Shuffling in Poker

Over the past few years one of the most controversial areas of debate in Internet poker has been the issue of online shuffling. Clearly the purpose of any fair shuffle is to create a random deck such that every possible sequence of cards is possible, while at the same time making it impossible for anyone to predict the position of any card in the deck. In principle, unless they are crooked or contain bugs, online shuffles should be closer to random than can possibly be achieved in a live-action game, where the cards are often just collected, riffled a couple of times and dealt, with the result that clumps of cards can sometimes stay together. As an example, the Paradise Poker website states that: ‘No deck of cards in any brick and mortar cardroom is ever shuffled as well and as thoroughly as we shuffle our cards. Each game, the deck is shuffled 10 times with each shuffle moving each card between one and 51 times throughout the deck. There is no bias to any card, any card patterns or seats at the table.’

However, the key rider here is unless they are crooked or contain bugs. In the early days of online poker, the shuffling algorithm for the ASF Software Inc. Hold’em games, used in at least three online cardrooms (including Planet Poker), was far from flawless. In September 1999 the Software Security Group at Reliable Software Technologies uncovered a means of calculating the precise deck being used for each hand, knowledge of which would have enabled unscrupulous cheats to know in advance the exact hands of every player, together with the future cards that would be dealt in that hand. Unfortunately, the ‘seed’ (or particular starting point) used for the ASF Software random number generator at that time was the number of milliseconds since midnight according to the system clock, which thus made it easily predictable once the RST program was synchronised with the system clock; and RST also identified other flaws in the shuffling algorithm. Of course, these problems were quickly addressed by the online cardrooms affected, but the fact that a shuffling algorithm had been cracked was very damaging for the credibility of the online poker industry as a whole at that time.

Nowadays every online cardroom is acutely aware of the need to reassure their clients that their shuffle is fair, random and unpredictable. A visit to the website of any of these companies will reveal the different ways in which they generate their shuffles. Clearly, the understanding and implementation of these complicated processes has moved on considerably since 1999, in particular with regard to the criteria used in selecting the seed used in random number generation, and shuffling has become more secure. However, that does not necessarily mean that it is absolutely foolproof at every single site.

Many newcomers to online poker, on experiencing an initial run of bad results, rush to blame their losses on unfair shuffling (or on collusion by other players) rather than questioning their own play. Undoubtedly it is possible to write software that gives the cardroom an edge in some way, perhaps by juicing the deck to produce more ‘action’ hands and thereby maximising the rake. The key question is whether it would be worth any major online site becoming involved in such a practice – their existing rake income is generally quite sufficient to keep their businesses running smoothly, so why would they risk such a practice in case they were found out (perhaps through being outed by a disaffected ex-employee) and lost their entire business?
Although it is true that online cardrooms survive by extracting money from their clients, it is in their long-term interests to do so honestly via the rake rather than dishonestly by cheating. Whether you are a long-term winner or a long-term loser, you will contribute more or less the same hourly rake over time, and companies with a satisfied strong regular player base (many of whom will then recommend the site to their friends) can expect large revenue returns for many years to come. Of course, it is not impossible that decks are being ‘juiced’, but there is no hard evidence to suggest that such practices are in operation.

One common complaint on poker forums and newsgroups is that players are drawn out on more online, with the online shuffle somehow generating more river cards that defeat made hands. Regardless of whether this complaint is actually justified (it may just seem like you are being drawn out on more because so many more hands are dealt per hour online than in a live-action cardroom, and so many hands are dealt with a full ten players seated at the table), being drawn out on is the natural occupational hazard of the winning player. One of the key advantages of most winning players over their fellow competitors is that they consistently enter the pot with better average starting holdings, so they will need to be drawn out on more often if they are to lose. In the meantime, they are being paid off handsomely on numerous other occasions by weaker players who are staying in the pot with poor odds, hoping to hit longshot draws.

