Updated on 09/17/2011 10:54PM

Log on, dive in, and start learning


No one will confuse me with Doyle Brunson or Phil Hellmuth. I am not a poker expert who has won millions of dollars and dozens of professional tournaments. I cannot even claim an overall profit in my two years of play, almost all on the Internet.

But I am learning, getting better, and believe I've turned the corner toward earning some of the zillions of dollars on the table - on lots of tables - that fuel the worldwide poker boom.

I'm a student of the game, applying many of the techniques I have used to win at the racetrack. In 2002, when television exposure of poker exploded via hidden cameras that revealed hole cards, I began reading several good poker books while playing with Wilson Software's excellent Turbo Texas Hold'em program. This was almost a year before I logged on to a trio of recommended poker websites - partypoker.com, paradisepoker.com, and pokerstars.com.

At first I played with fake money just to get the feel of the game, to learn who makes the first bet, and what are the best starting hands (such as AA, AK, KK, QQ, AQ suited, JJ, and very few others). But I quickly tired of playing with fake money. It was easy to see that good players rarely emulated the play of those who continued to bet their fake bankrolls without rhyme or reason. So the first tip I can share about my learning experience is this: Playing with fake money - beyond simply learning the basics - is the best way to develop bad habits.

Next, I deposited $100 of real money into an account with partypoker.com and another $100 with pokerstars.com. These are the two most popular poker websites, as measured by numbers of players and by the ungodly sums of money in their respective tournaments each week.

On alternate nights for a few hours, I set aside my horse race handicapping and began to play $1-$3 limit poker and quickly found that the style of play resembled the fake money games, for the same reason: The relative cost of staying in weak hands - to see the three-card "flop," the fourth-card "turn," or even the final community card, "the river" - simply cost too little for most people to throw their hands away. Low-limit hold 'em games played more like no-fold-'em hold 'em games. While it was relatively easy to win a few dollars in these low-limit games, it was not the best place to learn good strategic play.

So tip No. 2 is this: Games that do not involve $5-$10 wagering units on some sites and $10-$20 wagers on many others tend to eliminate the art of bluffing. If your aim is to play well enough, get away from the very low-limit games as soon as you understand the basics.

The next and most important phase of my early learning curve involved losing lots more than I won - almost $7,000 in the first year - but the experience pushed my game to a higher level.

Among other things, I played in dozens of single-table, no-limit hold 'em games that featured small blinds of $1 and $2, with player bankrolls ranging from $40 to $200. It was here that a bet of $20, $30, or an all-in play forced most opponents to think about the cost before calling or raising. It was here that I found decent payoffs for well-played, strong hands and opportunities for an occasional bluff.

Tip No. 3 came from losing a hand I thought I had won before my opponent turned over his cards to make an inside straight: Study the flop. Study every flop and every combination of community cards in order to identify the stone-cold nuts and the second-best possible hands. Do this even when you are not participating in a given hand. Do this even in the fake-money and low-limit games.

After tooling around with $3-$6 limit games and an assortment of single-table no-limit games, I began to enter single-table and multi-table tournaments, mostly on pokerstars.com.

The entry fees ranged from $3 to $100, with 100 to 2,000 players. Using frequent player points, I also entered Freeroll Satellites for the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker and twice made final tables without winning the $10,000 seats for those prestigious events.

In all of these tournaments, my main goal was to play my best, win money if possible, and learn from my errors. Taking the last of these goals first, the best websites provided opportunities to download all previous hands along with notes I made on other players and statistics relating to all four stages of my betting. You can't do that in a brick-and-mortar casino.

Using these aids, I began to finish first or second in two out of every five single-table tournaments and even won a pair of multi-table tourneys with more than 1,700 players each. Playing my best was not always what I did, but here is where some horseplaying experience can help sharpen your play.

Tip No. 4: In horse racing, the odds must be fair on the horse you like, or there should be no play. In poker, if you want to draw cards to make your hand, you need fair odds to continue to feed the pot. Also, you have to be careful not to give your opponent generous payoff odds - or free cards on the turn or river - to make it easy to beat you. Some examples will be in my next installment, along with a glossary of terms designed to explain the game's mechanics and its diabolical nature.