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Tuesday, December 7, 2004
Updated: December 8, 12:03 PM ET
The ups and downs, online

By Jay Lovinger
Page 2

Online poker is the 21st-century version of Dodge City -- homicidal maniacs behind every cursor, paranoia in the streets.

Every hand has the potential to be a Wild West shootout. Every single hand.

Sunday night, when the ESPN game between the Steelers and the Jags ended, I decided to play for a few minutes before I headed off to bed. (Anything to put off writing for another day.)

I was alive in a six-man, $20 sit-and-go (four players left, blinds at $20-40), with about $1,200 in chips (we started with $1,000); and I found an A-Q unsuited in first position. I raised $80, got one caller. The flop was perfect: Q-6-3 rainbow. (By the way, in answer to a few e-mail queries, rainbow is poker jargon for no two cards of the same suit -- therefore, no flush draws.) I bet $200. Call. A blank came on the flop, and I put the guy all-in for his last $400. Call. The river brought a 6, which, combined with the 7-6 unsuited he was holding, gave him three 6s.

Next hand, with 9-9 in the big blind, I went all-in for my last $400 after a couple of callers and a small raise. Got called by one guy with K-4 unsuited. The flop came 4-4-x (plus the fourth 4 on the river), and I was out.

A couple of minutes later, in a $100 sit-and-go (10 players), I raised the blinds ($10-20, early on), with J-J, to $80. There were a couple of folds, and a guy in middle position raised to $140. The guy behind him called, as did I. Flop:  9-2-2. I bet $260. The original re-raiser folded, and the next guy called. The turn was a 5. I went all-in, and he called with 5-5. Bye-bye.

A few minutes after that, early on in a six-player $50 sit-and-go, I called (the blinds were $10-20) in first position with a 9-8. Three other players called. The flop came 9-9-5, rainbow. I checked, and it was checked around. The turn: a 2. I bet $80, got one caller. River: another 2. With what would appear to be the nut full house -- I'm assuming that if the guy had a 2-2, he would have raised my $80 bet on the turn -- I bet $160. When the other guy raised to $400, I went all-in. The guy called ... with 2-2.

Oops.

It isn't every day that you can lose four hands like that in less than half an hour, including time spent waiting for the $100 and $50 tables to fill. That is, unless you're playing online poker, the Wild West of card games.

One of my favorite movies is Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." So in fond remembrance of that master of the spaghetti Western, I will analyze online poker by dividing it into his three categories, beginning with ...

THE GOOD
1.) Speed -- Because your online poker hands are played at a rate at least twice as fast as hands you play in a casino or a home game, the opportunity to get lots of experience fast is unmatchable -- especially because when you're online, you can play in two or more games at once if your mind is supple enough and you are computer literate (unlike Jackpot Jay), or if you are stoned or just plain loco.

For a beginner, an intensive immersion in online poker for about two weeks (preferably at low stakes) offers as much playing experience as a brick-and-mortar player is likely to pick up in a year. (WARNING: You can also pick up some pretty bad habits this way. See, THE BAD.)

2.) Convenience -- No hours wasted in the car or on the Lucky Line Bus driving to distant casinos. No hotel bill. No porking up at casino buffets. No tipping of dealers. No sitting for hours on end next to guys who smoke or are allergic to showers for hours. No annoying Unabomber wannabes. No screaming Swedes. No foul-mouthed sore losers. No worrying about getting a minyan for your home game.

In fact, if you yourself are allergic to showers, you can sit there for weeks at a time in the same pair of underpants, thereby saving all kinds of money on soap and the cost of electricity to run a washer and dryer. (WARNING: It is easier to pull this off if you are single.)

3.) Variety (which is, after all, the spice of life) -- All the major sites offer a wide range of games at stakes ranging from pennies to thousands of dollars per hand. You can play limit or pot-limit or no-limit hold 'em, Omaha (straight high or high-low with a qualifier), seven-card stud, five-card stud. You can play in single-table tournaments, known as sit-and-gos. You can play in multi-table tournaments. You can play at 10-person tables, six-person tables, five-person tables, even head-to-head. You can even play in sit-and-gos where the blinds increase at supersonic speeds -- like, every two hands -- turning the game into an all-in lottery. (On the site where I usually play, these are called Extreme Turbos.) Whatever your temperament, whatever your pleasure, you can find it online.

More important, you can scout around for the properly-paced game to suit your style of play and give yourself the best chance to maximize your winnings. Do you fare better against tight players? Prefer to go up against a table full of loosey-goosey maniacs? Just watch a game or two for a few minutes. You'll quickly find one to fit your specs.

4.) Donators -- By the thousands, baby. (Of course, to paraphrase Mike McD. from "Rounders," if you can't spot the donator within a few minutes of sitting down at the table, you are the donator.)

The other day, I played a hand against a guy who, in my notes, I dubbed The Most Conservative Player Who Ever Lived (TMCPWEL). It was a $1-2 NLHE (six-handed), which, online, can actually be a pretty lucrative game. In first position after the blinds, I found a K-Q unsuited and raised to $4. Four players, including the big blind (TMCPWEL), called.

Ask Jackpot Jay!
Got a poker problem or want more details about Jay's poker adventure? Send in your questions and comments.
The flop came A-K-x, rainbow. Everybody checked.

The turn was a blank. TMCPWEL bet $2. Everybody called.

