The game is $10/$20 Seven Card Stud, an American classic. Five players. Everybody antes, $5 in the pot.
I catch two fours in the hole plus an ace up. Marvin Muckworthy, to my right, opens for $5, and I complete for $10 so as to be as aggressive as my ace but not so aggressive as my hidden fours. Call, call, call, call, $55 in the pot.
I get the third four on fourth street, no joke. I’m high man with the ace, so I bet $10–aggressive or foolish, from the other players’ points of view. Call, call, call, call, no joke. And now there is $105 in the pot.
On fifth street I snag a second ace. I’m now fours full of aces, a cinch bet, but I’m two aces showing. I bet $20. Call, call. But wait: Tony Tablestakes read somewhere that it’s hard to beat an exposed high pair, so he folds, god bless him. Marvin Muckworthy calls, leaving $195 in the pot.
On sixth street I hit a third ace. Unbelievable. Even more incredible, when I bet $20, everyone stays. Fiona Flushmonger, to my left, calls on nothing visible. Brad Bellybuster calls on a crooked straight. And Marvin Muckworthy is praying that something will wash up in the river to best my three exposed aces with his two visible sevens. And it’s $275 in the pot.
And then, my cup runneth over, on Unique Casino seventh street I pull the fourth ace. Aces full of fours and more and more, loaves full of fishes like tuna on rye: three fours and four aces. I bet first, of course, because I have–ahem!–three exposed aces. Flushmonger, Bellybuster and Muckworthy all call my $20 bet, the lord alone knows why. At the showdown–guess who won?–the pot is $355.
It’s mine, all mine! I’m rich, rich, rich!!
On paper, that is. Because we were playing a play-money game in an on-line card room.
Play-money is the bane and the boon of on-line poker. The house gets a chance to show off its product in the most non-threatening way possible. The novice on-line poker player gets a chance to learn the game–or just learn the user interface–without risking real money. But the play in play-money games is as loose, as aggressive, and as foolish as anyone could ever imagine.
In Hold-’em, play-money players will raise and re-raise pre-flop all the way to the cap on almost every hand, and eighty percent or more of the table will stay to see the flop. In Stud, theoretical millionaires will bet three times around the table with every card. The ultimate big-man-on-paper will show up at a table with literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in play-money, won in no-limit games where the imaginary stakes average $50,000 a pot. All hail the Hypothetical Croesus!
All that by itself is funny. Painful, too, of course, as you wait impatiently for the opportunity to play your real cards, tumbling around in a dryer-load of over-raised rags. But it stops being funny when you consider this:
Play-money teaches you to play badly. To play like Jethro Bodine, burdened by unwanted riches and looking for love with all the wrong raises. Play-money players master all the habits of the ideal fish: They stay when they shouldn’t, raise when they shouldn’t and only slip into the muck at the river, leaving hundreds of pretend chips in some other player’s stack.
This is no way to learn the game of poker.
Play-money is a good way to learn the software of on-line poker, you bet. And it can be a good way to get some free practice at _real_ poker skills–provided you play real poker even as the fish are schooling themselves in the art of losing like drunken frat-boys.
Play only premium hands. Fold as soon as you know you’re beat. Prosecute your advantages to the fullest. And don’t get ****ed into the loser’s game of playing loose, aggressive and foolish all at the same time.
If you play heads up or short-handed play-money games will go faster. And as you play, the better bad players will mimic your good example, even if they don’t know why. Best yet, the worst of the bad players will get bored and go find a game where they can raise and re-raise on rags.
And as soon as you feel confident of your abilities, move up to the real game, playing with real money. If you remember always to play your best game, you’ll win from the first. Just think: Many of your opponents will have schooled themselves to be fish with play-money.