Another common newsgroup and forum online poker myth is the so called ‘cash-out curse’. Many players seem to believe that when they cash-out from a site this will somehow lead to them being flagged by the cardroom and dealt a higher than average number of losing hands. This myth can be debunked in many ways, including the following:
•    At any point in time you are on either a good run or a bad run, with wins following losses and losses following wins. Inevitably, when you are on a good run you are more likely to cash-out and will subsequently appear to experience the ‘cash-out’ curse when the law of averages comes into play and your inevitable bad run arrives. When these players perceive that they are being afflicted with the cash-out curse, they are merely experiencing a natural regression towards the mean. Furthermore, those who are fortunate enough to maintain their good run after a cash-out will never have cause to report it; it is only those who lose after a cash-out who ever publish their experiences, and in so doing, perpetuate the myth .
•    When you experience a good run and cash-out, you may start to play in over-confident fashion, overplaying your hands and generally failing to pay as much attention to the game as you did before. Inevitably, this then manifests itself in a losing run.
•    Often when players cash-out they leave themselves with an inadequate bankroll, which is then vulnerable to the natural short-term swings of the limit at which they are playing.
•    There is no real financial reason why a site should dislike players who cash-out, but nevertheless continue to play at the site regularly. Whether individual players are winners or losers is basically irrelevant to the cardroom, so long as they keep coming back and thereby maintain their contribution to the rake.

To date no evidence has ever been produced to suggest that the shuffle at any online poker site is any way rigged. At Paradise Poker the shuffle is reviewed on a quarterly basis by Price Waterhouse Coopers. Using the log files provided, PWC have performed a series of statistical tests and affirmed that in their opinion every card has an equal chance of being selected. Furthermore, many news group posters have also independently analysed the hand histories from Paradise Poker and other sites, using samples of 60,000 hands or more, and drawn the same conclusions.

Online Props in Poker

A proposition player (or prop) is a player who is paid by the house to start up new games and keep existing games going, while encouraging a friendly atmosphere among the players. Unlike a shill, a prop player plays with and risks his own (and not the house’s) money. Prop players have been a feature of many brick and mortar cardrooms for years, and several major online cardrooms do employ (or have employed) props. In particular, it is quite common for new sites to employ props to help generate regular traffic during their launch period. However, not every site uses props – PokerStars and True Poker, for example, have both gone so far as to post unequivocally on public forums that they are not employing props.

An online prop can typically expect to earn something in the region of $12-$15 an hour (and perhaps more if they are prepared to play two tables at once) with their precise income determined by the number of hands they play. In general, props are required to play at the lower range of limits (typically, say, from $2/$4 to $5/10).

For some players, online prop play may be an attractive option, for the following reasons:
•    Prop players receive payment for doing what they may have been doing anyway (playing online poker).
•    Prop players can usually choose their own working hours.
•    Prop players can normally play online as a second ‘part-time’ job.

However, prop play also has some disadvantages as well:
•    Prop players risk their own money – if they lose then they not only have no income (apart from their prop pay), but may also find themselves out of a job if their bankroll runs out.
•    Prop players are obliged to play a certain number of hours at the one site, and therefore do not have the same freedom to employ site selection strategies (at least not during their prop payment hours) as other players.
•    Prop players have to play at the table to which they are directed by the cardroom, and are therefore unable to employ game selection strategies.
•    Prop players usually have to move tables at the cardroom’s discretion (for example, sometimes having to vacate a table at which they were winning once that table is full, and finding themselves being placed instead at a short-handed table with several known tricky opponents).
•    Since prop players are typically paid ‘per hand’, if there is no one to play against they can’t earn any income.
•    Prop players usually have to play a great deal of short-handed play, since one of their main functions is to start new games. However, many potential candidates for prop play do not enjoy playing short-handed, and the variance for such games is greater than for full ring games, so a larger bankroll is necessary to handle the fluctuations. Furthermore, those props who lack proficiency at short-handed or heads-up play are an open target for specialist short-handed experts to attack in ‘hit and run’ raids. To offset this, at least in part, props usually earn more when they play short-handed, since they will play many more hands per hour in these games than they would in a full ring game.

It takes a particular kind of player to be successful as a prop – someone who is skilled at (and able to survive the fluctuations of) short-handed play, and also capable of returning a profit despite very limited opportunities for game selection. Although some players do enjoy working as props, most top online professionals prefer to retain their independence (particularly since many professionals would typically be playing higher than $5/$10 in any case).

