Chippers, I kind of feel like online poker is an essential learning tool for live poker.

Since the last episode, I’ve put in 1,000 hands online at .05/.10 NLHE 6-max and 9-max. Here’s what that looks like:

My results over 1,000 hands at .$0.05/$0.10 NLHE online.

My results over 1,000 hands at .$0.05/$0.10 NLHE online.

I know, I know. The staggering profit is making you drool. But this was not about profit. This was about upping my game with volume.

Before I get into the key strategic takeaway of this episode — fear and aggression — I want to scream from the rooftops my latest eureka moment in studying poker.

Online Microstakes Volume is a Supreme Study Tool

Let me start with a caveat: putting in volume at online microstakes is not perfect as a study tool for $1/$2 live. It is obvious that players at $1/$2 live and players at 10NL or 25NL are playing significantly different styles and strategies of poker.

This fact turns out not to matter all that much if you are aware of the differences.

Hand analysis is at the heart of poker study. By analyzing our “trouble hands” where we’re unsure if our decisions were correct, we learn from our mistakes. This not only saves us money, but makes us money when we realize another player is making this mistake. And if money’s not your thing, well, winning is a hell of a lot more fun.

Online microstakes volume matters because it is the fastest way to build a collection of trouble hands to study. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

HUDs, Analytics, Stats & Data

Earlier I wrote about the importance of taking notes during live poker. It’s a little tricky. You have to have the presence of mind to realize the hand you just played needs to immediately be committed to notes. You need to make those notes as action continues around you. People may notice you taking notes and be more cautious in playing with you. Then you have to type those notes into a forum or into hand analysis software, where finally you can use modern-day digital tools to greatly enhance your understanding of the mathematical and strategic considerations of the hand.

Online poker does all of this automatically, and then some.

I don’t care about the money I’m winning or losing at .05/.10 at all. I certainly know I am a good enough poker player to never be a big loser in this game, even if I’m not playing my A game all the time. (And that’s just one of the millions of things you learn with online poker — what sets you off your A game. Much less expensive to learn that lesson at 10NL than 300NL live.)

Because I don’t care about the money, I can use it as my strategic playground. And that’s just what I’ve done. And let me tell you, it is the raddest playground ever, with every imaginable graph, stat, chart and table a poker player would ever want to do the best studying of their poker life.

There’s a flipside to not caring about the money — it’s easier to lose. In other words, I make more mistakes playing online poker vs. live. What has been interesting is that as I look at my “trouble hands”, I realize most of them are “microstakes tilt” hands, where I make stupid plays while reasoning, “Hey, it’s just $10.” This literally comprises 90% of my big losing hands. In that sense, it has been a helpful reminder to be ever-vigilant about all kinds of tilt (you’ll remember I life-tilted $300 live in the last episode). It’s also boosted my confidence that I am staying out of trouble and making the correct decisions the vast majority of the time.

The thing about poker that everyone knows but few discuss — one mistake can ruin your entire day. And we humans are nothing if imperfect. We will make mistakes. The question is, will the mistakes become behaviors, or will you adapt your behavior to prevent mistakes?

When these mistakes are cheap to make, online poker can be a fantastic arena to experiment with aggressive play and tricky moves. But beware: it’s almost too easy to make mistakes when the stakes are nickel-and-dime.

Forgive me if you’re an online poker vet and all of this is old news. But for you live players that have never made a deposit online, I want you to understand what you’re missing in terms of a tool to study your poker.

It’s Easy to Get in Action Online Again

Many poker coaches, developers of poker strategy software, and poker authors were able to build businesses around their poker passion thanks to bankrolls amassed during the post-Moneymaker 24/7 online fish market. Since Black Friday, there has been little hope that online poker will grow significantly in the US. We may get a few more states to sanction it over the coming years, but there is near-universal agreement the days of huge edge gaps in online poker are over.

Questions about poker’s legality? Here’s our article on the subject: When Will Online Poker Be Legal in My State?

What this means is that almost everyone playing online poker is pretty good. There have been plenty of 10NL tables I felt were tougher than $1/$2 NL live tables. These players are playing higher volumes that any live player can achieve. They have tools at their fingertips for real-time strategic analysis that can’t be accessed live. And when you think about all the hoops you need to jump through to play online poker the US in most states, this is not all that surprising.

