A negative perspective

Welcome back to Online Poker Think Tank. Before we get to this week's topic, I want to thank the readers for some great responses to our first installment. This feature will constantly improve as we work out the kinks, and reader participation can only help us improve more rapidly. We received some great questions to put to our panel and will start using those questions exclusively next week. Remember, you can submit your think-tank topic here.

Since we wanted to get our second discussion going before we posted last week's discussion, we needed one more staff-generated topic. My colleague Andrew Feldman and I put our heads together, realized we still had an IQ of only about 80 and squeezed out the following:

"Is there a negative stigma applied to online poker players?"

It's a simple question that's not necessarily easy to answer, especially for the members of our panel. Without further ado, on to the discussion:

Brian Townsend: Yes, online players are stigmatized in the wider poker community and looked down on as "lesser players" or "not real poker players." The stigma is lessening, though, as the divide between live and online players blurs. Players have crossed over for countless reasons: Online poker has matured and drawn in live players, while online players have tried bricks-and-mortar play for the experience, to play in bigger or better games, and, in some cases, because they have just turned 21.

And it's not just the demographics that are different. Some of the folklore that generated the stigma has changed, too. Beliefs about the differences between live and online play persist, for good and bad reasons, but some of the silly beliefs are recognized as silly far more widely now than they were five years ago. I'm talking about beliefs like the ones that poker couldn't be strategically interesting if you couldn't look your opponent in the eye and that there couldn't be interesting situations with stacks as small as 100 big blinds.

Mike Schneider: How would you say online poker has matured, Brian? In my five-plus years of playing poker in casinos, I still hear the same silly statements such as, "Online poker is rigged to give action boards," and, "The underdog hands seem to pull through way too often," and then slightly better comments like, "It just feels too much like a video game to me; I can't keep up with those young guys who can play half a dozen tables."

Maybe this is going too far out on a limb, but after my experiences of live versus online play, I feel like a live player is much less likely to understand variance and what is within the realm of possibility, and likewise, it always seems to be live players who struggle to cope with bad beats, while online players brush them off relatively quickly. Until this gap in knowledge of variance is overcome, I don't think the negative stigma will change a ton. The stigma is more likely to fall when online players bring their game live and earn the respect of their live peers. Then their opponents will say, "Hmmm, these kids can actually play poker. Maybe I'm not losing online because it's rigged … perhaps they're just good."

Brian Townsend: I agree that people say closed-minded things, as in your examples, but I think we hear them less and less often these days.

Online games are simply getting more respect. More and more of the best players are playing online. Phil Ivey is a prominent example of this. Almost all the recognizable TV pros play online, whether they admit it or not. Big live players used to laugh at online stakes, too, and it's much harder to do that now; $200 to $400 online is comparable to $1,000 to $2,000 live, and such games run very consistently online, whereas $1,000 to $2,000 games run a few times a year live.

Beyond the respect and the stakes, there's also the numbers. Familiarity and tradition used to overwhelmingly favor live play. Now that 125,000 people play on PokerStars.com every afternoon, the online game is catching up fast. The online game is developing its own traditions, too, a sort of parallel folklore. Many thousands of people now remember learning the game online or following Taylor Caby's heads-up matches with Prahlad Friedman back when it was Green Plastic versus Spirit Rock.

So, the things that used to make online play seem inferior -- perceptions that the players were worse, the stakes were tiny and online poker was a bizarre, untraditional incarnation of the game -- are gone.

I agree with your comments about variance. I think this derives from how few hands live players see, comparatively. I remember how frustrated I used to get when my aces got cracked. It took me hundreds of thousands of hands to realize that it simply happens. It makes a lot of sense that guys who see 35 hands an hour need a very long time to get a sense of what it is to run well and run poorly.

There are other forces at work here, too. Good and bad luck can be very subtle in poker. Losing players often blame luck for their losses, and skillful plays can seem lucky. When I am inexperienced in a game and think I'm better than I am, I often blame bad luck for my losses until I improve. It's part of what makes poker such a beautiful game and what has allowed everyone in this forum to make as much money as we have.

Phil Galfond: I agree with most of what has been said. All I have to add is that it goes both ways. Live players think online players suck, and online players think live players suck.

If some player I don't recognize is sitting alone at $300/$600 no-limit, I ask a friend who it is, and if he responds simply, "He's a live pro", I sit down with him right away. I imagine live players feel similarly about us.

Frankly, I don't think it's a bad thing. If we all respected each other's games, we'd get less action.

There also are the stereotypes. Things like, "Online players are antisocial nerds." Just like a lot of stereotypes, it's based on some truth, but not everyone fits the mold.

Todd Witelles: We all know about the home-court advantage in sports. That is, given two completely equal teams, the one playing on its home court or field will be the favorite to win. This occurs due to both the support of the home team fans, as well as better familiarity with the court or field and its surroundings.

