Differences Between Playing Poker Online and Playing Poker in Real Life

Dec 18

So, how would you differentiate online poker and live poker? Would today’s technologically-inclined generation of players who spend most of their gaming days playing poker online even know the differences between online poker and live poker?

On one hand, you might say that you are still playing the very same game, whether it’s inside a virtual room or on an actual poker table. A flush beats a straight in both. Players in either game bet and bluff and deliver and get bad beats. Many of the skills that you have to develop and consistently work on in one format can easily be translated to the other.

But then again, there are many corners that vehemently argue that the same game played on various platforms is like night and day. Some have even gone as far as to compare the two to chess and checkers. Online poker is a video game, they say, while live poker is likened more to a sport. One's "virtual," while the other "real."

There was a time in the not too distant past that the contrast between "live poker players" and "online poker players" was fairly glaring. A lot of professional players belonged to one group and all but ignored the other. You'd hear stories of "live pros" heading online and not doing quite as well with some complaining the game wasn't "real" poker. And then, there would be "online pros" trying their luck at live events and struggling with handling cards and chips or game etiquette.

These days, there is a lot more overlap, with most professional players and many at all levels playing both online and live. Those who do try their hand in both have to be basically aware of the differences between how the respective games tend to play.

And so, that brings us to the topic of this article: what are some of the differences between live and online poker? And among these variances, which are the most crucial ones for players that are trying to or are thinking about making the jump from one to the other?

Here are the most important differences between playing poker online and in real life:

1) The Size of the Bets

In live cash games, you'll often come across different bet sizing than that on online games, primarily when it comes to opening preflop raises. While an online cash game might have players opening for 2x, 2.5x, or 3x the big blind, in live games it isn't odd to have players opening for 5x or 6x or even more, especially in the lower-stakes live games (e.g., $1/$2 NL).

Tournaments, however, offer up are a different story, although there, too, you'll still find live players overbetting, especially inexperienced ones who are having a difficult time keeping track of pot sizes.

All that being said, in the live games, you'll often encounter looser play, generally speaking, in the form of players doing a lot more calling. One drawback of this trend is more multi-way pots happening live than online where the preflop betting usually leads to heads-up situations.

It isn't that strange in a live cash game session to see a number of limpers preflop and/or a number of callers of a preflop raise, thus producing a multi-way situation.

2) Calling versus Folding

If live players are commonly looser than online players with their preflop calls, post-flop things tend to go a lot differently. You'll see that online players are in fact, more inclined to make big post-flop calls with weak- or medium-strength hands than in live-action. That means big river bluffs often get through more times live than during online play, although of course, everything depends on the player and situation.

One casual explanation for this likelihood is the fact that it is easier for many players simply to click a "Call" button than to make a tough call live. Not having to endure in person the embarrassment of guessing wrong with such calls make them easier to get away with online.

And because of this tendency to run into more callers online, many players report experiencing "bad beats" more often online than during live action. This is especially so at the "micros" and lower limits online, where the small stakes further encourage calls with subpar hands that intermittently do outdraw better ones. The sense that the bad beats are coming more often online is augmented, of course, by another big difference between live and online poker, which we will discuss immediately below.

3) The Pace of the Game

One of the more glaring surface-level differences between live and online poker is decidedly, the pace of play. Online poker plays substantially faster than live poker, and some who actually like playing online find the live game too tedious to tolerate. Whereas you might be given an estimated 30 hands per hour in no-limit hold'em cash game, when playing online, you will see 60 hands per hour or even more at a given table and even more in short-handed games. The ability to multi-table online also means playing a lot more hands per hour than is possible to live.

And because of this particular reason, the impression of getting more bad beats online can be overstated. The fact is, you can seem to experience more of everything online because you're playing many more hands, which in turn has an impact on the entry that follows.

4) Variance in Online Poker vs. Live Poker

"Variance" is a term that is often used generically to define the "swings" one goes through in poker, with the higher "variance" leading to bigger gains and losses in the short term when compared to results that are garnered over longer periods. The faster pace of play online again artificially impacts what the "short term" actually is. You might play a week online and log 10 times the number of hands you'd play if you play live poker for a week, thus giving the impression that your variance has been fast-tracked greatly.