Well, I’m about to surprise you again. These days, it’s actually easy to get your money into an online poker site.

The biggest thing that kept me from online poker was the logistical nightmare. Online poker is not sanctioned in my home state of New York. Unlike New Jersey, Nevada or Delaware, I can’t just go online and verify my identity and location with three-step authentication that discloses my most personal of data to a gambling corporation.

Yeah, it turns out that signing up to play online poker is actually easier if it’s not officially sanctioned. I’ll tell you exactly how I did it. Incredibly, the part of this process that makes getting money online super-easy literally became possible the day I decided to get serious about playing online again.

Here’s the secret: Buy Bitcoin with a debit card.

If you don’t know what Bitcoin is, its worth knowing, because its “blockchain” technology is transforming industries and many thing it will transform our global economy. To simplify, Bitcoin is a form of digital “cryptocurrency” that has been made scarce like gold, and it is exchanged online both anonymously and securely — two concepts that would ordinarily seem diametrically opposed.

Years ago, one required special technical knowledge to being transacting in Bitcoin. As time went on, companies built better and better platforms on which to transact, and today we have Coinbase, an analogue to PayPal for the Bitcoin world.

As of a few weeks before this writing, Coinbase added the ability to purchase Bitcoin with a debit card. This sounds like something that should so obviously be easy, but as I understand it, this is groundbreaking for Bitcoin. Previously, you had to connect a bank account to Coinbase.

There are a few hoops you have to jump through — uploading your ID to verify identity, $40/day limits on Bitcoin purchases — but Coinbase’s interface makes it easy and fast to set up. I was up and running with my first bitcoin purchase in less than 30 minutes. Because of the $40 daily limit, I had to wait three days before I had $100 to deposit to an online poker site. Coinbase makes it easy — you can even schedule automatically purchases of a set amount of Bitcoin each day.

I’ll give you one more reason why Bitcoin is a poker player’s godsend: Simply owning Bitcoin by itself is gambling!

If you check out Coinbase’s charting of the value of Bitcoin over time, you can see it has been an enormously lucrative bet for a lot of people. Part of the fun of owning Bitcoin is watching its value rise and fall, and looking for opportunities to buy low and sell high like the stock market.

America’s Card Room was recommended to me by everyone I asked, my Bitcoin was deposited within minutes, and I was in action just like that. I installed PokerTracker 4, which gave me a HUD on the table, and started capturing my live hands. Anytime a hand came up that I wanted to review later, I quickly tagged it. I took notes on every player and categorized their playing tendencies. And after every few sessions, I would spend a good hour or two analyzing the trouble hands, escalating the most confusing ones to Flopzilla and Combonator.

It was the perfect storm of studying, and an inspiring wind at my back as I head toward Vegas to play against the best of the best — Red Chip coaches and members.

To be sure, optimizing my study time was my big win of the month. But I had another huge win, and that was in realizing that I play so much more aggressively online than I do in person, at the live poker room.

Aggression Spots

These are the kinds of specific stats you get with PokerTracker.

These are the kinds of specific stats you get with PokerTracker.

There is no question online poker has much more aggression than low-stakes live poker. A lot of that has to be owed to the fact that most of us feel more comfortable — and even enabled — to be more aggressive when we’re anonymously clicking buttons over the Internet. As someone who at one time made a hobby of aggressively challenging people’s beliefs in blog comments, I can attest to this. One needs only to look at the epidemic of online bullying and a host of other cultural issues to see that the distancing effect of technology makes us act very differently.

It was not really surprising to learn that I played more aggressively online. There were so many moments where I had to pinch myself and say, “Did I actually 3-barrel-bluff them off an overpair when the flush and straight came in on the river? I actually did that!”

I found myself doing so many things I would never do live: Raise every button until I started getting called. 3-bet players who I knew were making position raises with too high of a frequency.

The question was what to do with that knowledge, and how to learn from it. After pondering what this all meant, I came to two conclusions, one obvious and one surprising.

First the obvious one: I need to play more aggressively live. I took a good, hard look at when I lost playing live, and I began to realize that I my playing style still probably gravitated too much toward nit-aggressive, or ABC-TAG. I was just not mixing it up pre flop calling enough raises, or putting in 3-bets. My play became obvious to my opponents, they knew went to get out of my way and when to exploit me. I needed the balance that more aggression brings, or else I’d be a sitting duck when the cards ran cold.

