Are Online Poker Players Really Better Than Live Poker Players?

Guest Post by Steve Ruddock, May 28, 2014

Ever since the onset of online poker in the late 1990s there has been a debate raging, and I'm not talking about Sheldon Adelson or online poker legalization. I'm referring to the still unanswered question of which type of poker player has more skill, the one who plays online poker or the one who plays live poker?

Live poker players often scoff at online poker players, claiming online players are totally reliant on software and math and couldn't pick up on a tell if their life depended on it. Online players are equally dismissive of their live brethren, fond of intimating that live players have little understanding of the math behind the game and are deficient in everything from proper bet-sizing to game theory.

It cuts both ways as both Phil Hellmuth and Jon Aguiar demonstrate below:


So who are the more skilled practitioners? In this column I'll sort through all the rhetoric and dig deep into the online poker vs. live poker debate for the real answer to this question, as well as a few surprising findings along the way.

Let's start off by propping up and tearing down both sides of the argument a little, because…


Both variants require different skills

Most people seem to ignore this simple fact, but live poker and online poker are different games and require different skills. What will make you successful in one arena will not necessarily make you successful in the other arena.  

There is certainly some overlap and some core skills needed to succeed in both, but there are also a lot of skills required for online play that are simply not needed at a live poker table, and vice versa.

The best players in the world understand this difference exists:



Skills needed to excel at live poker

1. You must be able to stave off boredom, because unlike online poker, when you’re playing live you can’t just open up another table.

2. You need to keep meticulous records, because you cannot rely on tracking software and there are far more unseen expenses involved with live play, from gas money to tipping.

3. You must be able to focus on your opponents and spot tells and physical cues, something that is entirely unnecessary in online poker.

4. You must understand how to use game and seat selection to find the most profitable spot (you could wait an hour for a seat to open up in a live game), most importantly the seat change button; yet another aspect of live poker that doesn’t occur online.

5. You need to be well versed in multiple games, because live poker has fewer games to choose from and sometimes the best games running are in different formats.


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Skills needed to excel at online poker

1. You need to be able to multi-task (play multiple tables, watch HUDs, look up opponents) in order to get the most volume in, and to avoid the need to play high-stakes games. Online players generally prefer to participate in 12 $1/$2 NLHE games rather than in a single $10/$20 game, as it reduces variance, allows you to play more hands (read as: more rakeback) and the opposition should be softer.

2. You need to be able to make quick, rapid-fire, decisions because you’re going to be playing multiple hands every minute, especially if you’re a mass multi-tabler.

3. The ability to collect and analyze data is a must. This is perhaps the most critical skill in the modern online poker, as nothing will give you a bigger edge than understanding your opponents’ tendencies and analyzing your own play to formulate unexploitable strategies.

4. You need to have incredible tilt control as the decisions happen so fast. Because you are playing so many hands, and the decisions come one right after another it’s quite easy to get wrapped up in the game after a couple of successive bad beats, and complete monkey tilt is a real possibility when this happens.


So the skills required are different, but is there a difference in skill? And the answer is…


No, but online players certainly think so

Even though most of the old guard has come around and accepted online poker players as skilled players, online players still talk about live poker players very flippantly, and feel they are not fundamentally sound players.

Daniel Negreanu talks about this perceived mocking attitude in this short interview with the now defunct PokerRoad Radio:



So is there any truth to this notion? Are online players simply better versed in the fundamentals of the game?

In a study titled, Do pokers players know how good they are? Accuracy of poker skill estimation in online and offline players by T.L. MacKay, N. Bard, M. Bowling, D.C. Hodgins from the University of Nevada, the research team looked at 278 participants (all college aged) to see if online poker players had an overinflated sense of their skill level.

The participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire and rank their ability  on a score of 1-7, with a 1 being poor and 7 being excellent, and were also asked to describe their poker play (home games, casinos, and/or online) with the following breakdowns recorded:

online vs live poker study

The players then competed in a game of heads-up Texas Hold'em against a computer program which the researchers considered a "strong" opponent, and were graded on three separate scales; judged on the amount won, empirical luck and empirical skill.

Players were then asked to fill out yet another questionnaire asking them to rank how they feel they played against the computer.

So what did they find?


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Online players were no more skilled than offline players, but, they were more likely to overestimate their skill level and to have higher levels of "gambling-related cognitive distortion" --the illusion of control. In essence, an online player feels that luck is less of a factor in their outcomes (even in the short-term) than a live poker player.

Gamblers with a preference for skill games often have a greater illusion of control over outcomes when compared to those that prefer games of chance, and while luck is less of a factor it's still more of a factor than some players are willing to give it credit for.

The study is absolutely fascinating, showing that online poker players not only overestimate their skill level but also feel like they have more control over the game than they really do.


Caveat: Online poker games are tougher… relatively speaking

Before you start running around proclaiming that there is no difference between live and online poker I do have one caveat: At the same stakes online poker is a much tougher game than live poker.

A game of $5/$10 No Limit Hold'em online is an absolute sharkfest, while the same game in a casino will likely have at least two legitimate fish in the lineup.

The reason was already presented above, which is online poker allows players to play at lower stakes and increase their volume by multi-tabling instead of needing to play at higher stakes.

So a player participating in a live $5/$10 NLHE game cannot simply play the same game against the same competition online because $5/$10 games online are populated by players who have the skill level to play $25/$50 NLHE live but are multi-tabling online.

twitter Capture Adam Small Poker

Final thoughts

Online poker is now over 15 years old (yeah I know it's hard to believe) and despite the coalescing of online and live poker a rift still exists between the two worlds, especially between the old guard of live poker players who have never given online poker a chance and the online players who have preconceived notions regarding the math skills of these old school players.

I’ve always thought of this as an odd debate, perhaps because I came into poker right as online poker was getting off the ground in the late 1990’s, so I had one foot in each world and could see the differences which has given me a healthy respect for both live-only and online-only players, and even greater level of respect for the players that can crush in both worlds.

So before you go around blasting live poker players, or online poker players, think about the differences, and why a live poker player may not be as versed in math or why an online poker player may not care about tells.

We should have a respect for each other's abilities and not scoff at their weaknesses. After all, does a sprinter laugh at a marathoner's lack of speed, or does the marathoner giggle at the sprinter's lack of stamina?



Steve Ruddock

Steve Ruddock is a veteran writer in the poker and iGaming industry who covers nearly every angle of online poker in his job as a full-time freelance poker writer. Follow Steve on Twitter at @SteveRuddock



Further Reading:  

Titan Poker Benefits
Get Amazing Benefits by Signing Up

Poker and the Bible

texas hold'em

Texas Hold'em Poker Guide

poker better than sex

Why Poker Is Better than Sex


Previous articles by Steve Ruddock:

Poker Tournament Changes Are Chasing Away Amateur Players


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