Face-to-face poker versus playing online

It's 10:30 p.m. the night before a deadline, and I am still staring at a blank page. Why is this, you may ask? Not very professional, you may think. But I am afraid to say that I have recently become hooked on playing online poker.

I got into poker by playing in a live tournament, so playing face-to-face was what I found interesting. I always believed you can read a player better by seeing them in person, and the excitement of playing for real money is where the thrill lies, isn't it? But a couple of sessions on the PokerStars FaceBook app, and I'm suddenly realising I may have been hasty in my opinion.

I recently started a Women's Poker League as I believe it is important that more women give poker a chance, so they can realise how much fun it is. I designed the ladies-only league to be a live game, specifically for personal contact. I did not set up an online account or invite friends to try an app, partly because this wouldn't really give my message the impact I wanted, but mainly because I believed the real poker experience was in face-to-face playing. Perhaps slightly prematurely, I dismissed online playing as "not real poker." I am glad to say I have now realised this is a misconception.

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It was when one of the ladies from my Women's Poker League asked what online poker site I would recommend. My first reaction was, "Oh, I don't play online." However, as I am on a poker journey, I realised that I should really have constructive reasons for my dislike of playing poker online. So, I decided to give it a go. The Facebook PokerStars app first grabbed my interest. As Facebook is a readily used application, it was instantly accessible, and, most importantly, it was free to play!

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While playing for free was appealing in the sense that I didn't have to worry about losing money, it did have its drawbacks. The first thing I noticed was that the online players' betting styles were rash. If I had a decent hand and made what I felt was a significant raise, I found it would be instantly called with the ferocity of a Rottweiler. While holding the stronger starting cards should be an advantage, we all know how the fickle the gods of the flop, the turn and the river can be; they have a nasty habit of ruining it for us!

To be brutally honest, this annoyed me at first. I found myself thinking, "Why the hell have you gone all in with 9-2 offsuit?!" Then I began to realise playing on a free app has much the same benefits as my Women's Poker League. Not only does the "free" aspect of the app give the freedom to bet boldly, but the anonymity of playing behind a computer screen offers an added benefit. Not to mention, I don't have to spend an hour getting ready to go out and can just play in my pajamas.

Although my league was established to get people interested in and learning about poker, it was also designed to give me more of an opportunity to practice and develop my own playing style. However, after a few poker nights, I discovered my playing style was compromised by personal relationships. These ladies were my friends and family, and I never wanted them to feel intimidated or put off. I found that I was playing down my hands, even letting people win, just to give them confidence. This became even clearer as I experimented with online play. Playing with strangers, generally faceless and sexless, becomes an advantage, as it takes away the personal nature of the game. I know I will, in all probability, never encounter these people in reality, and in this, true freedom was found.

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Another of the advantages of playing online is that you really can ignore the trash talk. I have gone a good 15 minutes before realising that there was a message in that little text box to the right of the screen. Being distanced from the trash talk helps you really understand the psychology of it. On every table, there is that one aggressive loudmouth, who, if you are a beginner, is a bit intimidating. And that's exactly what it's designed to do - throw you off your game, make you doubt your hand. Sometimes these players have the cards, but mostly they don't, and their bullying is to goad you into playing how they want you to play, by either folding to them or paying more into the pot. But the beauty of being behind a screen is that you can flat out ignore them, and they can't see that split-second bristle, where your ego reacts before your brain reins you in.

I am all about experimenting with your playing style, finding out what works for you and what doesn't. I have to admit, free-play apps are the only platform that have truly given me that freedom. I've spent 5,000 chips playing purely position, and another 5,000 being incredibly aggressive, constantly raising and reraising my opponent just to try and scare them off. I've spent even more playing steadily and consistently, always making the same bet.

In the end, as much fun as I have had, I realise that there is no one betting style. As individual skills, these tactics can be useful as part of the bigger picture, each to be used in a different situation. But ultimately each hand is different, each table is different, and each bet is as unique as the player. There is no sure-fire method when it comes to playing poker. In the words of the great Kenny Rogers, you've just "gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold'em," and "know when to walk away."

Ann-Marie McCarthy
@PokerStars in PS Women