While there usually is no crowd factor in poker, other than at final tables at televised tournaments, I still believe a home-court advantage exists, which explains why certain top online players can't win live and vice-versa. This leads to misperceptions and conspiracy theories, with online players labeling live ones "awful" or "weak," while many live players insist online play is rigged.

In general, online games are wilder. There are more bluffs and semibluffs. There are fewer big laydowns. In cash games, average pot sizes are bigger. The same limits play much bigger, due to both increased aggression and increased speed. Also, the higher limit cash games tend to run shorthanded or heads-up, while most live tables are of the full-ring variety. These differences turn online and live games -- especially cash -- into two almost completely different animals.

A successful online player understands a lot of people are detached from their money when it's just numbers on a screen. This makes him more likely to make both stubborn call-downs with mediocre hands and value raises with a hand that is far from the nuts. He is familiar with the online environment and the way the game plays. He is less affected and surprised by bad beats. This same player often will struggle live, as he will give way too much action with the worst hand.

A successful live player knows when to slow down and has a good feeling of whether he is ahead or behind. With less pure aggression and more situational play -- and the addition of physical tells -- he usually has a good idea of when to raise, call down or fold. This same player often will struggle online, as he will be run off the best hand too often, while the fast pace makes bad beats seem shockingly frequent, sometimes leading to tilt.

Tells are, of course, another factor. An experienced online player is familiar with "click tells" -- information gathered by the speed with which opponents react. Live players have no idea about this. Experienced live players pick up physical tells, while online players often have no idea about such tells and give them off without realizing it.

Some players are successful at both online and live play. However, I have seen many who struggle with one and routinely succeed at the other.

Justin Bonomo: This is mostly a reply to what Phil wrote.

I used to be an online player, but I have been almost exclusively a live player for two years now. "Live players think online players suck, and online players think live players suck." You didn't really address it directly, so I will for you, and I think you will agree: Online players are much better than live players.

The best way to compare them is by looking at games of similar stakes. Take the smallest stakes no-limit games they have live, $1 to $2, and compare it to $1/$2 online. No one who has played both games will tell you the online game is easier. The same applies to the opposite side of the spectrum. A $200 to $400 no-limit game live is generally centered around a few fish, while an online version might have a lineup exclusively made up of professional poker players who all have made more than a million dollars playing no-limit online.

If you look at tournaments, the comparison is a joke. In one of the toughest $10,000 WPT events, you will find the players to be on par with the players in a $100 rebuy tournament online. This is pretty commonly accepted among players who play both.

The fact of the matter is, information comes to online players somewhere in the realm of five to 10 times faster, due to both the increased number of hands per hour (no dealers and the option to multi-table) and the great ease with which you can share hand histories and collaborate with other players to find your strengths and weaknesses.

And for the record, I say all of this even though I consider myself a live player.

Anyone dare to disagree with me?

Phil Galfond: Yeah, thanks Justin, I didn't wanna' say it.

Isaac Haxton: Justin said: "Online players are much better than live players. … The best way to compare them is by looking at games of similar stakes."

Just to play devil's advocate: I'm not sure it makes sense to compare the same stakes live and online. The amount of money to be made playing the same stakes live and online is not comparable. In a live game that's moving quite fast, you get 25 hands in an hour. A multi-tabling online pro plays 200 hands an hour, at minimum, and many players play more than 500 hands per hour. So to make the same hourly rate playing live as playing online, you would have to have 10 times as high a win rate per hand or be playing at 10 times the stakes (or some combination like twice the win rate at five times the stakes). When you look at it this way, it makes a lot of sense that players who win live at $20/$40 play about as well as players who win online at $2/$4. They are probably making about the same amount of money; if they weren't comparably skillful, it would make sense for all the live pros to move to online games or vice-versa.

Looking at the highest levels, there are maybe 50 people who can expect to make a million dollars playing cash games this year. Maybe 35 of them play mainly online at stakes of $10/$20 and 15 of them play mainly live at $100/$200 (and above), and these guys all are comparably good. When you look at it this way, maybe the online players aren't light years ahead.

So, is there a stigma? Yes, but evidence suggests that as with any stigma, as information spreads and awareness becomes more commonplace, those stigmas are removed. It should be pointed out that while online players often are grouped as a whole, theirs is a demographic that is as varied as any. Yes, they spend a lot of time at the computer, but for the good ones, it's only because it's worth their while. By the same token, live tournaments and the lesser quality of play there are make it worth while to leave the apartment and get to the casino.

As usual, we hope you've enjoyed this week's installment of Online Poker Think Tank. If you have any questions to put to the panel, we urge you to submit them here.

Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com, Bluff magazine, worldseriesofpoker.com and other publications. His podcast, Wise Hand Poker Radio, can be heard at roundersradio.com and airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays.