Live players get a bad rap from online players. You can find back-and-forth bickering from players on both sides of the aisle on a bunch of online forum threads. Online players insist live players are mostly horrible donkeys. Live players insist there’s a lot more to live poker than just pure poker skills (like live reads and social skills that increase action). Who’s right? They both are.
If you want to see some examples of such arguments, here’s a good, recent example from a TwoPlusTwo thread about making the transition from online to live play. A bunch of online players weigh in on how easy it will be for winning online players to beat live brick-and-mortar games: http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/28/internet-poker/can-online-players-beat-b-m-games-1031668/index2.html . The Twoplustwo author Alan Schoonmaker started the thread as a thinly-veiled promotion for a seminar he’s hosting where he’ll be coaching online players on transitioning to live play. (As an aside, I have no respect for Schoonmaker; his “Psychology of Poker” book is near worthless in my opinion, as are most all of his opinions I’ve read on the forum.)
It’s true that your average online player is significantly better than your average live player. This is because online games are much tougher than live games. Some people will say your average live $5-$10 No-Limit Hold’em table might be comparable in player ability to an online 25 cent-50 cent NLHE game. Why is this? Because of the barriers of entry (real and perceived) to playing online, there aren’t a lot of fish (especially in the United States) going out of their way to play online. Most fish who do go online are going to stay at pretty low stakes. In effect, there are a lot more serious poker players online proportional to clueless players. At casinos and cardrooms, there are a lot more recreational players and tourist-types who enjoy gambling and giving their money away, even at substantial stakes.
Online poker is “pure poker”. Everything comes down to fundamental poker strategy: mathematics, handreading, and insight into your opponent’s playing style. Because the competition is so much tougher online, online pros who succeed at any given stake are significantly better than their live pro counterparts at equivalent stakes. Live pros, on average, can get by with weaker fundamentals because they are playing against weaker competition.
Of course there are some live pros who have very strong fundamental poker skills. These pros will move up the live poker ladder to significantly higher stakes than their comparable online counterparts. This is why it’s a mistake for online players to assume that because live games are so soft, that all live pros are soft. Live pros who are good across-the-board in skill level will move up to much higher stakes, whereas live pros whose fundamentals are weak will hover around $5-$10 or $10-20 NL stakes, or the $40-$80 fixed-limit games.
I don’t think any player with much experience would argue with the fact that online games are tougher. I think the online players currently flooding the live scene will easily make the transition to beat mid-stakes live games. But online players should also realize that just because live games are softer and can be beaten with strong fundamental skills, that doesn’t mean that that’s all there is to live play. In other words, just because you may be winning at live play, that doesn’t mean you’re beating the game for the maximum amount. (And you may need to beat the game at a maximum amount to make up for less hands per hour, travel expenses, higher rake, and the pressure to tip.) It also doesn’t mean you will be ready to compete against opponents who are at an equal level of pure poker skill but who also have other live-play skills that you do not, such as being good at reading tells.
There are two ways live pros can add to their win rate in ways that online players cannot:
- Live tell-reading abilities
- Social manners that either ensure more action in the current game, or that enable the pro to have access to other large, lucrative games. (I won’t talk about this one here.)
Online players, and even some live players, are quick to dismiss live tell-reading ability. They either see this as a “soft” skillset that doesn’t require much experience to learn, or they entirely dismiss the power of tell-reading.
It is true that you can advance quite far in the poker world without having much in the way of tell-reading ability. (Dan Harrington is a player who comes to mind who seems to have a low opinion on the importance of tells.) Fundamental theory and opponent pattern recognition is most of the game. I don’t think any decent players will deny that this is where 90% of the game is at. But live tell-reading can add a substantial amount to win rates, and I don’t think you’d find many successful live pros who would argue with that concept either. (For me personally, I’d say poker tells account for approximately 15% of my profit.)
Even more important than being able to read the tells of other players, however, is not giving away information through your own tells. Tough poker competitors will be looking for leaks in your body language and verbal communications, even if you’re not looking for leaks in theirs. The best players are aware of these considerations, and have to find ways to “balance their ranges”, so to speak, when it comes to physical actions. Making betting movements in a consistent way; ensuring the length of time it takes to bet, call, or raise isn’t giving anything away; having a consistent strategy for where to look after betting: believe it or not, things like this are serious considerations the more difficult your competition gets.
Players at the top of the poker food chain (Phil Ivey, Barry Greenstein, Tom Dwan, Patrik Antonius) have spent considerable time honing all aspects of their game, including these psychological aspects. If you’re wondering why some people can just kill it live, it’s mostly just great fundamental poker skills, but some of it is from knowing how to read poker tells and knowing how to avoid giving off poker tells.
If you play enough live, I promise that this will become obvious to you sooner or later, even if you find it hard to believe now.