Ever since online poker exploded in the early 2000s, there have been two distinct forms of poker: live and online.
The two variant formats are not exactly rivals as the popularity of online poker helped fuel a live poker boom that revolutionized tours like the World Series of Poker and the World Poker Tour with lofty prize pools.
Online poker offered a significantly lower barrier of entry compared to live poker because new players could play for much lower stakes (or for free) and could be completely anonymous.
We’re now closing in on 20 years since people first started playing poker on the internet and the game has changed in almost every way considerable. Prize pools are bigger, players are better and there are more types of poker than ever before.
That’s why it’s a good time to take a look at whether it’s easier for new players to start their poker journey in the online arena or live.
What’s Better for Learning to Play Poker?
You could have a reasonable debate about whether it’s better for brand-new players to start with online poker or live poker but I’d argue that, for most people, online poker is clearly better for beginners.
The great thing about online poker is that the barrier of entry is just so low. Because online sites don’t have to pay for dealers or actual poker rooms, they can offer absurdly low stakes such as $.01/$.02 where the standard buy-in is a paltry $1. That means a $20 deposit can keep players going for a very long time.
Online poker is also completely anonymous so you don’t have to worry about looking ridiculous. Most online poker sites also offer a play-money version of their software that doesn’t even require a deposit and gives players the ability to start playing within minutes of downloading their software.
Online poker also offers an endless assortment of opponents at all hours of the day so new players will never have to worry about finding a game (or leaving their house). Online poker is also anonymous so players will never have to endure a prickly opponent.
You’ll also play a lot more hands online compared to live, which can help turbo-charge your learning process. Online poker also automates some of the confusing elements of poker such as the blinds and counting out your bet. You can also review every hand you play so that you understand why you won or lost a hand.
Here’s a very simple step-by-step guide for getting started with poker.
1. Learn the basic poker hand rankings
2. Play several hundred hands of play-money poker
3. Learn some basic poker strategy
4. Make a small deposit on an online poker site
5. Play micro stakes until you start winning
6. Move up stakes or play live
That’s not saying online poker is the only place to start.
Home games are also an excellent way to begin, especially if you have a friend who is willing to teach you the basics. It also helps to have a few players who are at your skill level. Home games generally have small buy-ins so you won’t have to worry about dropping huge sums of cash.
All things considered, learning poker in a casino is generally the worst way to go. That’s not to say you can’t do it (and occasionally you’ll get some helpful opponents) but it’s certainly the most difficult — and costly — way to begin your poker education.
But is Online Poker Easier?
That depends on the stakes you play but the short answer is no.
There are sites with “softer” player pools and micro stakes aren’t exactly teeming with sharks but if you compare a $1/$2 live game to online $1/$2, the difference is night and day. Live poker tends to attract far more recreational players who are just in it for fun while the upper tiers of online poker are filled with hard-core grinders looking to make a living.
In addition the live poker scene has been booming ever since Black Friday forced some of the bigger online sites out of the USA in 2011. There are now thousands of small-stakes tournaments held consistently around the world with huge prizes.
Your mileage will vary as there are some easy online games and some exceptionally tough live games but the current conventional wisdom in the poker world is that the higher stakes of online poker are significantly harder than live.
On the flip side, online can be a fantastic way to get better at poker because you’ll be facing stiffer competition and playing more hands. There are many players who were essentially break-even when it came to playing online but started to crush it when they switched to live poker.
The skill sets between online and live poker are slightly different but most players shouldn’t have that much difficulty transitioning between the two.
What Skills Are Needed to Succeed at Live Poker?
Live poker becomes much more about the opponent sitting across from you.
In online poker, the information you can get from your opponent is limited. You generally have to rely on things like raising frequency, betting amounts and maybe the odd sentence in the chatbox.
Live poker brings physical tells into the equation because you can actually take a look at your opponent and attempt to ascertain whether they are comfortable or nervous.
You can also learn a lot about a player just by listening to them talk and players at a live table certainly talk more than online ones.
That’s not to say you can’t use the abilities that helped you succeed at online poker. If you’ve got good fundamentals playing online, then you’ll likely succeed at live poker.
The one thing you’ve got to be aware of during an in-person game is that it’s possible to give off physical tells. You don’t have to worry about your poker face too much, however, as it can be difficult for opponents to figure out what those tells actually mean.
For the most part, you can protect yourself just by doing the same movements when you are in a hand (and probably avoid talking when you are just starting out). Some players will just pick a part of the table, or maybe a chip in the pot, and stare at it during a hand. It’s not rocket science.
You will also have to learn some basic, non-strategic parts of the live game, including putting your name on the waiting list in the cardroom, counting your chips, posting blinds and not accidentally revealing your hand.
It’s fairly straightforward but it’s worth hosting a home game with your friends just to get yourself acclimatized to the flow of play.
Poker is a great game whether it’s played online or live and it’s certainly worth checking out both formats.