Do you play too ABC? Listen to this: Being a Nit is Bad for Your Health

The more surprising revelation was this: It wasn’t that I was necessarily playing a ‘more aggressive’ style of poker, it was that I was looking for spots to be aggressive. That’s a subtle difference but it was revelatory. There’s a tendency to think of aggression as brute force — raising, 3-betting, 4-betting, bluffing, running over the table… that sort of thing. To be sure, you need some of that, but what I found in my 1,000 online hands at .5/.10 was that aggression is about “spot identification”.

Close to “spot identification” is aggression by default. The two work hand-in-hand. Every spot is viewed through the lens of “should I take an aggressive line here?” The question is answered by two things primarily: Player type and your read on their hand.

Now, I am a fastidious note-taker on player behavior, both online and live (in my head). I am a keen observer and usually have player types pegged in a few orbits. I pay close attention to bet sizing tells as well.

But the ultimate and earth-shattering realization at the end of this exercise was: I kind of suck at hand reading.

“Spot identification” does include identifying player types and bet sizing tells, but there was a huge chunk of it that I was weak at, and that was hand reading. You truly don’t know what you don’t know.

The one recurring theme of my losing hands was that I made incorrect assumptions about what my opponents were holding. Post-game dissection of these hands made it abundantly clear that good aggressive play relies on hand reading, and while my play was certainly aggressive, it wasn’t necessarily “good-aggressive”.

Or, another way to put it: You can’t be aggressive to the extent you need to be if you only play aggressively with your best hands. Conversely, your aggression is dangerous if you’re applying it without proper hand reading.

The online microstakes games had gotten my aggressive juices flowing, but I was firing off in terrible spots because I was not building hand ranges from preflop forward. Could hand reading be the missing link in keeping my results on the up-and-up? It was time to find out.

Hand Reading Study Time

I thought my luck was amazing when Coinbase enabled debit card Bitcoin purchases a few days before I got back online.

So, you can imagine my elation when (a) I realized hand reading was a huge weakness and (b) James “SplitSuit” Sweeney had just come out with the definitive training guide to hand reading, his Hand Reading Lab.

It seemed to me like if I crash-coursed my hand reading ability, that might be my best shot at being competitive on my upcoming Vegas trip, which was the only goal I was focused on. On the trip, I’d easily be exposing over half my bankroll to getting run up or down, with two stacked games full of grinders, pros and coaches, and other games vs. tourists and regs when I had the time. This was survival mode, and lack of hand reading skills was a wound that kept opening in my game, bleeding chips.

As I centered my study plan around the Hand Reading Lab, I realized that I needed to tweak my online strategy. I would start playing $0.10/0.25 (25NL) in hopes the higher stakes would temper my tendency to be flippant with my stack. When each buy-in represented 1/5 of my online bankroll, it would be much harder to slip into the careless atmosphere that microstakes can create.

I also needed to get back in a live game after my tilt-loss last month. I would probably only have one more opportunity to get inside a live game before hitting Vegas, so it was critical that I build back the confidence that I had when I was in a multi-game winning streak that got me off to a $1,000 head start.

So, my study plan:

  • Crash course as much of the Hand Reading Lab as I could in a few days
  • Test the hand reading skills online at $0.10/$0.25, analyze trouble hands
  • Play a long $1/$2 live cash session
  • Analyze live play & finish the Hand Reading Lab before leaving for WSOP
  • Do nothing but study on my flight to Vegas
  • Play the best poker of my life
Showing 8 comments
  • Mr. Don't

    Great pleasure to read your post as always. Good luck on WSOP and everything else.

    • Zac Shaw

      Much appreciated! I will need all the luck I can get…

  • Robert

    Can’t tell you how much your articles are inspiring me. Thank you so much for writing them and keep of the good work.

    • Zac Shaw

      Thanks! The next one is in part about perseverance, and it’s certainly comments like yours that help me persevere.

  • Roberto

    have fun at wsop, love reading your series

    • Zac Shaw

      Thanks, Roberto, I know I will. Hope you enjoy reading the results in the next episode!

  • TxChipper

    Enjoy reading your articles, will see you at the meetup in Vegas. I’ll be the old guy.

    • Zac Shaw

      Thanks, I look forward to meeting you. This Vegas meetup is shaping up to be a blast.