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It is Not Real, is It.

A lot of online poker play has convinced me that at most betting limits, poker games on the Internet are a lot looser than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. I assumed from the get-go that lower-limit games online would be loose — they always are — and five or more players seeing the flop in an Omaha eight-or-better or hold’em game is to be expected at small betting limits. But when you’re playing $15-$30 Omaha eight-or-better and $30-$60 Texas hold’em, always in two games simultaneously and both are replete with five or six players, and sometimes more, seeing each and every flop — even when it’s raised — you know you’re in a different kind of environment.

My player notes reflect this. The vast majority of notes on the players I’ve confronted in Omaha eight-or-better and hold’em games — and there’s no overlap between them; I’m the only guy who’s meandering back and forth between them — read like this: “plays too many hands,” “cold-calls two bets with hands like A-J-5-4 mixed suits,” or “just about any two suited cards will do.” The examples go on and on, but the message is strikingly similar. These games are very loose. Even in my local casino, where the biggest Omaha eight-or-better game is $6-$12 and all the players are recreational and prone to play too many hands because it’s a very social game and none of the participants are going to get hurt by the size of the stakes, you won’t find folks cold-calling two bets with hands that weak.

So, what’s going on here, and why is it happening? I’m not sure, but I think the answer resides somewhere between the theories of Marshall McLuhan and the nature of abstraction. McLuhan, you may recall, is popularly known as the guy who spawned the catch phrase, “The medium is the message.” But as a pioneer in communications theory, he’s known for much more than that, and his theories have implications for most human endeavors, including poker. According to his biographer Philip Marchand, ” … McLuhan articulated his perceptions of media as extensions of the human body, and of electronic media, in particular, as extensions of the nervous system, imposing, like poetry, their own assumptions on the psyche of the user.”

If electronic media does have assumptions to impose on our collective psyche, they involve immediacy and abstraction in large quantities. For those raised on video games, the electronic media that defines the environment for these confrontations serves the same function as amusement park thrill rides. It provides all the sense of danger and derring-do without putting the participant at any real risk. After all, regardless of whatever aliens, supervillains, or mutant monsters have us under attack in a video environment, and no matter the drop angle and speed of a roller coaster, we remain safe, sound, and unscathed in the real world. And that assumption is laid, however unwittingly, on the psyche of many online poker players.

In addition, chip representations in online gaming have an impact all their own. The use of gambling chips instead of money was a stroke of genius for casinos. Aside from the practical reality that chips of different colors representing different denominations are easier to count than dollar bills, chips are psychologically easier to wager — and thus easier to part with — than real money. There is, I suppose, some sort of disconnect between those brightly colored gaming tokens and the money we spend on groceries and rent in the real world. Chips are an abstraction of money, and not the real thing.

If casino chips are an abstraction of money, then the graphic representations of chips in an online poker game is an abstraction to the second degree. And that’s why many online games are so loose. If chips themselves are more easily wagered than dollar bills, then video depictions of chips seem no more dangerous to many online players than bullets fired by villains in video games. Even though every online poker player is ultimately aware that real money is at risk, cold-calling a couple of bets with what is an abstract rendering of something that’s merely an abstraction itself seems not to be fraught with risk at all.

It’s easier to push a button and see a graphic rendering of chips move into the center of the table than it is to actually pick up a stack of chips and commit them to the pot yourself. And it’s far easier to push a stack of poker chips into a pot than it is to wager the same sum in real, spendable, outside-world dollars.

The implications of this should be clear. You’re going to find looser play in online games, so much so that I’d speculate that if you could take a couple of dozen players at random and track them, you’d find them to be looser players in online poker rooms than they are in traditional casinos. You can take advantage of this by betting for value with your good hands because you’re more likely to be called, and by bluffing less frequently for the same reason.

Don’t forget to keep a tight rein on yourself, too. You might not be immune from “LOP,” “Loose Online Play” syndrome, but now that you’re aware of it, things should be a bit easier. Be careful about the hands you play and don’t let your starting standards fall by the wayside because it seems only an abstraction of an abstraction that you’re wagering, and not real money itself. When you cash out, or have to infuse your online poker account with more dough because you’ve lost most of your playing stake, that abstraction quickly uncloaks and reveals itself as real money, and it’s then that you realize there’s a world of difference between taking risks as a poker player and playing video games. Even the late Marshall McLuhan, who may never have played a hand of poker in his life and died two decades before online poker became a reality, would have recognized that in a New York minute and seen the message as money and the medium as merely a graphic rendering of chips.

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