Tuesday, February 22, 2005

How To Play Online Poker - Some Practical Tips

OK, so I haven't been playing long myself, and this is NOT a strategy guide or poker lesson, but it took me a while to get the hang of a few practical things, so I figured why not offer some practical info to anyone who happens to stumble by. This is really a distillation of tips I picked up elsewhere, credited as appropriate, and some hard earned experience of my own.

Anyone who spots any mistakes, feel free to correct me and I'll happily credit you too. Onwards to the tables...

Unless you are playing poker simply for fun, and don't mind losing your buy-in at each session, there are a few simple steps to be observed, which should help you at very least break even, and ideally build your bankroll and allow you to move through the limits.

1. Set up your finance facilities.
2. Learn the basics of rules and strategy.
3. Find a site that will reward you for playing.
4. Practise with play money.
5. Play poker.
6. Chase bonuses.
7. Make use of the 'tools of the trade'.
8. Analyse your performance and improve your game.
9. Repeat steps 5 to 8

First things first. Before you start playing poker for money, get some sort of online wallet. I use Neteller. The reason you need this will become apparent later.

When setting up Neteller be careful what currency option you choose. If you live in the USA it's a no brainer, Base Currency: US Dollars. If you live elsewhere, it can be a little less clear cut. I live in the UK for example, and initially chose base currency UK Pounds. But the sites I play on use US dollars. So, the first transfer I made from a poker site to Neteller, I got hit with a currency exchange fee, as the poker room dollars became my UK pounds.

I then had to email Neteller and get them to swap my account to a US Dollar account - which took a few days. I'll still get a small fee if I withdraw from Neteller to my UK bank account, but that will be very irregular, as the initial focus for a new player will be on building the bankroll. While the cash stays in Neteller and the poker sites, there's no cost to move it around.

So if you live in the UK and plan to play on UK Pounds sites, go for base currency UK Pounds, if you plan to play on US Dollar sites, go for the dollar base currency. Similar thoughts apply to Euroland residents and Euros.

Deposit some cash in Neteller, and off we go.

Before playing for real, at least learn the basics. Playing poker should be fun, maybe even rewarding. You don't need to view it as a charitable enterprise!

There are plenty sites which offer rule guides and tips. I browsed Learn Texas Hold Em, before starting.

It's also worth reading at least one book. Don't go for a heavyweight Sklansky book to start with. It will just confuse you, and probably make your head hurt. Try something like Tom McEvoy's Beat Texas Hold'em, to give you an idea of starting hands to play and the basics of position.

Next step is to choose a site to start playing on. This is where some research may be called for. Most sites offer some sort of sign up bonus. These can vary over time and will generally offer a bonus as a percentage of your deposit, to a maximum amount. For example 20% bonus to $100 would mean a $500 deposit is credited with a $100 bonus; $200 deposit is credited with $40 bonus. So, it makes sense to focus your financial firepower on one site to maximise your initial bonus, then move onto the next when the bonus is earned, etc.

Generally bonuses have to be earned by playing a certain amount of hands, often at a certain level. So there's an overhead, but playing is the best way to learn!

The best bonus I am currently aware of for a new player is The Gaming Club. Unusually, they offer up to $300 bonus from a deposit as low as $20. So, the bonus in this case is NOT a percentage of your deposit. You need to play a LOT of hands to earn it, but if you can break even in poker over those hands, your bankroll has increased by as much as 1500% Also beware some hands will probably need to be played at a higher level i.e. $1/$2 or $2/$4.

Once you have worked off your first bonus, look elsewhere for new sites to sign up to so you can gain more bonuses. This is where Neteller becomes so useful. Most sites will only pay out to the mechanism by which you deposited money, up to the size of your initial deposit. If you deposited by credit card, they want to refund your credit card. They may wish to pay out anything beyond your initial deposit by a mailed cheque. This can be cumbersome and time consuming, and cost more in fees.

If you funded your poker account by Neteller, you can cash out all your money to Neteller. Thus Neteller becomes the central repository for your bankroll. Note that while deposits from Neteller to a poker site are instantaneous, cash outs can take some time to process. Anything from 24 hours to around 5 days in my experience.

It makes sense to keep the minimum you need deposited with a site, and the majority in Neteller - ready to chase those bonuses. I've been caught out by seeing a site announce a bonus offer which lasts only a few days, when most of my bankroll has been residing in another site. By the time I transferred it to Neteller, the offer had expired.

For more on 'bonus whoring' see the Bonus Whores site, or Scurvydog's definitive guide. Excellent reading.

Whichever site you settle on, try playing with Play Money first, to get the hang of the flow of the game, and understand the mechanics of the software. Don't play on these tables for too long. The play isn't properly representative of a real game and you won't learn a lot. So once you have the hang of the mechanics, it's time to go to the real tables.

This is where the most important rule in the gambling world applies: DO NOT bet what you can't afford to lose.

If you have raised a $50 deposit, stick to the micro limit tables til you have built up some cash and experience. Even if you have a lot more cash, it's probably best to stick to the 25c/50c or 50c/$1 tables until you are sure you can play at a higher level. Maintain a reserve for losing streaks. Even the best players have unlucky runs, so don't play at a limit where two bad sessions will leave you broke.

Don't be like my gormless friend Billy, and start buying into $50 Sit-and-Gos on day 1, then wonder why the players seem much better than you!!

Once you have some experience, try to improve your game. For really good insight on developing as a player, check out HDouble's Development of A Poker Player article. Check out the rest of his site too. The man has talent.

You may also want to read a book which goes into more detail on playing the low limits. Small Stakes Hold 'em: Winning Big with Expert Play by Miller, Sklansky and Malmuth has certainly improved my game, though some of the advice is most directly relevant to Party Poker - the spiritual home of people who really do play poker simply for fun, and don't mind losing their buy-in at each session. Yum, yum!

Be aware, not everyone plays the way the books advise. Some people play downright stupidly. While this can be frustrating in the short term, remember the more stupid players there are at your table, the more money you are likely to end the night with!

Once you have some experience, and are sure you want to continue and improve your poker game, look into acquiring some 'tools of the trade'. The best known poker software is Poker Tracker, which is an absolute bargain. This software will allow you to download hand histories, analyse and store the performance not only of you, but of all the players you compete against. Thus you can delve into your results, understand where you make and lose money, and track the style of other players.

Combine this with Gametime+, which overlays your current session with data from the Poker Tracker database, and you have the ultimate poker weapon. Effectively a heads up display, which classifies your opponents, based on the data in Poker Tracker.

NB Poker Tracker and Gametime+ are not compatible with all sites, so check they support your favoured sites before you buy Poker Tracker. Gametime+ is free.

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