05/09/2006 11:00PM

Online schooling needs live-action polishing


One of the biggest issues for many new poker players wasn't an issue at all 10 years ago - how to make the transition from online to card-room play. Grizzled veterans need to think about this issue, too, because many of the players sitting across the table from them now learned the game online, and their play is shaped by this different, virtual environment.

Scott Fischman, a founding member of the group of young poker stars known as the Crew and a two-time World Series of Poker champion, is a prime example of a young guy who learned the game online and was able to make the switch to live play.

"The biggest difference between playing online and playing in person is the speed of the game," Fischman said. "When you're used to playing online, play in the card room is going to seem a lot slower and a little bit boring. So you're really going to have to stay focused despite the change in atmosphere."

Fischman mentioned another major difference: table image.

"Depending on what your style of play is, you need to be aware of how you want other people to see you," he said.

This is not something you need to worry about online, of course, where you can often win just by playing your cards and making logical inferences about what your opponents hold. In live play, your opponents' decisions are affected by your attitude and behavior at the table, so you need to understand the image you are projecting and how that image influences those around you.

"Maybe you're a tight player and you want to be seen as a tight player," Fischman said. "Or maybe you're a crazy maniac, and you want to be seen that way.

"Your table image sets the tone of the game, and it's one of the biggest reasons why an opponent is going to play a hand against you in a certain way. If you can determine how they're going to play hands against you based on how they view you, then you can counteract how they're playing against you and manipulate the situation to your advantage.

"You have to know how they view you so you know how they're going to play against you. Do they think you're a loose player, so they're going to call you more? Do they think you're a tight player, and they're going to respect your raises?"

The final piece of the live puzzle is the social pressure that exists in the card room.

"Online, you can curse at somebody, you can bluff as much as you want, and when your cards flip over and you have nothing and you've lost $1,000, no one looks you in the eye and says, 'My God, you're an idiot.' But when you're playing live, there's a lot of natural, social pressure that makes you not want to look like a total idiot. Some people might not bluff as much - they might want some more respect from their peers."

Of course, if you're new to playing live and you have already altered your game because of this social pressure, you've probably already lost.

"In a way, you have to trick yourself," Fischman said. "One thing I used to do was to change the limits in my mind. Let's say I was playing in a tournament, and we started with $10,000 in chips like they do in a lot of the big tournaments. Well, online we'd only usually start with maybe $1,000 in chips. So I would divide everything by 10 and try and trick myself that I was still playing online. Once you start thinking about the money, you're in trouble. Or sometimes I'd listen to music, because that's what I'd be doing if I were playing online, so I'd bring my iPod to the tournament. The key is to try and get yourself in that same comfort level."

So, looking at it from the other side of the table, a seasoned live player can exploit a new player's weaknesses by testing his or her boredom level with aggressive play late in the game or forcing the new player into positions where he or she makes decisions out of a desire not to appear foolish. But veterans need to be careful not to underestimate the new guy. Online play lends some advantages, as Fischman pointed out.

"I had been playing online for almost two years, which gives you the equivalent of about 20 years of experience," he said.

That young player across the table, who looks like a teenager, may have played as many hands as a 40-year-old.

"Long gone are the days when the new player is necessarily a fish," Fischman said. "When I came on to the scene, I was 22 or 23 years old and probably looked even younger than that, and I was underestimated, and I wasn't known, and I had that going for me when I sat down. My table image was an empty seat."

New players need to remember to keep their focus, find a comfort level, and be image-aware. For the experienced players, image is important, too. So is knowing the difference between an inexperienced opponent who can be knocked off his game and the baby-face that you need to beware of.

Peter Thomas Fornatale is co-author of "Six Secrets of Successful Bettors" (DRF Press).