No-limit hold ’em games online range from micro-stakes like $0.01-$0.02, to $25-$50 blinds and higher. Even though the rules of the two games are similar, in many ways the online ecosystem works exactly opposite to the ecosystem of the live game.

In live games, most of the seats are taken by recreational players who lose modestly and cover their losses on a monthly basis with their incomes. The online world is far more dog-eat- dog.

If you play a 5-10 game at a major international online site such as PokerStars, the vast majority of players in your games will be serious, professional-level players who have reached 5-10 by having started small and grinded out profit in smaller games. While these pros are hoping for the occasional recreational player to stumble into their game, many are also counting on generating a tiny per-hand profit off the mistakes their fellow professionals make.

There’s a simple reason online games work this way. Speed. Online games run much faster, often three-to-four times faster than live games. So, where you might play 25 hands an hour live, you might play 75-100 hands an hour online.

Second, you can play multiple tables online, increasing the number of hands you play per hour to 500, 1,000, or even more. This speed creates a hyper-competitive environment. Where a recreational player usually won’t get hurt playing 2,500 hands a month, if he plays 25,000 hands or more a month online, he will get slaughtered.
In practice, recreational players rarely play that many hands

online, because they get beaten so badly and so quickly they go broke before they get to that number.

The guys who put in that kind of volume are professionals. And as I said above, even the pros have to be careful, since they’re always in games with other pros. Sometimes a given player will be one of the best pros at that level, and the huge volume of hands will work in his favor. Other times, usually unwittingly, the player will be making mistakes that other pros can take advantage of. This can cause the player who is multi-tabling and racking up tens of thousands of hands to lose a lot of money very fast.

If you play online cash games, you’re often sitting on the edge of a knife.

Despite the bad news, there are still benefits to playing online. First, you can start with almost no money. The standard buy-in for a $0.01-$0.02 blind game is $2. Even my five-year-old son can afford that. (No, he doesn’t play poker. Yet.)

Second, the upside is essentially unlimited. If you become one of the world’s best online players, your hourly rate can rise well into the four figures. And you can get those win rates on a near- daily basis with no travel.

Third, high-volume online players often get substantially more perks and cashback from the card room than live players.

Fourth, online poker affords the obvious benefits of playing in your pajamas, flexibility in setting your schedule, and so forth.

Finally, if your poker goal is to become the very best player in the world, it’s absolutely mandatory that you focus primarily on online play. Because of the high win rate upside, the best players play online. The only way to join their ranks (and ultimately beat them) is to play against them on a daily basis.

Despite the appealing factors, the negatives of playing online are many. First, the games are much tougher, even when played for smaller stakes than typical live games. This reality has left

many hapless, broke souls to mutter incoherently about rigged deals, collusion, and so on.

What’s going on? In the vast majority of cases, these players have run into a buzz saw of tables filled with superior players. When you lack the skills to compete, it’s no help that the hands come at you one after another at a breakneck pace.

Second, even if you’re a strong player for your online level, the per-hand win rate is much lower than live play. While you can make up for this—and more—with increased hand volume, the lower your per-hand win rate, the bigger your bankroll has to be to cover the swings. Online play, therefore, is characterized by prolonged and often utterly brutal downswings. Again, this is true even if you’re one of the best players for your level.

Third, many online sites are not reliable, safe places to keep your money. I doubt I need to elaborate on this problem.

Fourth, the legal and regulatory environment for online poker is always in flux and in the United States, at the moment of this writing, the picture is bleak.

The bottom line? If you’re a hardcore personality, and your ultimate goal is to be one of the world’s top players, you need to play online. Otherwise, for you the negatives of online play may very well overwhelm the positives.

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