Are online poker players taking all the success from live poker specialists? We investigated the reasons behind the dramatic change in results

Online players are now a major force in live tournaments, but only a few are consistently mixing it with the big boys. Paul Cheung speaks to five players who are ruling both forms of the game

The migration from nameless online pro to live star has been an increasingly common journey in recent years. It seems barely a month passes now without another twenty-something kid banking a million dollars for winning one of the many high-profile global live tours. And of the three biggest events in the poker world – the WSOP, the WPT and the EPT – all three current champions (Joe Cada, Yevgeniy Timoshenko and Pieter de Korver) cut their teeth in online poker.
But it’s not plain sailing for everyone. There are many top online players who have yet to make an impact in the live arena. In order to see why some have triumphed where others have failed, we tracked down five of the world’s biggest online-to-live stars and got their unique insights into what adjustments you need to make to succeed in the live arena.

Stars In The Making

Annette ‘Annette_15’ Obrestad, Bertrand ‘ElkY’ Grospellier, Justin ‘ZeeJustin’ Bonomo, Yevgeniy ‘Jovial Gent’ Timoshenko and Isaac ‘Mr Menlo’ Baron were already online superstars before they ventured into the world of live play. And although they weren’t all instantly successful, they worked hard at their games so that they can now stand shoulder to shoulder with the very best live players. Since 2005, these five players have accumulated $16m in live winnings between them.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is our cover star Chris Moorman. The British pro is arguably the finest online MTT player on the planet (he was rated number one on for much of 2009), but for some reason has really struggled live, with total winnings of just over $34k compared to $2m+ online. He’s not on his own though. There are plenty of online phenoms, like Shaun Deeb, Tony ‘Bond18’ Dunst and Alex ‘AJKHoosier1’ Kamberis, who haven’t replicated their online success in live tournaments. It could be variance of course, but our experts believe there could be a number of reasons why so many players find the crossover tricky…

Telling Off

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first. Our panellists are unanimous in the opinion that live poker is actually an easier game. ‘You play fewer hands, and you get plenty of time to assess situations,’ says ElkY. Bonomo agrees. ‘There are a lot of amateurs when you play live. A lot of them don’t really know what they’re doing. Online, there are tournaments like the $100 rebuy [on PokerStars] that ONLY has people who play hundreds of thousands of hands every year.
So if online is the harder game, why the stumbling block? At first it seems obvious: the need to ‘read’ physical tells is just not present online. Interestingly, however, the panel downplays the usefulness of physical reads when it comes to their own games. According to them, betting patterns still rule the roost.
‘Betting patterns are still my main reference to this day,’ says ElkY. ‘I don’t think I’m actually that good with physical tells and it’s something I need to improve on.’ Baron shares the same view. ‘Betting patterns are the most important thing – any person who tells you they play strictly off tells and don’t look at betting patterns is probably a losing player.’

Speed Freaks

In truth, the huge difference in pace is one of the primary reasons why a lot of online players haven’t been able to replicate their success away from their computers. Let’s say the average number of tables an online tournament pro plays at any one time is eight. Full-ring tournaments deal about 70 hands an hour. That equates to 560 hands an hour. In Vegas, an experienced dealer with an automated shuffling machine could get through about 30-35 hands an hour. A conservative estimate would therefore suggest that live play is 16 times slower than its online counterpart!
The speed of online poker allows you to put a tremendous amount of volume in, which is one of the cornerstones of online success, says Timoshenko. ‘Players like Shaun Deeb and Chris Moorman can play a lot of tables at a time, five days a week for a year, and not lose their minds,’ he says. No wonder ElkY says he was bored out of his skull in the first few live tournaments he entered. ‘I played a few million hands online before playing my first live event. The rhythm of live play was pretty boring, compared to playing ten tables online simultaneously.’ 
Speed of thought and action is a necessity when you’re multi-tabling, but live it can be a major hindrance, causing you to spew off your stack instead of waiting for good spots. ‘I was making decisions too fast,’ says the Frenchman.

To counter the ennui, ElkY says he ‘focused on different things and reframed the direction of my attention’. Isaac Baron found himself caught in a similar trap at the beginning. ‘You start to notice the low number of hands when you are losing. It’s very easy to get impatient when things aren’t going your way. So a big thing for me to learn was to take my time and stay patient.’

Having time to think in live play, as opposed to making automatic decisions, can throw online players off their game, says Timoshenko. ‘[Online players] can be too robotic and systematic,’ he says. ‘They don’t take the time to think through situations where an out-of-the-box play might be best.’

