Tuesday, August 16, 2005

To Be or Not To Be (Online)

It took me a long time to take the plunge into online poker. I wasn't one of the early adopters who lost a piece of a bankroll in a fly-by-night site that folded. I wasn't really worried about collusion, or getting paid if I won: I realized how much money these poker sites are making, and it's easy to conclude that they have nothing to gain by upsetting players.

I suppose the main reason I took so long to get online is that I was worried I'd become addicted - and I had access to live "brick & mortar" games which I enjoyed here in NYC.

Well, when I finally took the Party Poker Plunge about, oh, a year ago, it was all fun and games at first. I was playing 10-20 limit hold'em, and cleaned up my first several sessions. I went into work the next day wide eyed - raving about Party Poker - and thinking about nothing else other than getting home to play some more.

However, the honeymoon ended just as quickly. Maybe I was just lucky at first, or maybe the fish swam off to other ponds - but I rapidly found that the Party 10-20 game was neither easy nor fun. I armed myself with Pokertracker - but only as a tool to analyze my own play - not to track, or "data-mine" the habits of my opponents. Still, the novelty of online poker wore off quickly for me, and my account has been mostly dormant since.

When Party opened NoLimit tables, I jumped into the fray briefly, but again had little success - my problem was simple: I had absolutely no feel at all for the game. I was just clicking buttons - throwing little digital piles of chips around - but had no sense for where I stood in a hand, or what my opponents were thinking.

Now, I'll be the first to say that when I play live, I do NOT claim to have the ability to read my opponents' hands like some sort of x-ray vision possessing superhuman juggernaut. I cannot tell the cards my opponents have by the look in their eye, or the way they bet their chips. I do not always know if that shaking arm means a strong hand, or a bluff.... If their neck pulse is beating because of excitement - or fear.

What I DO get from playing live - from being able to actually LOOK at my opponent - is a feel, very quickly, for their abilities. The ability to quickly pre-judge my opponents - by their composure, betting habits, mannerisms, dress, chip handling - is a vital piece of my game. I do not propose to be able to deduce an opponent's skill and style by looking at him - far from it - but I find it much easier to associate a face - a voice - a body I've played with several times with his own playing style than I do associating a SCREEN NAME with a given playing style (and screen names can be changed).

Also, I simply enjoy the social aspect of poker. That's not to say I play for fun - I play to win, but I enjoy myself while I do it. I relish the patter at the table, and there's simply no substitute for raking in a pot... No substitute for "stacks and towers of checks I can't even see over"... No substitute for non-chalantly reaching over and toppling Vortex's pile of chips he has carefully stacked up high after cracking my aces. The Party Poker "Congratulations" balloons are wicked awesome - don't get me wrong - I keep them turned on - but they aren't the same.

These days, with even more technology, I view online poker as a science, not an art. Now, I don't want that to sound all retarded and cheesy, but my point is this: all you know about your opponent is their past betting patterns. You can, with the advent of various software packages, know this information very well. I fear that online poker will eventually become an information war, where the best-armed shark will win - and skill becomes a secondary factor. All you need to know is your opponents' stats.. Their VP$IP... Their preflop aggression... blah blah blah... The rest is math based on their given range of hands and the play becomes rote. There is absolutely no reason why a robot could not easily replace the human behind the keyboard. I'm not getting into conspiracy theories about Poker Bots - in fact, I find the topic amazingly interesting - I'd actually love the chance to help someone develop one - not to cheat the online games, but to prove a point, and to explore the boundaries of Artificial Intelligence as it applies to poker. I guess what I'm saying is that the THOUGHT and REASONING are being removed from the game and being replaced with pure data, math and statistics. Finesse is being replaced with force: data force.

In a live game, I also know only my opponents' betting history - but I have to REMEMBER it. I can't bring a journal or a spreadsheet to look at while I'm at the table. I REMEMBER that 6 months ago I check-called a pot-sized flop bet then check-raised a pot-sized turn bet and STILL got called when I value bet the river against this guy. I REMEMBER that this other guy got me to call a big river bet on a scary board - and I have to figure out what the same bet means this time - because I know that he knows that I remember.

Will I remember that what's-his-name checked the river to me last night with a monster hand on a board I couldn't possibly value bet last night? Well, I forgot his name already, but I made a note in Party's "player notes" window - the problem is, I may never see him again in the vast see of online players!

I guess it comes down to the simplicity of this: I want to know my opponent. I find it very hard to know my opponent online. A final philosophical point I've debated ad nauseum with several friends: I believe the One Player to a Hand Rule is universal to poker, be it online or otherwise. Others believe that it's ok for people to get advice on how to play a hand online, simply because there is no way to stop it. My objection to this line of thinking is that it violates what I feel is my RIGHT to know my opponent. How? Here's a simple example: Suppose I share my online account with a friend. That's the ultimate and most simple way to throw off the online poker information warlords: my friend and I may have different playing styles, thus our opponents can never know the style of StiffBonah - or whatever our team screen name is. The statistics are rendered moot. Throw a few more friends on the account to further randomize the play, and you've got a philosophically and ethically tricky problem for anyone willing to think through it.
There are certainly benefits to online poker: you get to play more hands, pay less rake, and play from the comfort of your own home. You have a vast selection of games to choose from, and you can easily switch tables if you don't like the one you land at. I do not doubt that there is still money to be made in online poker, but the style of the game is not for me. I don't want to have to be the player armed with the most data - I'll never have an edge there - there's always another guy more skilled at integrating modern technology into his online play... I want to be the player who can make the best decisions based on what I know - that's how I can have an edge, and that's the game I enjoy playing.
until next time,

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is a lot of poker being played at high limit shorthanded online. Datamined stats do help somewhat, but only in a similar way to how you assess players by their live demeanor.