For some reason, many online players are afraid of props, assuming that they must naturally be very good players, but in fact there is no real reason to fear playing against a prop player any more than you would be wary of any other experienced online player. In fact, it would be counter-productive for cardrooms to employ props who play outstandingly well, since such players might win too much money from the other players and actually reduce the number of active players on the site.

It is sometimes argued that cardrooms should reveal the identities of their props, whose play they are in effect subsidising. However, so long as they are playing at their own risk and have no advantages over the other players (other than the fact that they are being paid for the number of hands in which they participate; at most sites props are not even told who the other props are), it is doubtful what real purpose would be served by removing their anonymity.

One very popular method that cardrooms use to generate traffic without using props is to offer deposit bonuses. Typically these bonuses amount to 15%-25% of the deposit amount, but the bonus is only paid when the player has qualified by playing a predetermined number of raked hands. In addition, the cash prizes for some freeroll tournaments are also only released when the player has fulfilled a similar quota of raked hands. Effectively these players are acting as informal props, keeping games occupied in return for their bonuses or prizes, although of course the site does not have the right to tell them at which table they must play.

Cybertilt and running bad in Poker

From time to time even the most dispassionate player may lose his calm, disciplined approach to the game and instead start making decisions that are heavily guided by his emotions, in other words, go on tilt like a pinball machine. Some players with an extensive knowledge of poker fail to make the most of their talent, largely because they are unable to play their best game consistently – too often they allow their emotions to take over. Probably the most common scenario for tilt to manifest itself occurs when a player has just endured a bad beat (or series of bad beats) and succumbs to the natural urge to try and get even as quickly as possible, but it could just be that the player is enduring a poor session overall and suffering a deterioration in his play as a result.
With the enhanced speed of online play, relative to live play, everything is compounded and it is even easier to go on tilt – hand after hand is dealt in quick succession, and there is no time to calm down, take stock, properly rationalise the situation and regroup. In the online game your chips are only a number on the screen, and the fact that these ‘cyberchips’ have no physical presence makes it easier to lose sight of the fact that they represent real money and should not be treated lightly. Furthermore, in a live-action game, social convention dictates that you should not blow off steam in public, whereas online there are no constraints to prevent you from openly losing your temper and steaming your way through your bankroll. The risk of going on tilt is further magnified if you are playing two or more tables at once, where money can be won (or in this case lost) twice as fast.

One problem which players often face when they are enduring a losing session, is that the other players in the game see them struggling and try to take advantage of this, perhaps by playing draws more aggressively against them or running more bluffs. Not only does the player now have to face the emotional setback of a losing session, but also the reality that other players are now queuing up to take shots at him, forcing him to deal with a series of difficult decisions. Apart from the obvious course of action – to leave the table – one alternative way of avoiding this nightmare scenario is to discretely buy more chips, thereby disguising the fact that you are actually losing. As long as you retain broadly the same amount of chips throughout a game, most players won’t notice whether you are winning or losing, and therefore won’t play any differently against you. Of course, the very worst thing you can do when you are losing is to start criticising the other players for their play through chat messages – this will merely alert them to the fact that you may be on tilt and encourage them to play even better against you! Likewise, if you see someone else berating the other players through the chat box, then this may present a good opportunity since he could be about to go tilt and steam away some chips.

The nature of poker is such that from time to time every player will experience a large financial reverse, either from a disastrous single session or a series of losing sessions. Even top players can experience long sequences of poor results (although this does not mean that if you achieve bad results you must be a top player!). Different players have different ways of dealing with such setbacks: some go to watch the high-limit heads-up games at the poker room, where the thousands of dollars that can be won and lost on every hand make their losses seem small by comparison; others take a break for a few days or spend some time reviewing their play and reading books; others practise relaxation techniques to try to restore their equilibrium; others tryout a different site or switch to a different form of poker for a while; and others drop down in limit or try to log a few short winning sessions to restore their confidence. Any of these methods is likely to be preferable to playing on tilt, making plays that you know are incorrect in a vain attempt to get even, in a game that has long since turned sour. It is not enough to be a good player; you must also play well on a consistent basis.

