over whether poker is a game of chance or skill, and while everyone knows what the answer should be, it might be worth getting down to your local club sooner rather than later – because the law can be an ass, after all.