Even if it is an artificially-created difference, this "higher" variance when playing online can result in faster, more marked bankroll swings over shorter periods than during live gameplay. That means bankroll management has to be tackled a lot differently when playing online, where you usually want to maintain a bigger bankroll in terms of cash game buy-ins or tournament entry fees than you need when playing live.

5) Online Tells Compared to Live Poker Tells

A noticeable difference when playing online is not being able to see your opponents or for them to be able to see you. This means, of course, the role of "physical tells" gets eliminated from the online game. This also evidently impacts table talk, which can be a crucial factor in live games but becomes a virtual non-factor when playing online — aside from chatbox "talk." Experienced live players have claimed that it is much easier to "profile" opponents when playing live, especially the less experienced ones who are most likely to give away loads of information very quickly when sitting at an actual table.

However, it does not mean there aren't any "tells" in online poker. Here are two of the most common ones:

  • Table Count
  • Stack Size and Auto-Rebuy
  • Postflop Bet-Sizing
  • Posting a Blind Out of Position
  • Chatbox Tells

At most online poker rooms, there is a "search a player" feature. One of the simplest ways to get a better read on what kind of players you are up against is to search them right there on the site. If they are only playing on one or two tables, then there is a fair chance they are recreational players of some kind. If they are playing on 10 tables, though, chances are higher they are regular grinders or even professionals.

If they block themselves from being searched — which is an option on most sites — it is also most likely that the player is a decent regular. The "search a player" technique is not a foolproof tell by any means, but often the results are pretty revealing.

Another usual tell that online poker players let on is with their stack size and if they make use of the auto-rebuy feature. Most times, most regulars will buy-in for the maximum amount at an online poker table, usually 100 big blinds (in no-limit hold'em games). The reason is actually pretty simple — if you are properly bankrolled for the game, which you should be, and you are one of the better players, then having the most money in front of you is going to allow you to win the most.

Recreational players, meanwhile, are usually not properly bankrolled and they will often just buy-in for some random amount that is less than the maximum. Also, unlike regulars, they will not make use of the auto-rebuy feature when their stack size drops below a certain amount.

Another rudimentary way to spot inexperienced players is by the bet sizing they use after the flop. Most good regulars will rarely bet less than half the pot post-flop in a cash game. However, recreational players will frequently bet much less, sometimes even just making the minimum bet amount. This shows a lack of understanding of the math of the game and is typical of players who only play the game for fun.

Another sure-fire tell that online poker players give off is through how they post the blinds. Regulars will consistently wait for the blinds to come to them before posting. Recreational players, however, will frequently post the blinds before this — that is, as soon as they arrive at the table. This is the poker equivalent of voluntarily paying your taxes twice. Nobody who takes this game seriously would ever choose to do this. Take a note right away when you see somebody post the blinds out of position.

Experienced players aren’t big proponents of using the chatbox when playing online poker, as they feel it can be distracting and sometimes exposes them to nasty, unpleasant comments. However, there can be some merit to switching it on from time to time in order to get a quick read on your opponents. The large majority of regulars will never say a thing as they have the chatbox turned off. The recreational players are much more likely to make use of it, though. They will be more apt to use the chatbox to vent about their "bad luck" as well.

6) People are Not Likely to Bust Live Tourneys

Although this doesn’t apply generally to all tournaments, in most live events, people will be very cautious about putting all of their chips on the line. Online, it is easy enough to bust one tournament and just fire up the next one. Live, once you bust, provided there are no rebuys or re-entries, you’re done and have to look for some other form of entertainment. In other words, your tournament life tends to be a lot more precious in a live poker setting.

7) Live Poker Delivers a Much Better Social Setting

Playing online is often a lonely activity. Although most online poker sites offer a chat option, this is seldom used for any significant conversations. On the other hand, live poker rooms offer a much better social setting, where you can easily chat with someone about anything and everything. So, if you want to have the kind of fun that doesn’t exclusively depend on how you’re doing in the game itself, live poker is always a suitable choice.

8) The Sheer Convenience

To play in a live tournament or cash game, you have to get dressed, make the trip to the casino, and then, spend a specific amount of time there. With online poker, you can simply fire up some tables whenever you feel like it and, if you so choose, you can even do so in your underwear. In that sense, online poker offers the kind of freedom that games in a casino simply can’t match. Note, that playing online thus also saves you the extra “associated costs” of live poker, namely gasoline, parking, tipping, and – of course – commuting time.