Jay Lovinger, ESPN’s resident poker professional, calls online poker the Wild West of Poker. With “homicidal maniacs behind every cursor … every hand has the potential to be a Wild West shootout. Every single hand.”

D.C. Lee

There’s no question that poker has grown immeasurably in popularity over the past three years. ESPN, the first network to broadcast the World Series of Poker, is partially responsible. But online poker rooms, like partypoker.com and ultimatebet.com, have probably had the most to do with the game’s increased popularity. Now, anyone with 50 bucks can validate a PayPal account, deposit that money into the poker room of his choice, and turn rags into riches. Just like the Wild West, right?

It’s easy to log in to ultimatebet.com and watch Spirit Rock take down $1000 pot after $1000 dollar pot. And it’s fun to log in to fulltiltpoker.com and actually play real-time hands at reasonable limits with poker legends like Phil Ivey, Erik Seidel and John Juanda. Just last week, I played $2/$4 limit hold’em with Seidel, who was sitting directly to my right. At one point, the table folded to Seidel who raised my big blind. I re-raised back with rags and bet out on the flop to take down the pot. Rags to riches. Just like the Wild West, right? Wrong.

Winning one hand against a world champion doesn’t make me a poker superstar. Phil Hellmuth, arguably the best poker player in the world, says if you can consistently beat the $20/$40 limit hold’em game at your local casino, you can consider yourself a bona fide professional. I asked Erik Seidel what he thought about that when we were sitting together and he said “that sounds about right.”

There’s a big difference between $2/$4 and $20/$40. In fact, they’re essentially two different games. At a $2/$4 table, whether it’s online or in a brick-and-mortar casino, you’ll find a lot of twenty-somethings playing more hands than they should. Some are even brash enough to think they can bluff you by raising $4 into a pot that’s already sitting at over $40. Pot odds, implied odds and basic strategy are lost on most of these players. Playing in these games, for the most part, is a complete wash. Not only do you have to beat the other players — not easy to do when there are seven to eight people in a pot — you also have to beat the rake, which at the lower limits is a larger percentage of the pot.

In a $20/$40 game, however, it would be unusual to find more than five players in a pot. There’s almost always a raise — or two, or three, or four — preflop, and the rake is significantly lower as a percentage of the pot. The game is both easier, and harder, to beat.

Online, the differences between the two games are magnified. The $20/$40 game remains relatively stable, but the $2/$4 and other lower limit hold’em games degenerate into a lottery-style free for all. It’s like playing bingo, where your two hole cards are your bingo board and the flop, turn and river are the balls being drawn out of the cage. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it takes a special kind of player to consistently beat the lower limit online poker games.

In real estate, the key to success is location, location, location. In low limit online poker, the key to success is discipline, discipline, discipline. Four years ago, I played my first online poker game at paradisepoker.com. I lost $200 in 30 minutes at the $5/$10 limit hold’em table. What I had in ego, I lacked in discipline. Since then, as the game has grown, so have I. Four days ago, I won a $580 pot at the $5/$10 no-limit hold’em table at fulltiltpoker.com. It wasn’t against a poker legend like Erik Seidel, Phil Ivey or John Juanda, and it didn’t matter to me in the least. I had the discipline to wait on a hand and catch someone with his hand in the cookie jar. Bingo.

Online poker, like all things, is not for everyone. But if you enjoy playing and want to meet some interesting people, there’s a Yahoo group for Ann Arbor players. Just go to Yahoo! Groups and search for “a2poker.” Sign up, and there are live games played every week in various locations around campus. One member has suggested running a World Series of Poker type event at his house, with all different variations of poker being played and with no single buy-in greater than $25. Last year, you might remember, I co-hosted the World Series of Michigan tournament, with a $100 buy-in. The winner took home a cool $1,200.

Sound interesting? Sign up. I’ll see you at the tables.


Lee can be reached at leedc@umich.edu.

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