Online poker has seen a mini-boom in the last year because of poker rooms shutting down due to Covid-19. For me, this has led to an influx of students who often have no idea why they are getting crushed online when they were doing fine at brick and mortar tables. There are three reasons why you may be having a tough time online as compared to live games, and for most people it is a combination of the three.
- You weren’t really keeping track of wins and losses in live poker games. It’s easy, and in fact it’s quite natural, to lie to yourself about your results. At live tables this is easy. Online, you are forced to redeposit and you have to face the fact that you are depositing but never making a withdrawal.
- The games are much tougher and you are playing at a level that is harder than the games were playing before. $1/2 no-limit in a brick and mortar cardroom is about as tough as $.10/.25 online. If I had to pick, I would actually say the smaller online game is probably tougher. If you usually play $1/2 live, and you play anything close to that size online, you are playing in a much tougher game, which may explain your losses.
- You are playing online poker as if it is live poker, while many of your opponents have tools available that you know nothing about. These tools can provide a massive advantage and it is very tough to win without them in many online poker rooms.
Now, what do we do about these things? Well, the first two are pretty simple. The first can only be fixed by paying attention to the other two and playing better poker against weaker opponents. The second can be fixed simply by moving down. Play a game that is about one-fifth the size of your usual live game and stay there, or even move down, until you are consistently beating the game before you consider moving up.
The third option is the interesting one, and the primary focus of this article. If you aren’t a serious online player, the advantage your opponents have over you may be shocking. Getting some of these tools yourself will drastically improve your win rate.
Are You Cheating If You Use Tools to Help You at Online Poker?
First, let’s have a disclaimer. It has long been my belief that if you are operating within the rules of the site you are playing on, you are fine, and if you break those rules, even if everyone is doing it and you don’t think it’s a big deal, you are technically cheating. There are a few tactics that follow that I think you need to know about that are against the terms and conditions of many poker sites.
This does not mean that I endorse breaking the rules to get an advantage. But I think you need to know about these things for two reasons. The first is that your opponents are using them. You need to know what you are facing, even if you aren’t going to fight fire with fire. The second is that some sites allow almost anything and in some cases all these tactics are allowed.
Poker Tracking Software
The first advantage your opponents may have is tracking software. These include Holdem Manager, PokerTracker, DriveHUD, Poker Copilot, and many others. The first two are what the vast majority of serious players use. To the best of my knowledge, if you can use this software on your favorite online poker site, then it is probably allowed, but check the terms and conditions first.
Tracking software has two primary functions. Helping your improve and track your own play, and learning about your opponents. They often have sections built into the software that will help analyze your play and find mistakes.
Being able to use this software with students is an incredibly powerful tool. If you have played 50,000 hands with tracking software, I can look at your stats and find a ton of leaks very quickly. I can see how many hands you are playing overall, how many hands you play under the gun versus on the button, what positions are profitable and which are losers, how aggressive you are, how often you win showdowns, and a host of other statistics that tell me about your game.
A good coach can look at your stats, identify a potential problem, and find hands that illustrate that problem, very quickly. Then, we can replay those hands right from the tracking software and talk about how to play them better.
I had a student last week who plays single table tournaments online, and five minutes into our first lesson I had found that she was much too loose in the early rounds, especially in early position. We found a hand where she raised with pocket deuces in early position in the second level and talked about why this is not profitable in this kind of tournament. This is guaranteed to save her some money going forward.
We can find more in-depth problems, too. Situations where a player is not three-betting often enough, is calling off too many chips to see a flop, or calling too many river bets. The possibilities are endless. And you can do much of this yourself from reports within the software. Any position where you are losing money, except for the blinds, is an obvious problem.
Heads-Up Displays (HUDs)
Equally as valuable is the information you get on your opponents. This will be available in the form of a HUD. This puts valuable information about your opponent on the screen right next to their avatar. You can even set specific rules to have different icons appear next to them so that you can identify a fish, rock, or maniac, in an instant from their icon.
At first, these stats won’t mean much to you. It takes a lot of work to use these stats to really understand who a player is. But just knowing how tight/loose and aggro/passive they are is a big advantage right away.
My favorite came from a video I recorded years ago for a poker training site. I was playing $2/4 no-limit, a game where I often had large sample sizes on my opponents because I had played so many hands in the game. I faced a raise preflop from early position, there were two callers, and I called from the button with pocket fives.
I was ecstatic to see a J95 rainbow flop. The original raiser bet, a middle position player called, and I called as well. The turn was a 6. Both players checked, and I bet. The original raiser folded, but the middle position player put in a big check-raise. Now I had some thinking to do, and I clicked on his stats to get more detailed information.
I had more than 30,000 hands on this player. He was winning, though not much. And he was very predictable. I looked for the important stat. How often did he win when he check-raised the turn?
