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.