Tips for Enjoying Your First Live Poker Experience

Guide to playing live poker

After years of playing online poker, you finally screw up the courage to visit a casino and play live poker. While the game is the same, there are many differences between online poker and offline poker that you need to be aware of before you go. Familiarize yourself with the casino's house rules as they may differ in some areas from what you are accustomed to playing online.

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The way I got better at live was just talking through hands with people constantly. Constant hand review got me over the hill - it's the hard work that gets you there. I made it a goal to post in 3-5 hand analysis threads in the cash HA sub-forum. After a week, you're going back and forth on like 30 hands and it speeds up the improvement rate rapidly.


CardsChat member since Aug 2010 with over 7000 posts in the forum

Pre-game Preparations

Have a plan. Don't slip five $100 bills in your wallet and figure you'll see how long you can make it last. Chances are good you'll come back with a bruised ego and an empty wallet. Figure out how much you are willing to lose and take that amount plus an extra $30 for food and drinks.

If you're playing in a live poker tournament, plan to arrive at least 30 minutes before the scheduled start. Most casinos require poker players to have a player's card. It'll take a few minutes to sign up for one and another few minutes to register for the tournament at the cage, so give yourself time. You definitely want to be in a seat when the cards fly.

If you're playing cash, check the wait time before you leave on Bravo Poker. If your casino allows it, call ahead to put your name on the waiting list before you leave. Again, you will want to register for a player's card, especially if you think playing live poker could be a regular thing. You can earn comps fairly easily that can be used for free food at a casino restaurant.


Live poker etiquette

The biggest change for many online players making the transition to live play is paying attention. Online grinders are used to a notification when it is their turn to act and another beep when the clock is winding down. When playing live poker cash games or tournaments, players are responsible for knowing when it is their turn to act.

When it's your turn to post a blind or ante, put your chips out as soon as the dealer has finished awarding the pot from the previous hand (don't put them out too soon, or the dealer may think they were involved in the last hand). It's annoying to the rest of the table if the dealer has to keep prodding a player to post a blind or ante. Don't be that player.

After the cards have been dealt, pay attention to the action and be ready when it's on you. You need to know if the pot has been raised and how many people are in the pot before it gets to you. Never act out of turn. If you are unclear, ask the dealer if the action is on you.

When playing cash games, most players tip the dealer a buck or two after they win a pot. This is not mandatory, but it's a good practice. After all, the games would not exist were it not for dealers.

Many casinos have servers that bring food and beverages to the table. They usually offer complementary beverages (soft drinks, coffee, or bottled waters) while also taking orders for alcoholic drinks. Again, it's a good idea to tip the server a buck or two as well, even if you opt for a free drink.

Another no-no is to speak when you are not involved in a hand. Don't be a distraction to the other players.

Live poker betting

Perhaps the biggest adjustment to make when transitioning to live poker is handling chips. Many rules dictate how you handle your chips, from the way they are stacked (keep them neat) to how you bet. Memorize these before you go.

Live poker oversize chip rule

The oversize chip rule:

This rule frequently trips up unsuspecting players. Let's say in a $2-$5 cash game, you toss in a $10 chip intending to raise. If you don't say anything, it's just a call. This is the oversize chip rule. If you toss in a chip that represents a value larger than the existing bet and don't say anything, it is interpreted as a call.

If you intend to raise, get into the habit of announcing, “Raise” to the table and then call out the amount. So in the scenario above, you would say, “Raise to ten” and then put your chip in the pot.

Another workaround is to always use at least two chips when betting. In the scenario above, if you tossed in two $5 chips without saying anything, it would be considered a raise to $10.

Make your bets clear

Unclear bet:

Another scenario related to the oversize chip rule occurs less frequently, usually in tournaments. Let's say the blinds are 100/200. You limp into the pot and both blinds do likewise. It checks to you after the flop. You toss a red 5,000 chip into the pot and proudly announce “Five.” Your intention is to bet 5,000.

Whenever the size of a declared bet can reasonably have multiple meanings, the bet will be valued at the largest amount possible that does not exceed the value of the pot. In this scenario, since the big blind is 200, a bet of five could either be 500 or 5,000.

If the amount of the pot is less than 5,000, the bet will be 500. If the pot is more than 5,000, the bet will be 5,000. In this scenario, the pot would only have 600 chips (your 200 plus the small and big blinds), so the bet would be 500.

Again, you can do two things to avoid this happening: Enunciate your intentions clearly “Raise, five thousand” or toss multiple chips into the pot five 1,000 chips.