The river was another K. So I had three Ks, plus the second best kicker. Given the betting, and the fact that nobody could have a flush or a straight, I had to figure I had the best hand. If anybody had a set -- which would now be a full house -- they would have bet or raised already. Likewise, if the person with the other K -- assuming someone did have the other K -- also had paired one of the blanks, we would have heard from them by now.

So I was a little surprised when TMCPWEL bet $10. Still, I figured him for the K with a lesser kicker -- maybe a J or a 10 -- so I decided to value bet. I raised it to $20. Everybody folded around to TMCPWEL, who called ... and turned over A-K.

Considering that there was only one hand I could have held that would beat his kings-full -- A-A -- and considering that I had not made a peep after my small pre-flop raise, it was kind of hard to put me on A-A. So I'm pretty sure that virtually any other poker player alive -- and even a few dead ones -- would have re-raised in that position.

No complaints -- he saved me a bunch of money (we both had a couple of hundred dollars at that point). In other words, the online poker gods don't just taketh away; sometimes, they giveth.

THE BAD
1.) Speed Kills -- Yes, you can learn a lot from playing many hands in a short period of time. Like, for example, bad habits. A lot of online players, especially those who play multi-games on their split screens, fall into patterns of inflexible thinking and playing. If you don't give yourself time to think, you also don't give yourself time to learn.

2.) Bluff Fever -- It's so easy to bluff online. No matter how nervous you might feel, it will never show. Just a click of the button -- you don't even have to engage in the physical act of pushing chips into the pot. It's the poker-playing equivalent of credit cards. The problem is, when you play against live players -- either in a casino or in a home game -- you'll be easier to read than a large-print copy of "Pat the Bunny."

Poker Central
Have you become obsessed with poker too? Well, no worries -- Page 2 has launched its very own poker section. Check it out.
3.) Butt Pimples

4.) Online Addiction -- Online poker can be hypnotic, like shoveling quarters into slot machines or eating potato chips or playing Ms. Pac Man at 3 a.m. after smoking three or four ... (Oops, I was channeling my college days again.). You sit there and stare at the computer screen until time and space cease to exist. It's so easy, so painless, to click your mouse and call a bet, any bet. There is no tangible evidence of money changing hands. Those cards just keep appearing on the screen -- all those beautiful low suited connectors, all those enticing almost-connected hands (K-J, Q-10, J-9) -- and it's so hard to say, "Goodbye."

5.) Isolation -- There is something undeniably wonderful about the connective power of the 'net -- how, while sitting in your mobile home outside Mobile, you can play a game with a couple of guys from Pakistan, a widow from Brazil and some kids from San Francisco. The problem is, you never see them or hear their voices. In a society where it is common for two people to have lunch together while spending the whole time talking to two other people on their cell phones, anything that further isolates our already depressed and dysfunctional populace can't be good. And, lord knows, your average poker player is already an asocial misfit -- believe me, I know whereof I speak. One can only imagine the global consequences of exacerbating that unfortunate condition.

6.) Debasement of the Language -- There's a chat device by which the players in any game can "communicate" with each other, at least in theory. In practice, 90 percent of the comments consist of "LOL," which my kids tell me is nerdspeak for "laugh out loud." Apparently, LOL applies to any situation in poker, whether you are outdrawn or are doing the outdrawing, whether you are lucky or the victim of bad luck, whether you are cool or just another all-in schmuck. It's similar to what happened with the word "dude" after "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" hit movie screens 20 or so years ago. (Most of the remaining 10 percent of comments are some version of "heh-heh," usually used when some all-in schmuck pulls a hand out of his nether region on the river. There is also an occasional attempt at humor, but its sophistication level usually makes Pee Wee Herman look like Lenny Bruce.)

Jackpot Jay's Poker Glossary
Confused by some of the terms Jay uses in his poker columns? Get their definitions right here.
7.) Disconnections -- It isn't uncommon for your computer to freeze in the middle of a sit-and-go or multi-table tournament. And, sadly, this will inevitably happen while you are the chip leader. I've already had that sublime experience a couple of times. And, believe me, you don't want to see -- or even think about -- an enraged Jackpot Jay in his underwear pounding his mouse against the kitchen table in a futile attempt to get reconnected before all his chips are blinded off.

8.) Revenge of the Donators -- Sometimes, they bite back. I had folded pre-flop in a $10-20 game. The guy in the big blind, having already invested his $10 blind, decided to call a pre-flop raise with what turned out to be 7-2 off-suit. When the flop came Q-10-7, he was in for the duration of the ride, no matter what the cost. So despite the best efforts of his remaining opponent, who bet or raised on every round with what turned out to be K-K, our hero was still hanging in there when the river brought a 2. As the guy with the K-K messaged after the hand, "Hey, are you (bleeping) serious?"

It is true that, in the long run, guys who call K-K with 7-2 are going to lose all their money. The problem is, if you are sitting there with A-A, and six guys with 7-2 or the equivalent are calling you, at least one of them is bound to outdraw you more than half the time. And for better or worse, that's exactly what happens quite often in online poker games, especially below the high limits.

NEXT COLUMN -- Jackpot Jay, who is given to fits of paranoia under the best of circumstances, examines some of the conspiracy theories surrounding online poker as he delineates THE UGLY.

Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for ESPN.com and also writing a book for HarperCollins.