A tumbleweed somehow rolls into a saloon. Two gruff men stare each other down across a bar table with cards in their hands. An ace slides out of one man’s sleeve. They flip the table in a spray of chips and beer, and revolvers start a-firin’.
None of this ever happens. At least, not anymore. There was such a time when poker legends Doyle Brunson and Amarillo Slim traveled from town to town in Texas, using their skills to unload some wealth from rich tycoons across the state. Doyle himself has recounted plenty of stories of being run out of town, and having guns pulled on him during a poker game like a regular spaghetti western. Those were the days, weren’t they?
The epic duels of poker nowadays occur in squishy chairs in front of computer monitors from thousands of miles away, or in televised Texas Hold’em tournaments with commentators and advertisement sponsors littering the table. Reality is going the way of the dinosaurs, as the internet continues to engulf the world.
Not that I’m complaining. For poker, the internet has had a revolutionary effect on the game. It’s the historical equivalent to the industrial revolution and the first use of fire combined. Kids in their twenties have played more hands of poker on the internet than a fellow in his seventies who has been playing in casinos his whole life. Analysis, game theory and meta-game strategy went from word of mouth conversations among live (live as in brick and mortar casino poker) pros to worldwide discussions on the internet.
Quite simply, the game had changed, and will never be the same. As a longtime online poker professional myself, this is my list of ways the internet has left an indelible mark on the beautiful game of poker.
10. Individual Player Statistics
Do the words VPIP and PFR mean anything to you? Does the ratio 70/5 make your salivary glands activate? If so, you’re probably smiling right now.
For those people playing poker on a felt table in a casino somewhere, you only have two things: the hands you’ll play, and the hands you won’t. Depending on your competency, you will know the difference and more importantly, when it changes. Outside of that, it’s just you and your stack of chips all by your collective lonesome.
On the internet, however, those hands are more than just hands, they’re numbers. And those numbers are real, interpretable data. If you’ve played 10 hands pre-flop, folded 7 of them, called 2 and raised 1, your Voluntary Put Money in Pot (VPIP) is 30, and your Pre-Flop Raise (PFR) is 10. This is the statistical poker equivalent of learning the first three letters of the alphabet. Every single event, every choice you make at a poker table, is a recordable statistic and reflects the quality of your play. An experienced poker player can immediately spot weaknesses in another player’s game with a cursory glance at their numbers.
On the same hand, a player who keeps track of his own statistics can use them to find and correct his own mistakes. Stats may only be number 10 on my list, but the reality is they are the building blocks without which poker is extremely hard to refine.
9. Strategy Discussion Forums
There was nothing more crucial for the fluid flow of strategy and ideas as the online poker forum. When thousands of online poker enthusiasts started to break down and analyze hands, gleaning value from hypothetical scenarios and strategic adaptations, the game truly started to realize its potential.
When online poker was in its nascence, the excitement over the analysis and the desire to discuss strategy allowed for online players to freely exchange ideas. As the games became more and more intense, with more and more competent pros filling seats, people became a bit more tight-lipped on their knowledge, and some people have be accused of purposefully spreading misinformation in forums to try to weaken opposition. Regardless of wild claims and heresay, it’s undeniable the influential nature poker forums had on poker’s development.
8. Online Training Videos
As poker on the internet became more and more popular, markets for teachers of the game sprung up where there wasn’t much before. This led to the invention of instructional poker websites. These sites featured paid instructors who would record sessions of online poker, then replay them with their commentary explaining their logic, teaching new strategies, and generally just teaching nuances of the game.
You’ve heard the old adage: ‘those who can’t do, teach.’ Well, very often this became the reality of online instructors. While there still were some competent pros who wanted to teach the game, more often than not players who once succeeded for a time, but no longer could win started teaching to make money. With extremely varying degrees of credentials, instructors created videos (that cost a pretty penny) and were seemingly in absurd abundance. Some people always want a golden ticket; those people pay for instructional videos.
7. 6 Max, 100 Big Blind Poker
As online poker became a phenomenon, so did its practices. The staple of most all online games was a 6 player game with the 100 big blind cap (that is to say, you can only sit down with 100 times the big blind, so a 2/4 table allowed a maximum of $400). In casinos, there are often 100bb buy-in caps in smaller games. But sit at the same table long enough and many people end up with very deep stacks. Some bigger games have no buy-in cap at all, so deep stacked poker is standard.
In online, the baseline is almost entirely the 100bb buy-in, which in turn led to a whole slew of strategies based on risk/reward of wagering the whole 100 big bets at once. Such practices like reraising preflop until all in with AK (Ace King) became commonplace, given the rewards when you reraised it and the opponent folded. The same became true of QQ (pocket Queens) and then even further to Jacks and Tens when the aggression of the game warranted it. In general, the action (general activity level of raising at the table) became greatly heightened. For comparison, the norm in live casino games, which are almost entirely nine-player (9max) games, it was the opposite; getting all in preflop with Ace King or Queens for any reasonably large number of big blinds was monetary suicide.
6. Black Friday
Most of the things on this list thus far have been relatively positive for the growth of poker; April 15th, 2011, or “Black Friday” is a phrase that all internet poker lovers know as the near demise of online poker in its entirety. In short, the FBI and the Southern District Court of New York released indictments of the biggest poker sites in the world; most notably, PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker. Not only were the sites indicted, but the precedent had been set that online poker was somehow illegitimate in the eyes of the law.
The absurdity of it is, that stock market trading and scratch off tickets and the lottery are all perfectly acceptable in the eyes of the law, yet are in reality just gambling. It is mathematically proven that poker is a game of skill with an element of luck; The best players win, like in chess, or any other skill game. Like anything else in statistics, it simply takes a reasonable sample size.