I don’t remember how many times this stat had been tested. He probably had only check-raised the turn a few hundred times at most, but it was still a big enough sample to stand out when I saw that he won the pot 100% of the time when he check-raised the turn. This fit with the passive playing style that I saw in the rest of his statistics. This is a player who would check and call with two pair, or possibly lead out. He had to have the nuts, or very close to it, to check-raise in this spot.
I folded easily. My decision took less than 15 seconds. Some people who watched the video were shocked. But if this guy had not lost a pot after check-raising the turn over a sample size this large, there was no chance I was ahead. I had to make quads to win. It was an easy fold that would be really tough without the tracking software and a large sample size.
This player may not have been using tracking software. He might have no idea why he isn’t a bigger winner. He probably assumed that I didn’t have much of a hand. He certainly didn’t think I folded a set before my time bank even activated. But the stats made it easy.
If you aren’t using this software to make the same decision I made, then be aware that your opponents are using it against you. The tracking software cost this player hundreds of dollars in this one hand. And situations like this were very common.
Buying Hand Histories
It gets really interesting, and also prevents some ethical issues, when you discover that some players are buying hand histories from hands they didn’t even play. Most sites prohibit this, so check the terms and conditions before considering it yourself, but you need to be aware that it is happening.
There are multiple sites where you can buy datamined hand histories. While the major sites generally prohibit this practice, they also don’t do much of anything to stop it, and buying large quantities of hand histories is common among the working pros in cash games.
Why should this matter to you if you aren’t going to do it yourself? Because it is a big advantage for your opponents. You may be facing a new account where you have no history on them, but they have purchased a million hands and loaded them into PokerTracker and they have 50,000 hands on you. Now they have a huge advantage over you by knowing your game while you know nothing about how they play.
Other Online Poker Programs
There are also add-ons or separate programs that will find seats for you in good games, track players who are labeled as weak, or automatically assign icons or other indicators to players who fit in certain parameters. You can even get note taking software that will include the player’s stats in your notes on them. Powerful stuff.
In addition to tracking software, there are programs that will set up your tables, register you for new tournaments or cash tables automatically, rebuy for you, and allow you to control your betting with a number pad or a Playstation controller. I used to use a program called Table Ninja that was invaluable to me when I played multiple tables on the major sites. I could never have played a dozen or more tables without everything that the software automated for me.
The strongest players in online games, such as the poker games at Mount Gold Casino, are also much more likely to be using LeakFinder in their tracking software, a portion of the program dedicated to pointing out leaks in your game. And they are usually part of online training sites. I make content for online poker training sites and I am a member of a number of them as well. The information is powerful, well presented, and easy to digest.
A good player will often post stats and hand histories from their tracking software on forums and get feedback from other good players. And many of the best players have coaches they send this information to. From basketball to chess to golf, the best players have coaches, and poker is no different.
Know What You’re Up Against
This leaves a player who just opens up an online poker account and starts playing, at a huge disadvantage. Would you expect that with little training, you could compete against chess players who work with training software, track your games and know how you play, invest countless hours into study, and work with a world-class chess coach? It would be silly to expect to compete with someone like that if you don’t have the same advantages.
But poker players do this every day and can’t understand why they aren’t winning. They blame their losses on bad luck, cheating, rigged games, and anything else except the truth, that they are being outplayed by players who have huge advantages over them. But there is good news.
The vast majority of players are making this mistake to some degree or another. Which means that if you choose to educate yourself and use all the tools at your disposal, there is still a lot of money to be made. Six months of lessons with a good coach will cost between $1,200 and $3,000. And that will put most players in a position to be long-term winners. The software costs $100 or so on top of that, but you ought to look at these as investments rather than “expenses.”
Looking On the Bright Side
There are very few jobs where you can invest relatively so little time and money and become a professional. If you treat your education as if you are in a vocational school and study full time for a year, the rewards are excellent. And almost no one does this. Most poker coaches will tell you that their students usually only show up for a few lessons.
Once a student discovers that learning to play poker well takes real work, they usually disappear. Most poker players just want to play poker and have fun, not read and watch videos and study and fill in spreadsheets. So they take a few lessons, figure they have learned enough, and stop. Eventually they quit, hopefully before they lose money they can’t afford to lose. But they rarely put in the time and the work to acquire the knowledge they need to make a profit over the long run.
If you are a recreational player, with no aspirations to “go pro”, that’s fine. I envy you and how much you enjoy the game! Now you know a little more about what you are facing when you sit down to play online poker. If you do want to make poker into a job, or a profitable side-hustle, now you have some idea what it will take to get there.
I should probably also add that one article is not enough to cover all the advantages your opponents might have. Solvers, some of which operate in real time, cheat sheets, push fold charts, and a host of other things, are in use in the bigger games. If you are considering playing bigger than $1/2 you should know what all these things are and how to deal with them before you even consider moving up.