High Roller Casino Bonuses

Most online casinos and poker rooms these days offer bonuses to attract players and then offer further bonuses and promotions to keep them at the gaming site. There are also a lot of high roller casinos which offer special high roller bonuses and these are what this article is about.

By standard Casino bonus I mean the type of bonus which you will typically see on the front page of the casino or poker room site.

There are however some major differences in how these bonuses get paid out. Most standard casino bonuses work on the principle of a matched bonus. For example at Joyland Casino they will match your initial deposit by 30% up to a maximum amount of £300. In other words if you deposit £1000 then they will put an additional £300 into your gaming account. The minimum amount you can deposit to get this bonus is £20. The percentage which is matched and the maximum and minimum limits vary form casino to casino put the basic principle is almost always the same. Now to prevent people just taking the extra £300 and running the casino set certain wagering requirements which must be met before the money can be withdrawn. At Joyland Casino you are required to wager 30 times your deposit plus the bonus so if you deposited £100 and received a £30 deposit you would need to wager for £3900 before you could take out the £30 bonus money. This sounds like a lot but in reality you will find that you will soon have wagered for this amount, it should on average only take about 150 games to reach the limit and assuming you have luck on your side you should still have some of the money left. In addition to the wagering requirement you will also find that some games are excluded form the casino bonus, in fact at Joyland only Slots games qualify towards the bonus, but certainly almost all welcome bonuses exclude blackjack for example.

The high roller casino bonus is along the same lines as the welcome casino bonus except it is for a lot more money. At Joylands Casino you need to deposit £5000 to receive the high roller bonus which is £850. The same restrictions exist as for the standard casino bonus but the amount of bonus is far higher. The standard welcome bonus is only up to a maximum of £300 whilst the high roller casino bonus is £850.

The bottom line with bonuses is to ALWAYS check the terms and conditions before signing up to them, for example at Joyland Casino there is little point signing up to either the £300 welcome bonus or the high roller casino bonus if you don’t intend to play on the slots as you will never meet the wagering requirements to be able to withdraw the money but if you like slots then it is avery nice boost to your bankroll and by all means you should take part.

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Starting out in On line Poker

All you really need to start playing poker online is a computer (ideally with at least 512Mb RAM) and an Internet connection (high-speed broadband is naturally preferable to a dial-up connection, but the latter should be fine, albeit a little slower). Every online poker site offers the facility for play money tables, at which players can practise their skills without having to risk real hard-earned cash. If you are a newcomer to online poker, you may like to tryout one of these games to familiarise yourself with the mechanics of the game. Indeed, if you have never played poker before it is certainly advisable to experiment with these practice games before risking any hard-earned cash, in order both to get used to how the dealing and betting processes work, and to develop basic playing skills such as hand selection and the ability to read the board.

Although these free games are ideal for beginners, for most players their attraction quickly palls. Without the constraints created by having to invest real money, there is no incentive for players to fold, since anyone who busts out can simply request a new stack of play chips. Invariably there are one or two players who attempt to cap the betting on every round with little or no regard for hand selection, so that the game can often become a ‘no fold-em hold’em’ free-for-all, bearing little relation to real money poker.

There is unquestionably a skill element involved in being successful in play money games, but whether those skills are of any particular use in ‘real’ poker is a moot point. Whereas in real money games, one of the most important abilities that players need to develop is hand selection; practice games encourage players to do precisely the opposite! Likewise it is impossible to develop hand-reading or pot odds skills when most of your opponents are taking their hands to the river on marginal values. Furthermore, many of the strategic tools that are important in real money games (such as raising or check-raising to narrow the field) are almost irrelevant in play money games, where some players will call anyway, whether it costs them a single bet or three.

Both micro-limit ring games and $1 entry fee (and freeroll) tournaments, such as those at InterPoker, provide far more instructional value than play money tables. These games provide an ideal, inexpensive introduction to the game – everyone is playing for something real and consequently the quality of play in these events far outstrips that of a typical play money game. Furthermore, the fact that the online game is so much faster means that newcomers can develop their skills that much quicker, playing more hands in an hour of online play than they would in two hours at an ordinary cardroom. And of course, if you are prepared to watch and learn, every major site will allow you to sit out and observe their higher-stakes games, thereby potentially gaining a valuable free insight into the skills of the better players.

Advantages of Online Poker Play: Financial Features

Online games have a lower rake and no tipping (and usually no jackpot rakes either).
The standard maximum rake for a full 10-player ring game online is $3 ‘no flop, no drop’, whereas in many brick and mortar cardrooms it is $4 (or more) with an additional $1 often being added for the jackpot and a $1 (minimum) tip almost automatically paid to the dealer. For low-limit players in particular, a significantly smaller sum of money comes off the table in every hand online than would be the case in a live-action game.

You can play for smaller stakes online than in brick and mortar cardrooms.
It is hardly economic for brick and mortar cardrooms to offer games as low as $1/$2 (let alone $0.50/$1.00 or below), but such limits are an attractive training ground for new players seeking to learn the game without having to spend a fortune on their education. For this very reason, the $1/$2 and below ‘micro-limit’ online games are popular at all online sites. Indeed, even experienced players sometimes opt to play at a lower limits when they wish to work on a particular area of their game. For example, a $5/$10 brick and mortar player might choose to play online at a $2/$4 limit five-handed table in order to hone his short-handed skills. Furthermore, all online sites also offer play money games, which do not require any cash investment at all.

You can’t accidentally muck a winner or lose a pot due to a dealer error online.
Again this feature is particularly attractive for novice players who might accidentally misread their hand or allow a dealer to muck their cards when they are holding a winner.

There are no travel expenses incurred in playing online. For regular players who do not live in immediate proximity to a brick and mortar cardroom, travel expenses can amount to a significant sum over the course of a year.

Many online cardrooms offer attractive sign-up and other deposit bonuses.
Although many US cardrooms do reward regular players with ‘comps’, this is by no means standard, whereas many online sites offer 15%-25% bonuses on initial deposits, and often these bonuses are even extended to include existing clients in the form of ‘reload’ bonuses.

Online cardroom restrictions on deposits prevent players from using their credit cards to deposit and lose thousands of dollars in a single day.
Whereas most casinos will allow players to purchase chips up to their pre-agreed credit limit, and individuals may also be able to obtain additional funds from ATM machines or fellow players, online cardrooms prevent players from making substantial credit card deposits in a single day. Indirectly, this thereby enforces a ‘cooling-off period before they can return to the game.

Some online cardrooms allow ratholing of profits.
Some pot-limit and no-limit players like to remove their profits from the table if they are on a small bankroll, buying straight back in for the minimum and ‘ratholing’ the rest to protect it. This practice of removing chips from the table is considered poor etiquette and is rarely allowed in brick and mortar games, but online cardrooms do permit it, although some do place a time limit of 30 minutes or more before allowing players to return to the game with anything less than the sum with which they departed. (Naturally, ratholing might be considered an unattractive feature if someone is removing your money from the table!)

Live vs Online Poker

When you sit down at an online poker table, it is important to remember that it is just that, an online poker table – the card skills you may have learnt playing in live-action games will remain the bedrock of your game, but they need to be fine-tuned. Online poker is very much still poker, but it is poker in a very distinct form. The online poker room is a completely different environment to a home or brick and mortar cardroom game, and your success or failure at the tables will be determined as much by how well you adapt to this environment, as by whether you have the skills to beat a live-action game. Poker forums and newsgroups are littered with stories of live-action players who have come unstuck online, having failed to adjust to the peculiarities of this form of the game and left their hard-earned bankrolls in the hands of the online specialists. Fundamentally, success in online poker is more dependent on the cards you hold, your ability to make fast, accurate decisions and your own self-discipline, whereas in liveaction poker, people-reading skills are relatively much more important.

Does Online Poker Play help or hinder your Live Play?