Betting with forward motion

Forward motion:

If you push chips forward, it may be considered a bet even if you don't release them. Be sure of your action before you handle your chips. Many tables feature a line on the felt. If chips go over that line, they are considered in the pot. There is no turning back.

Put your big chips in front

Big chips out front:

Every player at a table has the right to have a reasonable idea of how many chips each of his opponents have at all times. Most casinos require you to keep your highest denomination chips visible. Don't hide your large chips behind stacks of smaller denomination chips. If an opponent complains that your large chips were not visible, the floor could hand you a penalty. Repeat offenders could be shown the door.

Pay attention to your chips

Pay attention to your chips:

Poker rooms are not always well lit. Live poker tournaments use many denominations of chips (at the beginning, you may have four different colored chips representing 25, 100, 500, and 1,000). Be sure to stack your chips by color so that you won't inadvertently throw in two black 500 chips when you intended to bet two navy blue 100 chips. Once you toss the chips into the pot, you can't get them back.

Protect your Cards

Protect your cards

The lack of personal space at a card table is a big adjustment. Tables with nine or 10 players don't leave a lot of elbow room. It's inherent for players to protect their cards, not only from the prying eyes of your table mates (trust no one), but also from an overzealous dealer who may think you have folded.

Get a card protector to place on top of your cards. This should signal to the dealer that you are still in the hand. You may say something to a player next to you, like, “This beer is cold.” If a dealer is at the end of a long shift, he may hear “cold” as “fold” and grab your cards. Once he pulls your cards into the muck, your hand is dead, and any chips you have already put into the pot will stay there. A card protector should keep this from happening. If you don't have a card protector, use a chip.

Watch the Tournament Clock

Most casinos have monitors scattered throughout the room. During a tournament, the monitor will display the tournament clock, the current level and the next level, how many players are left, and the average chip stack.

The clock is important because you need to know when late registration ends, especially if it's a re-entry tournament. Players with short stacks and deep pockets will frequently shove with any two cards to try to lose so they can rebuy a full stack. That presents a good time to gobble up some of these short stacks.

The number of players left in a tournament is key because you want to be aware of when the money bubble draws close. The average stack size is always good to know as it is a way for you to measure yourself against the rest of the field.

Gathering Intelligence

Gathering intelligence on poker players

If you're an online player who relies on a HUD for scouting your opponents, you may feel lost in a live setting. Generating intelligence is difficult for live players, even experienced professionals. It's more difficult to gather intelligence in multi-table tournaments than cash games because tables and players are constantly changing. However, you can take several steps to glean information about players at your table, and the effort is worth it if you know what you're doing.

The crucial element to gathering intelligence is to ditch your cell phone. Too many players pick up their phones as soon as they muck their cards. If you're not in a hand, you should watch the action and take mental notes. It's important to know if a player across from you raised pre-flop with 8-9 suited, or if another one slow-played her pocket kings. You won't get that information if you are playing CandyCrush or texting your buddies between hands.

For more tips on how to spot live poker tells, click here.

Avoid the Booze

Avoid alcohol when playing poker

Poker is a social game, and many regulars in live casinos like to drink beer while they play. But poker is also a game of decisions, and any amount of alcohol in your system can impair your conceptual abilities. Resist the temptation to partake, but do be sure to hydrate while playing. Water is the best drink, but most casinos offer complementary soft drinks and coffee as well.

Level of Competition

Level of competition at live poker games

In general, the level of competition in live poker will be a little higher than what you will find at low-stakes online poker, which is where many beginning players learn the game. The larger buy-ins for live poker scare away many inexperienced players.

The same rule for online applies for live as well the competition increases at the higher stakes. If you're a newbie, no matter how much success you've enjoyed online, start your live journey at the lowest stakes you can find. Most casinos offer either $1/$2 or $1/$3 NLHE. You may have to be put on a waiting list, but don't be tempted by a $2/$5 or $3/$6 table with an immediate opening. Stay in your lane.

If you are the newbie at the table, don't be intimidated if many of the players seem to know each other and the dealer on a first-name basis. Just because someone is a regular poker player doesn't mean they're necessarily a good poker player.

Other Live Options

Besides casinos, other options for live play include home games and pub poker tournaments, which are growing in popularity around the nation, thanks to the Bar Poker Open. The BPO is a network of pub poker leagues and hosts two national tournaments each year one in December at the Borgata in New Jersey, and one each summer in Las Vegas. If you don't live near a casino, search the name of the nearest city and “Pub Poker” and see if you can find a friendly league of like-minded poker fanatics.

Home games can be fun, too, but make sure you are playing with people you know and trust. The same rule applies regarding how much money to take a home game as it does to take to a casino. Don't bring more than you are comfortable losing.

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