Four Ways the Internet Changed Poker

Delaware looks ready to become the second state after Nevada to authorize Internet poker as a gambling bill was approved this week by the state senate 14-6 with one senator abstaining.

In the wake of the Department of Justice’s Dec. 23, 2011 memo that for all intents and purposes said there were no federal statutes prohibiting intrastate online wagering on anything save sports, several states. Including Iowa, New Jersey and California, have started moving on legislation that would permit Internet poker, other casino games, and online purchasing of lottery tickets for residents and visitors inside their borders.

Poker players across the country would welcome the chance to play online once more. TheUnlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006 did not make Internet poker illegal outright, but by prohibiting U.S. banks from conducting transactions with off-shore gaming sites, made it extremely difficult for U.S. players to open or maintain accounts with legitimate sites such as Bovada, Bodog and PartyPoker.

With legislation moving along, most gaming industry analysts see Internet poker becoming a reality in at least one or two states by the end of this year.

While the topic of online gambling is still controversial, poker is just one more place where the Internet has had an impact. Before the World Wide Web, you either had to live in Nevada or New Jersey (even in states that had casino gambling, not every casino had a card room) to play regularly. For most who did play, poker was a friendly diversion within a family or social circle.

In broadening poker’s appeal, the Internet also changed the nature of the game. These changes fully manifested themselves when Chris Moneymaker won the main event of World Series of Poker (WSOP) in 2003. Moneymaker was the first world champion to have qualified for the tournament at on line site. The WSOP was the first major live tournament he played. The bulk of his experience and expertise was acquired through online play.

In honor of developments in Delaware and elsewhere, and keeping in mind that the main event of the 2012 World Series of Poker begins July 7, and because it’s Friday afternoon, let’s look at four ways the Internet has changed poker significantly from the game your parents knew. For our purposes here, we will keep things in the context of Texas Hold ‘Em, today’s most popular poker game.

Math knowledge has become critical to winning

You’re last to act and have four to the winning, or “nut,” flush (say the Ace and 10 of spades in your hand, with two more spades among the four community cards that have been drawn). There are no pairs showing on the board that would make an opponent a possible full house. You’re the last to act. The pot is $100 and it will cost you $50 to call. Do you call, raise or fold?

Since the Internet offers no opportunity to assess a player’s body language, a solid grounding in mathematics and probability theory became more important to consistent winning online. This has since carried over to live games. When it comes to gambling, a good bet pays better than the odds of the expected outcome. Since there are 9 spades remaining among the 46 cards you haven’t seen, the odds of a making the nut flush “on the river,” that is, with the final card drawn, is 46/9 or just slightly more than 5 to 1. That means for you to consistently make money from this decision the pot must be more than 5 times the size of your $50 bet for you to correctly call. In the example above, the right move is to fold.

Good poker players always had a feel for pot odds. But the Internet made the math aspect integral to long-term success at the game. In the past, mediocre players could survive much longer without a grasp of pot odds and the more fluid concept of “implied odds.” Today, because of the Internet, you’ll find good players are adept at calculating and manipulating pot sizes to drive out drawing hands that could trump treys or a made two-pair. Sharper players not only keep pot odds in mind, but are aware of basic win percentages of any two-card Hold ‘Em hand against any random hand. That accounts for the “maniac” play you find in richer no-limit games–players making big bets, even going all-in pre-flop from a late position (that is, they are among the last to act). They may hold a weak hand, but they are nonetheless wagering that it has a 50 percent chance or better of beating the two or three hands behind it. Detailed knowledge of hand percentages, which can determine the correct times as to bet all your chips, is now integral to winning tournaments. Sites like provide hand-analysis software that help players hone this tactic.

Aggressiveness is Rewarded

Because successful Internet play depends on the application of math in every poker hand, it has yielded a generation of players who are far more aggressive when they have the edge. Today’s players who are dealt pocket aces or kings, unless they develop into a monster hand on the flop, are not going to allow six or seven players to stick around through the river just to fuel a big pot. By then, their aces will likely have gone from favorite to underdog. The Internet has taught players to play big pairs, two-pairs and treys early and aggressively, while they still have the lead.

Conversely, today’s passive players suffer in several ways. For one, they pay heavily for calling early with marginal hands that can’t justify a follow-up call to a raise behind them. Second, once an aggressive player realizes that a passive player won’t call a raise, the aggressive player will begin raising with weaker hands, say a suited 8-7, in hopes the passive player, out of fear, will muck a slightly better hand like 6,6 or J,10. Third, when an habitual passive player does call a raise, the aggressive player knows that he is likely has a strong hand and backs off. The passive player doesn’t get the full value for his good hand.

Growth of Fast Tournaments

Until the Internet, multi-day, multi-table tournaments were the rule, a tradition that’s kept alive by the WSOP, which features a number of two- and three-day events, culminating in the 10-day main event. The Internet popularized “sit-and-goes”–single table tournaments decided in a few hours, as well as smaller multi-table events in which the blinds and antes rise in 15 or 20-minute intervals compared to an hour or more in traditional formats. For up-and-coming players they can be fun because an inexpensive entry fee can yield several hours of play.

These “fast” tournaments call for the knowledge of math and the daring (some might say reckless) aggressiveness that the Internet has fostered. In fact, traditional tournament strategies may be of no use in these faster formats. For a long time, Patrick Harrington’s three-volumeHarrington on Hold ‘Em was the bible for tournament strategy. Newer books, such as Arnold Snyder’sPoker Tournament Formula and Lee Nelson’s Kill Phil and Kill Everyone have generated controversy by claiming Harrington’s advice and methods won’t work in fast tournament formats. Snyder and Nelson advocate new strategies that address factors that arise in these fast games, such as relative chip value, playing position and the way the math of the game changes when play reaches the “bubble,” that is, when exiting the tournament means missing the a significant share of the prize money by just one or two places.

The Game Has Expanded

Fifteen years ago, only a handful of casinos had poker rooms. Because of the Internet, now you can find one in every casino. There’s also a wider variety of games and tournaments, suited to players of various skill and experience levels. A beginner may be comfortable at the $3-$6 limit game Golden Nugget in downtown Vegas. Someone looking for a challenge may try the $10-$20 no-limit game at the Aria on the Strip.

The return of Internet poker promises more variety at lower stakes, increasing the popularity of a game of skill already enjoyed by millions of responsible adults. And yes, the changes to the game brought by online players further underlines the level of skill poker requires. Poker is not a game of chance, despite what some legislators insist when citing existing state laws against online wagering. The very fact that playing strategies evolve over time–techniques that won in the past fail to win now–demonstrates this. Poker is much closer to chess or go in this regard. As players master the game, they affect the way it is played.