How to Get Started with Online Poker
No game is more quintessentially American than poker.
That makes it ironic that the United States is one of the toughest places in the world in which to play online poker for real money. (I’m sure some English teacher is shaking her head at my mis-use of the word “ironic” here, but I can live with that.)
I love online poker. That’s where I got most of my experience playing. And while the choice of venues still available on the internet have become more limited, it’s still possible to have a lot of fun playing poker online.
And one of the perks of playing online is that you can play for any kinds of stakes you can imagine. Good luck finding a $0.01/$0.02 no limit Texas holdem game in a live casino.
You can use online poker to get in some practice or actually win some serious money, too. You just need to know the right way to get started.
This post is meant to offer everything you need to know to get started right with online poker.
When you’ve won the World Series of Poker, be sure to include me in your acknowledgments.
1) What You Need to Get Started
You don’t need much to get started with online poker for real money. You need a computer or a cell phone that will handle the poker software. Any reasonably modern device will do the trick, probably. And you also need some money.
As luck would have it, you don’t need a lot of money, either. Most sites that offer online poker for real money require a minimum deposit of $10, but you can play for a long time on $10 if you stick with the lowest of microlimit games. Remember, that’s one of the pros of online poker—the microlimit games that are available.
You’ll also need a means of getting that money to and from the poker site. Most people just use a credit card or debit card for this, but your approval process might be tricky. Many credit card processing companies decline anything associated with online gambling as a matter of policy.
If you’re having trouble making your deposit, just contact the poker site and let their customer service team know. They’ll have a solution to offer you. They might need you to send funds via Western Union or Moneygram, for example. Or they might have a deal with some kind of prepaid phone card. Any decent customer service agent at any decent online poker site will be able to help you.
2) What Poker Games Can You (And Should You) Play Online?
The poker games available vary from site to site, but all online poker sites offer Texas holdem at various levels. It’s the most popular poker game there is, so it would be hard to run a poker site and not offer it.
Most poker sites also offer Omaha, which is a cousin of Texas holdem where you get 4 hole cards instead of just 2.
The other games offered vary from site to site. Some sites have 7-card stud but not 5-card stud, and vice-versa. Some sites have badugi and 5-card draw. It just depends where you play.
If you’re like most players in the United States, you’ll probably gravitate to the Texas holdem tables.
If you’re interested in a different game, just be sure that game is available in the poker room where you’re thinking about signing up first. Most reasonable poker reviews include lists of the games available at the sites they’re reviewing.
You should also be able to find a list of available poker games at the online cardroom site.
3) Choosing an Online Cardroom
Before you can play poker online, you need to find a cardroom where you can play. If you’re in the United States, this is tricky, because most online cardrooms don’t accept U.S. players. And some of the sites that do accept U.S. players are shady.
In today’s online poker environment, the best rooms at which to play are usually associated with an online sports book. BetOnline, Bovada, and Bet365 all have active online poker communities where you can get into action.
When you’re choosing between the various options, keep in mind which game you want to play, but also do some investigating into what kinds of limits and formats are available. If you’re only interested in playing in micro-stakes games–$0.01/$0.02, a site where the lowest limits are $1/$2 won’t be appropriate for you.
Spend some time investigating which banking options are available at your potential online poker home, too. If you have a preferred deposit method for online gambling, make sure that it’s one of the deposit methods accepted where you’re thinking about playing. If it’s not available, make sure they have another option that might work for you.
Finally, spend some time reading player reviews of the site you’re considering. Notice I said “player” reviews. That wording was chosen carefully.
You’ll find plenty of sites publishing reviews of online cardrooms, but not all of them are written by real poker players. A lot of times, these reviews are just from webmasters who are getting commissions in exchange for referring players to the cardroom. With a little thought and some caution, you should be able to separate one from the other.
One source for real player reviews is the forum or message board where gamblers hang out. I won’t recommend any specific forums here, but they’re easy enough to find.
But you should take even those reviews with a grain of salt. After all, it’s not hard for a shill to create a account with a message board and start posting praises for the poker room he’s shilling for.
