03/29/2006 12:00AM

Online play almost always beats live action


As previously stated, I am the least experienced of four players writing these poker columns. Yet I have already seen enough to know the following:

Playing online is preferable to playing in a brick-and-mortar casino because the money you save on transportation costs can be used to buy into moderate-level tournaments. On the other hand, playing online is not preferable if you like free drinks.

When you play online, good players rely on the logic and mathematics of the game to make their betting decisions while rank amateurs believe they can somehow decipher "tells" through the computer screen as if they have extra-sensory perception. While an insightful guess can be made about an opponent's hand from the pattern of bets and from previous experience, it rarely is possible to glean much from a pause or a rapid click of the "check," "bet," or "fold" buttons.

When you play in a casino, "tells" are extremely useful; but it is a simple fact that your concentration can get distracted by beautiful women. That, of course, can hurt your game. On the other hand, when you are distracted by a beautiful woman, you actually can meet her. Sometimes that's not a bad trade-off.

When I play in a casino, it is rare when real communication occurs between players. Grunting and insults, yes; but real communication, no. On the other hand, I hate the idiotic comments that corrupt online "chat" boxes. How often have you seen something like this:

DuecesWild: "Can anyone transfer 30 cents to my account so I can enter a $1 buy-in tournament?"

DeucesWild: "I promise to pay you back tomorrow!"

Because I am cruel, my usual answer is:

StevenLD: "Can anyone transfer $10K to me; I promise never to pay you back."

Still, I prefer to play online because I get no pleasure sitting at a cramped table with eight or nine other players. Usually, there will be at least one with beer breath in the next seat, or I will be flanked by a 350-pound behemoth cramping my elbow room and reeking of cigar smoke that clung to his clothes during a break. It's worse, of course, in casinos that permit smoking. By contrast, you never have to deal with a cigar smoker of any size or shape online, unless of course it is you.

Playing online also allows you to switch tables when you do not like the flow of the game. Also, you can watch several games at once from the sidelines before picking a good spot to act behind a fish, or two. Then again, I'm so new to the game that I may well be the fish.

You do not of course have the luxury of picking your spots in tournaments online, or at any casino. Seats are assigned and reassigned by random design. Online, this randomness is a big plus because it virtually eliminates a handful of sharpies setting up a table for a scam. Tourneys also are better deals financially. There is no constant rake of 50 cents or $1 for every few hands in tournament play - just a one-time entry fee, usually 5 to 7 1/2 percent added to the tournament buy-in.

Most poker players seem to underestimate the negative effect of the rake in cash games, especially online where dozens of hands are played per hour. Experts say that the net take can exceed the exorbitant 17 to 25 percent slice taken from horseplayers at the track.

As a devotee of online tournaments, my pet peeve is their overwhelming popularity. It threatens to destroy the delicate balance between luck and skill.

For instance, on most Sundays at pokerstars.com, there is a $200 plus $15 buy-in tourney with an impressive $1 million guarantee. That equates to a great prize with a moderate buy-in which invariably attracts an estimated 5,600 players.

Fifty-six hundred players? . . . That's virtually the same unwieldy number that competed for five days in the main event at the World Series of Poker in 2005. It's seven times the number of WSOP players in 2003. Yet, with an accelerated, online blind structure, it takes only seven to eight hours to play out. This accent on speedy play adds intense pressure on chip stacks and can turn a potentially great tourney into roulette with playing cards. Too many all-in plays, especially before the flop. "Two card poker" is what top pros label such high-pressure games.

Still, the amazing popularity of online poker has spawned an incredible assortment of tourneys with different rules and blind structures, most offering realistic playing odds, including single- and multiple-table "sit-and-go" tourneys with buy-ins ranging from $1 all the way up to $1,000. Much can be learned playing these tourneys. My latest favorite is the "Double Shootout," which requires victory over a table of nine players to make a final table against eight other table winners.

I confess: My goal for 2006 is to win a $160 Double Shootout that pays off with a $10,000 buy-in to the WSOP in Las Vegas or an equally valuable tourney on the World Poker Tour. Yes, my goal is to get from the comfort of playing in my shorts at home via an online satellite to a live table at a brick-and-mortar casino in an atmosphere I may dread.

Why? Because that's where good poker players get to play for the big bucks. . . . On TV.

Steve Davidowitz is the author of the handicapping book "Betting Thoroughbreds" and plays as StevenLD at various online poker sites.