When I first noticed poker offered at a sportsbook, I thought it was kind of strange. After all, what does poker have to do with sports betting? A friend tried to convince me that they were one in the same, but to me it made no sense. After all, poker is a card game pitting one player against another, while sports betting has a player trying to beat the odds against a bookie on a sporting event. Yet, it seemed that people at the poker tables are often the same people who bet at the sportsbooks as well.
Over the last year I started playing poker on a more regular basis and noticed that at some sites I did much better than at others. Furthermore, at some sites, the hands would play out as they should while at others it seemed that a river would almost always complete a straight or flush for someone else setting up a bad beat. In fact, the evidence, I believed, was so compelling that I decided in the last few weeks to do a study on the different poker sites and prove that some poker providers do not have random software. It was my intent to do an expose, drawing up 2 separate lists and prove that poker cards on sites "A" were random and poker cards on sites "B" were not. The sites in my study included Party Poker, Prima Poker, Paradise Poker, World Poker Exchange, The Greek Poker, Betfair Poker, Pokerroom, Pacific Poker and Cryptologic Poker (William Hill, Ladbrokes). I was planning to take pages and pages of notes and prove that some poker sites were not reputable. I decided that I would play and observe different table limits, game types, limit and no limit games, regular games vs. tournaments, etc. The results would be compelling and the expose would shake the industry.
The study was to take about two months, with a week observing play at each site. In the first month, I observed 4 sites, 2 of which I felt were on the A list and 2 on the B list. I watched hand after hand, made notes of betting patterns, flops, turns and rivers, bad beats, the number of AA vs KK hands, the number of river victories. It was tiring, but in the end it would be worth it (or so I thought). Once the study was complete I would do my calculations and submit all the results. After the first month, I decided to do some preliminary calculations of the different places I observed, and after plugging all the data into Excel and running it through the SPSS program, there it was staring me right in the face - there is absolutely no difference in the software of the four companies. The difference in the number of bad beats, river wins, AA vs. KK hands, losing AA hands etc. were statistically insignificant, and more so the bad beats were slightly higher at the places I thought were random. But in that moment, analyzing everything with a clear, unbiased mind, something else occurred to me - poker is just like sports betting. For the first time in my life I understood why sportsbooks decided to offer Texas Hold Em Poker on their sites. So the focus of my article changed. Instead of this article being an expose about cheating poker sites, instead the article will focus on some obvious, yet important, tips when playing poker, why bad beats happen and how the game of poker and betting sports are intertwined.
Personally, I prefer to play at the 3-6 or 5-10 tables when playing limit hold 'em. On occasion I'll venture into the 10-20 tables if I'm up a lot of money or if I can't sleep and just want to do something without much thinking I'll play 1-2 or even .50-1 hold 'em. Without doubt, whether the game is happening at 2 o'clock in the afternoon or 1 o'clock in the morning, table limits are key in determining how a game will be played. A common belief is that people who play at the cheap tables are bad players and therefore they will be easier to beat. This may be true, as you won't see Phil Ivey or Greg Raymer playing online at a 50 cent table, but sometimes the beginner can be more dangerous than the good player, only because they always tend to go in and get the lucky flop. It's highly unlikely that a player at a $100 table will play 5-7 off suit, while it happens all the time in the cheap games. Then if the flop is 7-7-9, the person with the A-K or pocket 10s is sunk. The losers will cry fix, as there is no way a legitimate player could play 5-7 unless they were the blind, but it has nothing to do with a fix, it just happens. It occurs at Party Poker, World Poker Exchange, Betfair Poker, etc. And it happens in live games as well, that's the nature of cheap stakes poker. While it's possible that for some at the table $1 may be a lot of money, more than likely the amount is insignificant and they are just learning. Or perhaps, like myself, they are simply there because it's 1 o'clock am, can't sleep and are hoping that some cheap poker will ease their mind in order to get some rest. In that case, they may not be thinking right and/or will just play any hand for action and if the flop doesn't pan out they fold. If they lose, who cares, it's only a buck after all. Even in no limit hold 'em the buy in is critical. To most people, if they bring $1,000 to the table, to go all in will require a damn good hand. If it's 20 cent blinds where the maximum you bring to the table is 5 bucks, going all in obviously means a lot less.
And when you think about it, it is not much different than sports betting. Both are about the odds. If you like a team, but only rate it a 50/50 chance of winning, whether you play the game or not depends on the odds. If you generally bet between 10% and 25% of your bankroll on the Monday night football game and your sportsbook has the game with the team as a 2/1 underdog you'll jump all over it for the full 25%. If they have the team as a 3/5 favourite you'll pass or possibly even take the other side for a small amount. The exception of course is if you only want some action. For example, no one in their right mind will bet 25% of their bankroll on a 5 team parlay, but even the most astute bettors will sometimes take a shot on a longshot parlay for chump change in hopes of a big payoff. The expectation is the parlay will lose, and 90% of the time it will. But every so often it wins. Regardless, the amount bet is so insignificant to the person, that it really isn't a concern to them if they lose it. Therefore, if you're playing at the higher stakes tables, most times everyone at the table will carefully consider the odds and their position before betting because the stakes to them are significant. At the cheap tables, people just want some action. Sure, at the high limit tables you will get the occasional Gus Hansen type who raise with 4-9, but for the most part the bettors are sharper and play by the "rules". At the cheap tables you take your chances and bad beats happen all the time.