For most of the new generation of poker players, their first experience of poker is increasingly likely to have come from playing online rather than in a live game. They may eventually switch to playing in live-action games (or combining live with online play), but their initiation to the game will probably have come online, where they don’t have to worry about the etiquette of a live-action game or whether they are giving off tells to the other players. As and when these players do migrate to live play, it will inevitably take them a while to adapt to the different nature of this form of poker, and most of these players will initially struggle at the hands of regular live-action players. Many live-action players therefore see the online game as a potential source of future profits, not because they choose to play online themselves, but because it may bring a wave of relatively inexperienced players into their own games.

However, it is not just inexperienced players who often struggle to adapt from online to live play – many regular online players have complained that when they return to playing in a live cardroom their results are much worse. There are a number of reasons why this could be the case. For example, in a live game:
•    They become distracted by the social aspect of the game, chatting to other players rather than focusing carefully on the game.
•    They don’t pay enough attention to the tells that are offered by their opponents.
•    They don’t pay enough attention to the tells that they themselves are offering their opponents.
•    They don’t recognise that their opponents are paying much more attention to the game than an online player generally would.
•    They don’t keep track of the pot accurately (whereas online this information is provided for you). Consequently some of their live plays are mistakes relative to the pot odds they are receiving.
•    They become impatient due to the smaller number of hands that are dealt per hour in a live relative to an online game.
•    They have become accustomed to playing more hands than they should when they are online, perhaps due to the generally loose nature of micro-limit play. If those same hand selections are retained when they switch to a live-action game, it is likely that their results will suffer.
•    They don’t vary their play sufficiently (since in online play it is comparatively less important to vary your play).
•    They may play so rarely in a live game that their results are nothing more than a reflection of the inherent variance involved in playing poker.

If you plan to play in both live and online games it is important to do both regularly, since otherwise your skills in one or other area may decline due to lack of practice. As a general rule, micro-limit online players should be looking to play tighter in a live game than they would do online.

Working the Poker Room Lobby

At the heart of every playing site is the lobby, which provides players with a menu of the games that are currently on offer. Here each game is listed with the table name, stakes, number of players seated in the game, number of players on the waiting list and average pot size’ (typically based on the last 20 hands). Several sites also offer additional information on the number of players per flop (or fourth street for seven-card stud) and the number of hands played per hour.

If a game in which you wish to participate is currently fully occupied, you will be directed to join a waiting list and then prompted to take a seat once one becomes available. You may choose to use time spent on the waiting list to scout the game, identifying which players are aggressive, which participate in nearly every hand, which may be on tilt etc. If there is more than one game going on at your preferred limit, then it is advisable to join each waiting list individually rather than opt for a ‘first available table’ option. You then retain the option to pick and choose a table when the time comes, rather than be forced to either take the first available seat or rejoin the waiting list at the back of the queue, should you decide that the table on offer is unsuitable.

Every player has their own views on what constitutes an attractive game for their style of play: some prefer loose games with many players involved in each hand; and others tight games in which they can steal pots with aggressive play. If the site at which you play provides information on the average number of players involved in each pot, then you may like to use it to help you choose the right game for your style. However, as we have stated, it is important to note that the averages provided are typically based on only the last 20 or so hands, depending on the site, and the departure or arrival of a single player can often have a marked effect on the characteristics of a game. Indeed, even a table comprising the same players can sometimes experience a marked shift in dynamics immediately after a big pot has been won and lost.

Many sites also use lobby space to provide a list of the players seated at each table. If you keep notes on your opponents, this information can be invaluable, enabling you to steer away from players whose games you respect and towards those whom you reckon to fare well against. Furthermore, you may be able to identify some players who are playing more than one table at once – at times these players can prove to be ideal opponents, since you may be able to run over them while they are concentrating on the other games they are playing. Multi-table players normally play in quite straightforward fashion, so you should respect their raises and at the same time look to exploit their vulnerability to a well-timed bluff.

Once you are playing, you should still check back to the lobby periodically to see what new opportunities are on offer. A new game may have started at a limit you prefer, another game may now be populated by players you like to compete against, or maybe the game you are playing in has gone completely flat and simply any other game would be a better bet!

The lobby is an important resource in the armoury of a winning player – work it!