Over the past year or so, live poker tournaments are frequently found on ESPN and other television networks. Live poker and video poker have relatively little in common. But with the recent proliferation of televised live poker events, I’ve received many e-mails from people wondering if skills learned from watching these programs are at all applicable to playing winning video poker. I want to address that question here, but I want to limit the discussion to video poker played in a casino versus the particular form of live poker known as the no limit Texas hold’em tournament.
• When to stop. In a tournament, you are in it until you are knocked out or you have won the entire event. If you’re tired or otherwise not at your best, that’s too bad. If you’re not going to be available for the third day of a three-day tournament, entering it at all wouldn’t be a wise move. In video poker, however, if you’re not up to your best, you’d be wise to stop and take a break.
• Betting rounds. In video poker, you bet once and are in the hand until the end. Even if you’re dealt a garbage hand, you throw it away and hope for something better on the redraw. In hold’em, you have up to four separate betting rounds in each hand, and you only bet when you determine it’s in your interest to do so.
• Winning a hand. In video poker, the pay schedule is written on the front of the machine, and if you obtain a qualifying hand, you get paid. In hold’em, you have to have the best hand among the last players in the pot. If you fail to match any of the bets along the way, you have no chance to win, even if you have more than anyone else.
• Hidden information. In neither game do you know what the next card dealt will be, but in video poker you can accurately calculate how many hearts are still in the deck, how many sevens, etc. In hold’em, you do not know what the other players hold until the showdown at the end, although betting patterns can give you hints.
• Proper play. On the vast majority of video poker hands, there is no debate among competent players what the correct play is. In hold’em, there can be considerable debate about whether the correct play is to check, fold, call, raise small or raise all in.
• All in. In tournament poker this means that all of your chips are in play, and if someone else wins this hand, you are out of the event. The winning players in large tournaments need to survive dozens of all in-moves made by themselves and others. And for each of them, fingers are crossed, because usually the results are in doubt until the last card is turned over. Often the decision about whether to call an all in-bet must be made on a minimum of information. For example you are dealt a pair of tens and someone else goes all in. Should you call or fold (or perhaps go all in yourself if there are players behind you who have yet to act)? There is no equivalent to this in video poker.
• Number of opponents. In video poker, your only opponent is the casino. In live poker, you have numerous opponents, any of whom can knock you out.
• Skill of opponent. A video poker machine has no skill. It just deals cards and pays off according to the pay schedule. In live poker, each opponent has a different skill level, and has good days and bad days.
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• Bluffing. There is no bluffing in video poker, but it’s a key part of live poker. I once saw Phil Helmuth, one of the best poker players in the world, go all in with something like a seven and an eight off-suit. After considerable thought, another player with a pair of jacks folded. A major reason I haven’t taken up live poker as a moneymaking activity is because successful bluffing and identifying when others are doing it are not skills I’m particularly good at.
• Style of players. In video poker, whether a player presses the buttons gently or bangs on them, plays fast or slow or loudly or quietly, it doesn’t really matter. The machine will deal cards and doesn’t care what your personality is. But in live poker, these sorts of things can matter a lot. The best players are often very aggressive. Sometimes a player will attempt to dominate a table with his or her personality.
• Size of bet. For good video poker players, every bet is the same size. (Players who sometimes bet one coin, sometimes two, sometimes three, etc., are losing players. No one with a clue would bet like this.) In a no limit hold’em tournament, players may bet any amount they want to, up to “all in.”
• Ante. In video poker, your ante is usually five coins and it is the price you pay to play the game. In a hold’em tournament, instead of every player placing an ante, you have two players (big blind and small blind) who do all of the anteing. As the tournament progresses, the sizes of the blinds increase and that forces players to play some hands or have their chips gradually “eaten up” by the blinds.
• Rulings. In video poker, if a casino judges that your behavior is unacceptable, it may invoke a variety of penalties up to and including throwing you out. Unless you are particularly egregious in your behavior, you will usually get a warning, because a casino wants customers. In a tournament, players who break published rules (throwing cards at dealer, playing out of turn, smoking, etc.) also receive penalties. Some of these penalties are specifically listed in the rules (such as a 30-minute penalty where your chips are eaten away by the blinds) and some are judgment calls made by the tournament director or one of his staff.
There are other differences between the games, and live poker will never be my game; but I watch just the same. What the games have in common are bright people trying as hard as they can to win. I’ve learned several stratagems that I use in video poker that I originally observed in another gambling game. When I get tired of learning new things, it’ll be time to cash in my chips for good.