Sign Up For Card Player's Newsletter And Free Bi-Monthly Online Magazine


Poker Training

Newsletter and Magazine

Sign Up

Find Your Local

Card Room


Real Life vs. Online

Some subtle differences

by Matt Matros |  Published: May 28, 2010


If you’re an online player who’s trying to make the transition into brick-and-mortar casino tournaments, you’ve probably read a lot about tells, table etiquette, the rules regarding what you can do and say, and just about everything else that’s new to a person who has never played against live-action opponents. What’s not often mentioned, however, is that the structure and organization of a brick-and-mortar casino event have some significant differences from online tournaments. I’m going to spell out some of those differences, so that online players can be a bit more prepared for that first face-to-face encounter.

An online tournament has many luxuries for its organizers, one of which is that all players can be seated at the same time, at the perfect number of tables. There is no worry about tables being shorthanded, little worry about the tournament selling out, and perhaps most importantly, no worry that the table draw will somehow be unfair. In a live tournament, tables and seats are assigned to individual players at the time they register for the event. This might not seem like a big deal, except that the tournament directors don’t usually have a great idea of how many players they’ll eventually get. The typical way to deal with this is to keep only 10-15 tables open for the random draw at any given time. So, if you’re the first one to register for a tournament, you probably have no chance of being assigned the same table as someone who registers at the last minute. (At an event where a big turnout is assured, like a $1,500 no-limit hold’em tournament at the World Series of Poker, this issue is usually not present.) As a result, the draw is not truly random; indeed, at the recent North American Poker Tour event at the Mohegan Sun, almost everyone who qualified online ended up in one room, while almost all of the cash buy-ins ended up in another. There is, sadly, no quick and easy solution for this problem. Directors could be more aggressive about estimating higher turnouts, but then if they’re wrong, they’re stuck with breaking a ton of tables, rerouting a bunch of players, and finding new assignments for their dealers. Most directors would rather settle for a slightly non-random table draw. If you’re an online player who’s new to this whole thing, you might want to look around at who’s in line next to you before you buy in to a casino event. If you see a bunch of tough customers, you should come back and buy in another time, assuming that you have that option.

In online events, the blinds escalate gradually throughout, and it usually feels like one smooth increase from start to finish. Since all of the chips are virtual, you can go from a 140-280 level to a 170-340 level with ease (and in fact, Full Tilt includes this “jump” in almost all of its major tournaments). In real life, such small increases in the blinds are completely impractical. It would be far too much of a nuisance to have blinds of 175-350, let alone 170-340 (new chip denominations would be needed for that one). Because only certain options for the blinds are feasible, one level can be very different from the next. Sometimes the blinds double. Sometimes they barely change, and move from 200-400 to only 250-500. The jumps in levels are not nearly as smooth as they are online, and it helps to be aware of this phenomenon. Similarly, the size of the antes in a live-action tournament is usually determined by convenience (increments of 25, 100, 500, and so on). Sometimes the ante is 20 percent of the small blind, sometimes it’s a third of the small blind, and I’ve even seen tournaments in which the ante is half the small blind. Always be aware of how much (or how little) the ante is contributing to the size of the pot. There is much more to be gained by stealing a pot that starts with three big blinds than a pot that starts with 1.5 big blinds (twice as much, actually).

Brick-and-mortar casino tournaments just can’t run the way that online tournaments do, with invisible floorpeople breaking tables instantly, while scoreboards update the action in real time, and that leads to subtle differences in format that are often overlooked. That said, the more obvious differences between online and live play are also worth mentioning. They’re oftentimes easily ignored, but failing to keep track of a few mundane details can lead to drastic results.

When playing live, online players must learn to memorize their holecards. Yes, you can always refer back to your hand, but that risks giving away a tell. In online play, your cards are always right there on the screen. In real life, it is customary never to refer back to your cards after the flop has come out. Another thing to keep track of is the pot size. Online, you can read this information right off the screen. In real life, players have to keep track of the bets going into the pot at all times. This is substantially more difficult than remembering holecards, but just as vital. Forget the pot size and you’re liable to make a gross overbet or weak underbet without even realizing that you’re doing it. To combat these little annoyances, I have a routine that I implement every time that I’m playing a hand to the flop. I look at my hand after the preflop action has been completed (I of course have looked at it once before this), committing the ranks and suits of my two cards to memory. While I’m still looking at my hand, I calculate how much money is in the pot. Only after I’m sure of my two cards and the pot size do I look up at the flop (or at my opponent, or whatever). This system isn’t foolproof, but it’s better than nothing. The more stressed a person gets, the more likely he is to botch a trivial detail, and subsequently ruin his tournament. Establishing a routine is a proven insurance policy against such a disaster occurring.

I hope that a few more online players feel ready to compete in live-action play after reading this column. Maybe I’ll even see some of you at this year’s World Series of Poker. Spade Suit

Matt Matros is the author of The Making of a Poker Player. He is also a featured coach for