But, the law works in idiotic ways, and because of casino lobbyists pushing R. senator Bill Frist to pass the UIGEA (unlawful internet gambling enforcement act) as a rider to a completely unrelated port security bill in 2006, ‘free’ Americans have to suffer because of corrupt politics. What a surprise.
5. Irrefutable Proof Poker as a Game of Skill
We trust mathematics in nearly everything in our lives to substantiate our reality. Math is used to make the functioning electronics upon which you are reading this. Math makes space travel possible, it allows us to create airplanes and know the mass of Jupiter and create skyscrapers and musical instruments.
So why wouldn’t you trust math when it tells you something? With poker databases chronicling millions of hands, statistics indicate those who have won at poker over such large samples are beyond statistical doubt– the results (accurate to within a few standard deviations) are an indication not of luck, but of skill. If someone wins $250,000 over 1,000,000 hands, that means that the luck factor would only influence whether they should have won $200,000 or $300,000, not whether they should have won at all. For a simple comparison, if you flipped a coin a million times, you might get 550,000 heads and 450,000 tails, which would still be a pretty big anomaly, but you would practically never see 750,000 heads and 250,000 tails; the probability of that would be so absurdly microscopic as to be basically irrelevant.
Because of the advent of poker databases, trying to prove poker skill went from live tournament players saying ‘hey, look, I’ve made a bunch of money for a long time’ to actual hard, recorded data that is undeniable proof. So to all those out there who call poker gambling, I hazard you should ponder your definition of the word a bit. I’ve been playing poker for six years and I don’t gamble.
So, the internet didn’t invent three betting, it’s been around for as long as poker has existed. But it certainly revolutionized it.
Firstly, by three-bet, I mean specifically a pre-flop reraise; Someone raises to $30, you reraise them to $100 when everyone only has the cards in their hand.
Before online poker, 3betting was something that was basically done with big hands like Aces and Kings, and occasionally as a bluff. A rare few aggressive players in brick and mortar casinos would use it more often. As online poker boomed, people realized both how strong and how dangerous 3betting could be, and the name of the game changed, so to speak. 3betting became a staple strategy for many players, who would do it with a vast array of hands to ‘balance’ or make yourself harder to play against, while generating more action for yourself.
However, it’s undoubtedly a complex animal. Without a comprehensive strategy to 3betting, it can go horribly wrong, and leave yourself open to a host of counterstrategies. Those who fell in love with the concept and ceaselessly mashed the raise button succeeded only in hurling their money into oblivion. One thing is for certain now, though. Internet poker turned three-betting from a rare sight of aggression into an everyday occurrence. It’s not a coincidence that nowadays you’ll see two pasty kids in the WSOP main event reraising each other incessantly as the cameras watch in horror and Norman Chad rants in his commentator booth.
3. The Online Professional
Live professionals discovering herds of online professionals in the WSOP and other tournament circuits is the historical equivalent of waking up in your village and realizing there’s a Mongol horde fording the river. The internet made poker so accessible to so many people across the world, that the game expanded at an incredible rate. No longer did you have to live near a casino, the game came to you.
Players with the means, time and dedication to refine their craft online came onto the scene and would influence poker in a nearly overwhelming way, much like the way a Mongol horde might change history. Names like Tom Dwan and Phil Galfond came out of seemingly nowhere, exploding onto the live poker radar and having a profound influence on the game. As they brought new strategies and different viewpoints to the table, so to speak, the great live pros did what any pro would do; learn and adapt. High stakes games all these pros would play together changed dramatically. Compare High Stakes Poker Season 1 to season 5, and that’s all you need to see. Tom Dwan’s epic hand in season 5 where he purposefully turned top pair into a bluff, getting his opponents to fold three of a kind and pocket aces, then calling out the players hands afterwards absolutely electrified the poker world. The game, as they say, had changed.
2. Hand History Databases
I’ve made mention of databases early and often in this article, and with good reason. They are arguably the most influential part of internet poker’s development. They are the flint and tinder with which one could make fire. Being able to look back at old hands, even without ever knowing the opponents’ holdings, allowed players to dissect their hands, sort out the good decisions from the bad, and apply what they’d learn in future games. Not only that, but using database programs, they could inspect their hand history on the whole, seeing how much they’ve made or lost, what their statistics are, and getting the nigh-impossible 10,000ft view of one’s career, good and bad.
It gave online players a sort of career accountability; if you butchered a hand as everyone inevitably does, it would file into your database– another brick torn off the wall rather than building it up. Live pros always remember some hands they’ve played poorly, as humans we always remember that which was most tragic. But databases were your own personal history book, where every hand you played was a word on a page and couldn’t be rewritten. With it though, came the legitimacy of mathematical proof .
In sports we throw around the words game-changer often.
This is the game-changer of all time.
If you were smart enough to play one table of poker well, why not two? three? four? eight? twelve? I recall some insane feats of indiscriminate poker where players were playing thirty tables at once. That’s a little absurd. But with hundreds of thousands of online players playing speedy 6max tables, and playing eight of them at once, the hands per hour of poker went from 30 (generous estimate) at a live table, to around 600-800 for a multi-tabling online player. Poker became fast-paced, encouraged strong, decisive logical thinking, and created a new breed of poker player that played millions of hands in only a few years time.
The learning curve had gone from a tricycle on a rope to a rocket ship to the moon. Not only did multi-tabling allow vast numbers of hands to be played, but allowed for speedy implementation of new strategies, allowed players to get greater sample sizes for which to analyze results at an incredible pace, and quite simply raised profitability while lowering risk. Instead of playing one slow, small sample size table of 25-50, you could play eight games of 3-6 and your winrate could actualize faster. It’s not like you could sit a bunch of different tables at a casino and run from hand to hand. If they allowed that, live pros would be all-world sprinters.