Focus Point

For Britain’s Chris Moorman it’s his concentration levels that suffer live because of how hectic online play can be. ‘When I play a lot of tables, I miss hands all the time. When I’m not in the hand I’ll leave it and won’t focus on it [because there are lots of other hands to deal with]. But when I play live, if I’m not in the hand I’ll sometimes switch off and look around the room and think about other stuff.’
In addition to dealing fewer hands per hour, the slow structure of live tourneys is another factor that can confound internet players. Deep-stacked online tournaments rarely have more than 30-minute blinds, whereas even minor live events can feature 45-minute or hour-long levels. That’s why the internet kids come unstuck early on, says Justin Bonomo. ‘Since you’re short-stacked it’s a lot more about preflop decisions,’ says Bonomo. ‘You’re not really playing any tough decisions on the river. If you play in an online way at the start it’s worse because the stacks are deeper. A lot of online players have a tendency to lose half their stack in the first few levels,’ he says.
According to Baron, one leak that the online fraternity have playing live is calling too light. ‘People are usually much more cautious to put a lot of money in the pot preflop without very strong holdings, whereas online that’s not the case at all.’

Streets Talk

The heavy reliance on preflop play is undoubtedly a crucial reason why even the best online players have a problem adjusting: the online game is all about preflop decisions while the live game is built around postflop play and strategy through all five streets. Timoshenko says his preflop game is one of his key strengths and Moorman goes as far as to say it’s the strongest part of his game. Rarely will you hear a top live game player waxing lyrical about his preflop prowess – it’s always about the later streets.
‘When you play live you usually have more chips, so there are more decisions and your play before the flop can affect the play on the flop, turn and river,’ says Moorman. ‘Online, it’s more of a preflop game – you can’t really get to the river and check-raise all-in as a bluff. So spots are a lot less complicated. Preflop is probably the strongest part of my game – I take down a lot of pots preflop and people adapt the wrong way.’
From her play at the inaugural World Series of Poker Europe, Annette Obrestad offers the perfect example of a move that an online player might often make but that shouldn’t be made live. ‘There was this one time around the final table bubble that I four-bet all-in with pocket threes for 70 big blinds. An opponent snapped me off with Queens and I lost a huge pot. Sometimes you have to make those moves to make sure people know you’re capable of doing them, but when you have two big blinds in the pot, why would you want to risk 70?’

Tools Of The Trade

One huge difference between live and online play is undoubtedly the different tools available to you at the click of a button. Moorman believes part of his slow progress live is down to taking online features for granted. The replay function is something he uses judiciously. ‘If I miss a hand, I can just click on hand history and replay it. Sometimes when I’m playing live I might ask someone, ‘What happened in that hand?’ which is obviously not the way to play as he could lie to me! I definitely tend to switch off too often.’
ElkY admits that trying to work out stack sizes in real life when you’ve just been spoon-fed them for millions of hands was one of his biggest hurdles. ‘I had trouble looking at stack sizes,’ he says. One player who negotiated the stack size problem with ease was Bonomo. Justin says his sit-and-go experience stood him in good stead. ‘As an SNG player, there’s nothing more important than stack sizes. So when I first started playing live tournaments that became one of the first things I was very aware of. There was a lot of down time in between hands, so I would always make a point of counting everyone’s stacks so I would always know how many chips they had.’

Fancy Dan

The final sin that our panel believe a lot of online players are guilty of is FPS or ‘Fancy Play Syndrome’. Just think about how the poker vernacular has grown exponentially over the last few years. We’ve gone from three-betting, restealing and squeezing to value-shoving, donk-leading and five-bet jamming – and new terms are cropping up all the time. Online players have a penchant for making up names for moves, but more than that, they like to pull off spectacular ‘moves’ just to show that they can. It’s not enough to win, they have to win in style.
But as Obrestad found out at the start of her live career, it’s a style that doesn’t translate smoothly to the live arena. After winning the WSOPE in 2007, and coming second in the Dublin EPT, she seemed to have the live game down pat, but a dry 2008 proved to be a wake-up call. ‘I was playing the same as I do online, which is super-crazy, making a lot of moves, bluffing a lot, three-bet shoving a lot,’ she says. ‘It was a really high-variance style but I found out that it doesn’t work so well. Yes, if you can run good or get lucky you can go deep. So I’ve been playing a lot more…I wouldn’t say straightforward, but not taking so many unnecessary risks.’ 
The change has reaped its rewards. This year she won the AU$1,000 pot-limit Omaha event at the Aussie Millions and came seventh in the main event.
Baron is keen to point out that he has observed FPS in its most rampant form online. ‘A lot of [online guys] feel like they have to be outplaying somebody every hand and they don’t give anyone credit. They think all live players suck and that they know everything. They make crazy plays and then justify them with a bunch of horrible maths equations when anyone with two eyes can tell that they just made a horrible play.’

World Domination

It’s clear that if some top online players aren’t performing as well as they would like in live play, it’s not because they lack ability but simply that they haven’t been able to channel their energies in the right direction. Serial tournament winners like Bertrand Grospellier and Yevgeniy Timoshenko are examples of players who have been able to use their millions of hands of experience and superhuman stamina to startling effect. If the internet kids can temper their inherent nature to play each and every hand fast and clever, it’s frankly inevitable – and scary – just how dominant they could be on the live tournament circuit.
If you want to improve your online poker game then why not try a free digital copy of PokerPlayer magazine HERE
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