4) Consider Trying the Free Poker Games First
All online gambling sites I know of—including internet cardrooms—offer free or “play money” games. These are games where you can play for the equivalent of Monopoly money. You can have a lot of fun at these kinds of games and never have to risk any money at all.
I’m also of the opinion that poker without money is meaningless. In other words, it makes about as much sense as drinking decaffeinated coffee—which isn’t much.
Why would I recommend the free poker games first, then?
You try the free poker games to sample the software. If you hate the interface, you probably shouldn’t play poker at the site. Luckily, you can try the poker interface for free without having to make a deposit at all.
If you like the software okay, then it’s okay to move on toward making a deposit and playing for real money.
5) Have Fun with the Signup Bonus
One of the perks to playing online poker is getting a signup bonus when you make your first deposit. This is an amount of free chips you get from the poker room as an incentive to open a new account and deposit money there.
This is almost always a percentage of the amount of your first deposit. For example, as I write this, Bovada offers a 100% bonus of up to $500 on your first deposit. This means that if you deposit $500, you get an extra $500 to play with.
The bonus gets released gradually as you reach certain milestones as measured by how many poker points you’ve earned, as follows:
- 15 points, $5
- 85 points, $20
- 185 points, $25
- 500 points, $50
- 1500 points, $150
- 5000 points, $250
You get 30 days to earn your points. Those points are earned when you put money into raked pots. If you put $1 – $4 into a raked pot, you get 1 poker point. But you also get points for smaller amounts of money, too. Low rollers get 0.05 points for every $0.01 – $0.04 they put into the pot.
The poker site tracks these points for you, so you don’t have to keep up with the points yourself.
If you’re a losing player, it’s possible to lose all your money before earning your entire bonus.
But if you’re a winning player, you can earn that bonus and make a profit from it just by winning at a high enough hourly rate.
Other poker sites have different structures, but the basics of how poker bonuses work is the same regardless of the site. You earn the bonus by playing raked hands.
6) Other Things You Can Do with Poker Points
Different sites have different names for their loyalty programs. Bovada calls them “poker points,” but most sites call them “player points” or “frequent player points.” They’re good for more than just clearing your bonuses, too.
Most online poker sites have a frequent player point store where you can buy stuff with your points. I once got a beautiful full-sized poker table from the folks at Bovada using my poker points. What’s available in the shop varies based on availability.
I used to enjoy wearing poker-themed apparel with the names of the site on them. I still have a couple of Full Tilt Poker hats, which should be collectibles by now, I suppose. (The site is now defunct.)
A lot of sites will also let you trade frequent player points for chips you can use to buy into tournaments. Some even let you convert them into cash or chips to use at the ring games. Most poker sites have ongoing promotions where your rewards increase based on your VIP level, which is, of course, based on the number of poker points you’ve earned.
7) Playing More Than One Table at a Time
At an average poker table in a real-world cardroom, you might see 30 hands per hour—more if it isn’t a full table.
At an average online poker table, you’ll see at least twice that—maybe 6 hands per hour. That’s because the shuffling and dealing take almost no time at all on the web.
But that’s not the only way to get more hands per hour in.
At almost all online poker sites, you can play at multiple tables at the same time. That might sound scary, but it actually makes the game easier. Think about it—if you play well, you spend most of your time at the table waiting to be dealt a playable hand.
If you have a decent-sized monitor, you can easily watch 2 online poker tables at the same time. Just keep folding until you get something playable. You’ll rarely be rushed in such a situation.
If you’re a losing player, playing multiple tables will cause you to lose more money faster.
But if you’re a winning player, which I hope is at least your goal, you’ll double your hourly average winnings.
I’ve met poker professionals who play 6 or 8 tables online at the same time and grind out a profit just by sticking with strict opening-hand requirements. That’s probably a bit much for a beginner, but it’s a great goal to work your way up to.
Think about it.
If you can earn an average of $6/hour at a $3/$6 limit holdem table, you could earn $48/hour by playing 8 tables at once.
