How to adapt from online winner to live champion, by PokerStars' Greg Raymer

wsop2009_thn.gifMany of our PokerStars players coming over to Las Vegas for the WSOP will be playing live tournaments for the first time. While the rules of the game are the same, playing online and live are two very different animals.

So who better to ask for some sound advice on how to adapt from online play to taking a shot at mega bucks at the Rio than Greg Raymer, who won the Main Event in 2004 and has got $6.8million in live winnings to his name....

by Team PokerStars Pro Greg Raymer

So, you've been playing on PokerStars.com, and doing well, and now you want to take a shot at the live games. What should you do? Well, the good news is you've already accomplished the hardest part, so the rest will probably come relatively easily. Here's some advice to make it even easier yet.

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I've been playing poker seriously since 1992, so I started out as a live player, and only became an online player when it became available years later. Wherever you play poker, the hard part is learning how to play poker well. If you're winning online, then you've already done that. In 2004 when I won the Main Event, and prior to then, we used to make fun of the online players, and how bad they were. And for the most part, we were right. However, in today's poker world, it is the winning online players who have the most talent and knowledge, as compared to the live players. More importantly, the bad online players are nowhere near as bad as the bad live players.

So, if you're winning online, you've already learned what ranges of hands to play in certain situations, and what are the best ways to play them. To become a winning live player, you only need to follow this knowledge, and not give away any tells to your opponents. Reading their tells will improve your results massively, but it is not actually necessary for you to become good at reading tells to be a winning live player. But it is key that you at least be able to hide your own tells.

The easiest way to hide your own tells is to become a robot, a machine, to sit there and give away nothing. When you are not in a hand, feel free to be sociable and interactive, but once you're in a hand, you should pick a comfortable pose and sit in that position without moving. A good pose will be one you can stay in for up to five minutes (sometimes more) when your opponent goes into the tank and is trying to decide what to do. A good pose might also include covering your mouth with your hands, wearing sunglasses and a hat to cover your eyes and forehead, or maybe a hooded sweatshirt.

If you give off nothing, your opponent is left guessing. However, there are generally only three options in poker (fold, call, or raise), and as such if your opponent is guessing they will guess right about 1/3 of the time. It is also possible to give off tons of tells but to do so in a manner that is not related to your hand. In fact, you can learn to give off "disinformation" tells, that are designed to get your opponent to do what you want. This way, you can actually steer your opponent away from the right decision, and towards the wrong decision.

This can be massively powerful and profitable. But it is extremely hard to learn these skills and apply them effectively. And when you try to do this against another really good player, they will often see through your disinformation and actually make a more accurate guess than if you had given them nothing. So, I advise you to learn to give away nothing first, and then slowly start expanding your arsenal by giving off false tells. First, against very weak and easy to manipulate opponents, and only when you become very good at this should you try it against a strong opponent.

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How do you learn to give off nothing? One good technique is to practice while sitting in front of a mirror. Play online poker, and put a mirror next to your monitor. Treat your mouse as if it were a stack of chips in a live game. When the action is on you, be in your pose, break the pose just to reach out to the mouse and click your decision, then return to your pose until it is your turn to act again. Make sure that as you see the cards come out on the flop, turn, and river, or as your opponents make their decisions to fold, call, or raise, that you give off no reaction. Make sure that your movement to the mouse is always the same. I have seen online players in live events who have learned to sit still when waiting on you, but they still give off huge tells when they bet or call. You can tell by HOW they move their chips whether they are strong or weak. So also practice with physical chips, and make sure you always put them into the pot in the same manner.

The final part of the equation is to learn how to read the tells of your live opponents. This is huge. This is the reason that you watch some of us live players on TV or in person, and wonder how we can win with some of the decisions we make. Sometimes when you see us do something stupid, it is simply that we are doing exactly that. But much of the time we are doing something that seems wrong in a strategical sense, but is actually right because of the tells we are picking up on our opponent. Using terminology of game theory, sometimes you should play in a non-optimal manner so that you can more fully exploit the non-optimal plays of your opponents. If you always play in a game-theory-optimal manner, you can never be exploited and you can never be a long-term loser, but doing so leaves you very short of maximizing your profit against the real mistakes being made by your opponents all the time.

How do you learn to read tells? It comes naturally to a few, but most of us have to work hard at getting good at this. I have been working on this part of my game, more so than any other, for the last 10 years. I strongly recommend the book "Read 'Em and Reap" by Joe Navarro. Joe is a former FBI agent who used to teach other agents how to use body language during interrogations in order to determine if the interviewee was being truthful. Over the last several years, Joe has turned his attention to using all that he learned in fighting crime to the world of poker, and how to read your opponents at the table. You can also find Joe at almost every venue of the World Series of Poker Academy, where he and I are both instructors. I only teach at a few of these each year, but Joe teaches at almost all of them, always doing an excellent job.

When you do make the move to the world of live poker, make sure that you start out playing smaller than you do online, at least until you are fully confident in your live game. Once you do so, you will find that you are probably one of the best players at any table you sit at, so enjoy this new source of poker profit.

Good luck in Las Vegas!

* There's still time for you to qualify for the WSOP $10,000 Main Event, visit the PokerStars WSOP page for more information.

All photos © Joe Giron, IMPDI