Whether playing in a real game or online, most poker players will quickly catch on to the nuances of others at the table. Clearly it's easier to spot tell tale signs in a live game, but even with online players there are some giveaways. Sometimes if players have great hands they will pause before betting hoping to make others think they have garbage. By the 3rd time they do this, it will be a tell. Sometimes the players will "check" as the blind only when they have a great hand and bet with junk, again a tell after the 2nd or 3rd time. But, more importantly, you get to know the bluffers from those who never go in except with a good hand, those who don't have a set pattern. Also, over time you'll know who you can beat and who you can't. Everyone has a nemesis that they just can't beat. They lose to that person with good hands, they lose with bad hands and it seems that nemesis player always knows what you have. I've heard all kinds of excuses for it - some suggesting it's a bot that has read prior hands and has figured out patterns, some suggesting the person "has the computer code" whatever that means, and of course some even suggest that the nemesis is the software owner who just waits for you to come online. Of course all the reasons are absurd. Your nemesis may have some reads on you, but more than likely it's just that this person has gotten to your head and you make dumb moves without realizing it. I have a real nemesis at Betfair poker who I just can't beat no matter what. Recently I was up against him, and after a strong raise by him I folded and then realized I tossed out the nut straight. At that point I left the table and whenever I go to Betfair now, if that person is at the table I leave. What's the point playing against someone who has intimidated you? The same holds true with sports betting. Some teams are just nemesis teams. When you bet on them, you lose, when you bet against them they win. Often they are local teams who have just gotten to your head. For teams like that, it's just best to pass. Also, some books are just too sharp, while others are much less so. If Pinnacle makes a big line move, chances are they have some inside scoop that must be considered, or they have a sharp player that made a $50 thousand dollar bet. If Bet365 makes a big line move, it could be because the local plumber bet the maximum $60 bet they allow.
To that point, more than players themselves, bookies must always get to know their clients and move their lines accordingly. If a very sharp player makes a large bet, the book will move the line accordingly. However, if the player makes a smaller bet it may be an indication to the bookie that the other side may be the play if that player tends to lose on his smaller plays. Similarly, if a square that loses 60 percent of the time with large bets makes a huge play then the book may increase the line hoping to entice more action on it. To bookies, knowing the players is as important as knowing the teams. And to poker players, knowing the tendencies of others at the table is as important as knowing the odds.
Everyone knows the line from the old Kenny Roger's song "The Gambler"
You got to know when to hold them Know when to fold them Know when to walk away Know when to run
They may just be lyrics, but in the game of poker the context is essential, especially the last line. After observing numerous games, recounting my own play over the year and talking to many other online players, there is one commonality: At some point, you get so perplexed that you don't think straight. This happens after several bad beats, when you contemplate whether to go in and fold, only to realize you could have won, when other players get to your head or when you see your bankroll dwindling to a point where you think the only way out is to "double up", and you do so often. Regardless of the reason, there is one certainty: if you continue to play under those circumstances you will lose. If your mind is not in the game, you don't calculate the odds correctly, make dumb decisions, don't read others well and generally just chase. While watching a game during my study, someone brought $1,000 to the table at a 20-40 game. After doing well early, he had 3 bad beats in a row and had $500 left at the table. Every hand from there out he bet, raised, re-raised and eventually lost with a lousy hand. It took him about 20 minutes at the table to lose the last $500. I had watched him for over an hour prior to that, and that wasn't the way he generally played. He was out and out chasing and it cost him in the end.
Again, this has an obvious parallel to sports betting. How often do you hear someone who loses on Sunday say they're betting everything on Monday in hopes of getting back their losses, despite the fact that the game isn't even a top play for them? Or at the horse races, how often will a fairly disciplined bettor make ridiculous exotic bets hoping to get back to even? At some point you just have to cut your losses, realize tomorrow is another day, and start over.
Lastly, I'll finish up this article with a look at online tournaments. Everyone loves to play in tournaments, as they all envision themselves walking home some day with a World Poker Tour bracelet, a TV appearance and a wad of cash. But, in reality, tournaments are very difficult to win. In the beginning you have the idiots who go all in with 10-J or 4-4, but when it gets close to the money, the better players are there, and it shows. Again, like limit hold 'em, how to play depends on the limits. If it's a $10 tournament with a $200 top prize, players are much looser and tend to take shots far more than if the tournament is a $1,000 buy in with a $50,000 top prize. The reason for this is obvious. The only players that are willing to pay $1000 to enter a tournament are those that have the skills to win it (either that, or they have more money than they know what to do with). Pretty much anyone can pay 10 bucks, and it shows in those smaller tournaments. But in the end, usually the players at the final table, regardless of the buy in, are those that play the odds. And just like in sports betting, in the end the only winners are those that study, look at the odds and manage their money wisely.
I now understand why people equate poker with sports betting, and moreover I've gained a far greater deal of respect for all online poker companies. Oh, and by the way, the "You" in the title of this article refers to myself. I will never curse the poker software again. I'll just have to get better.