8) Online Poker Tournaments vs Live Poker Tournaments
The structure of most online poker tournaments is similar to the structure for your normal live poker tournament, although live tournaments seem to be more “loosey-goosey.” For example, if you’re playing a single table tournament on the internet, you’ll see the blinds go up after a certain number of hands. If you’re playing live, the size of the blinds change on a time-limit basis. Depending on the speed of the players at the table, you might only get in half the number of hands as you would online at a certain level.
The other cool thing about online poker tournaments is that you can often win entries into big live poker tournaments by playing in them. Chris Moneymaker made poker history by winning a satellite into the Main Event of the World Series of Poker on PokerStars.
The company knew this was great marketing and press, so they made a determined effort to get as many of their players into the Main Event as possible. After all, when someone from their site wins the World Series of Poker, it makes the news, and you can’t buy press like that.
Always look for opportunities to get into big live tournaments via qualifiers at online sites. It’s well worth it to parlay that $10 or $100 entry fee into a shot at the big time.
9) Keeping Records
If you’ve read any of my other columns, you know that I’m a big believer in keeping written records of your performance, no matter what kind of gambling you do. This is more important in poker than in other gambling endeavors.
The great thing about playing online poker is that you can track certain statistics via the poker site’s software itself. You can also buy and use poker tracking software that will track statistics for you that you can’t keep records of in the poker site’s software. The only thing you want to avoid is using software for this purpose that the poker site doesn’t allow.
What kinds of stats should you pay attention to?
The basics are important—how much time have you played, what game and at what stakes, and how much did you win or lose?
Other stuff to keep up with includes the number of flops you’ve seen and the amount of money you’ve voluntarily added to the pot.
Not only can you find software that will make tracking these stats a breeze, you can find ebooks on how to best use such software and tracking to improve your game and your win rate.
10) Winning at Online Poker
Learning effective poker strategy is a lifetime endeavor, and most players don’t do a very good job of it. That’s good news for you, Gentle Reader, as I’m sure you’re above average in every respect.
If you want to win at online poker, the place to start is with the basics. Tight-aggressive play is almost universally agreed to as the right approach to poker, and playing online makes being tight-aggressive even easier.
You see, you can categorize poker players by how often they play hands and how often they fold. Tight players fold a lot of hands, and they only play hands that are at least better-than-average. Loose players, on the other hand, don’t fold very often, and they’ll play hands of all kinds of strength.
Becoming a tighter player is worth the effort for most people. Start by tightening up your starting hand requirements, then move on to folding more often in the later rounds.
But playing tight won’t, by itself, turn you into a winning player.
You also need to look at your level of aggression.
You can also categorize players based on how often they check and call as opposed to how often they bet and raise.
Players who check and call often are called passive players. Players who bet and raise often are called aggressive players.
High levels of aggression tend to result in better win rates.
These are 2 separate qualities, by the way. You can be a tight-aggressive player OR a tight-passive player. You can also be a loose-aggressive player or a loose-passive player.
When you look at both of those aspects at the same time, you fall into 1 of 4 different categories, each of which has a nickname:
- Loose aggressive players are often called maniacs.
- Loose passive players are often called calling stations.
- Tight passive players are often called rocks.
- Tight aggressive players are often just called TaGs. (It’s just an acronym rather than a nickname.)
Loose aggressive players can sometimes win in the long run against passive opponents, but tight aggressive play seems to work in every situation.
Passive poker is not a winning style regardless of how tight you are. Playing a tight passive game simply makes your money last longer; it doesn’t improve your chances of winning.
Specific poker strategy advice for specific games is helpful, too, but starting with an analysis and improvement of your overall poker style is the best way to go for a beginner.
Poker is a worthwhile activity regardless of your goals or the venue. Online poker can be seen as a big multiplier. If you’re a losing player, you’ll lose more money faster playing online than in real life. If you’re a winning player, you can increase your winnings dramatically.
If this sounds intriguing, getting started is easy, too. A little bit of research and some time spent choosing a poker room, and you’re all set. Then it’s just a matter of setting some goals, playing the games, tracking your results, and making adjustments accordingly.
What concerns do you have about getting started with online poker?