A poker player dips a toe into online pool

The author's avatar, upper right, squares off with its bald-headed nemesis, upper left, and three other players.
The author's avatar, upper right, squares off with its bald-headed nemesis, upper left, and three other players.Partypoker.com
/ Source: msnbc.com

I am staring daggers at the balding guy with the eyeshade who had just beat my nine-high straight with a jack-high straight that he pulled on the last card, but it isn’t fazing him in the slightest. That might have something to do with the fact that, since the game is unfolding over the Internet, he is completely unaware of my amateurish psych-out attempt.

Though I’ve been a recreational poker player for more than 30 years, I’d never ventured into an Internet card room, vaguely uneasy about the fairness of the games, the possibility of collusion and the inability to study your opponents’ style of play.

But on Friday night, I put aside my trepidation, pulled up a chair at my home computer and joined the estimated 2 million people who have played online poker, the vast majority of them Americans.

In doing so, I stepped into a legal gray area. A federal appeals court has ruled that the U.S. Wire Act applies only to wagering on sports, but the Justice Department still maintains that all forms of gambling on the Internet are illegal. My state — Washington —  has no law prohibiting a resident from wagering online and allows poker to be played in licensed card rooms. So, while I couldn’t claim I had the law on my side, I was able to find some comfort in the likelihood that neither was what I was about to do clearly illegal.

I decided to invest my $50 on Partypoker.com, the no. 1 poker site on the Web, which claims to have as many as 50,000 players online at a time during peak playing periods. Underlining the legal complexities of this particular cybertransaction, Partypoker is owned by a company in India that operates the site from a network hub in the British dependency of Gibraltar, which, unlike India, has laws regulating Internet gambling.

Checking out the action
My adventure actually began a night earlier, when I logged on to open an account and watch some games in order to be better prepared. Like most poker sites, Partypoker also offers games where newcomers can practice before playing for cash.

Because nearly all U.S. banks and credit card companies routinely decline transactions with online gambling operators, I had to go through an intermediary – e-Checks – which, after being given a checking account number and asking a few security questions, moved the money directly from my account to my newly opened Partypoker.com account.

Dropping in to watch a few games in progress, I was struck by the sharp graphics and sound effects of cards being dealt and chips flung into the pot. Not quite like sitting at a card table, but about as good as you could expect via a PC.

On Friday, at 7:30 p.m., I logged on, took a deep breath and waded into battle.

I had my choice of a variety of games – hold’em, Omaha, hi/lo Omaha, seven-card stud, seven-card stud hi/lo and tournament games – ranging from low stakes to high. To test the waters, I decided to join an eight-player game of seven-card stud – a game with which I am very familiar – at the lowest rate of play, 50 cent limit in the early rounds of betting and $1 thereafter. After watching play at the table for 10 minutes, I started off with $25 in chips, figuring I could go back for my second $25 later.

I was quickly assigned an “avatar” – a male character wearing a green sweater over a red shirt who appeared only half interested in the game. I wasn’t wild about his body language, but I didn’t have time to complain or inquire about getting a replacement as the first hand already was being dealt with lightning speed.

High-speed action
The first and biggest difference a recreational player must confront when playing online is the pace, which is torrid compared to that of a friendly neighborhood game. Each player has 30 seconds to respond, but “calls,” “checks,” “raises” and “folds” typically fly around the table much faster than that, and it’s easy to get caught napping if you get distracted or are too deeply engrossed assessing your hand’s possibilities.

I managed to click my way through my first hand without holding up the proceedings too badly, and was rewarded with a victory and a $5.75 pot.

I lost steadily for the next 20 minutes, struggling to find the rhythm of the game, but things appeared to be turning around when I hit a straight on my sixth card in a pot that still had three other players in it. Unfortunately, “Chrome Dome” spoiled it with his higher straight and, just 45 minutes into the game I was forced to return to the cashier for my second $25 in chips.

As I slowly built my bankroll back up during the next half hour, I noticed another difference between real world poker and virtual poker: Players enter and exit so quickly that it’s easy to forget that the guy in the gray suit is not the same player who folded when someone reraised him a few minutes earlier.

At the end of two hours – the time I had originally intended to quit — I’d fought my way back to slightly above even, $51.75. But the lure of adding to my bankroll persuaded me to stick it out for another hour.

Big mistake.

Concentration lapses
A couple of aggressive players jumped into the game about the time my concentration started to lapse. Several times I stayed around too long with mediocre cards as the new arrivals raised and reraised.

The low point came when I noticed just after clicking on the “fold” button that I tossed an open-ended four-card straight with two draws still to go.

A full house momentarily buoyed me, but I quickly resumed my losing streak and 8 minutes before my third hour ended I went “all in” and came out on the wrong end of a two-pair showdown with – who else? – my bald nemesis (albeit a different player than the one who drubbed me several hours earlier).

In assessing my debut in hopes of improvement next time – and I do expect I’ll play again at some point — I jotted down lessons learned during my baptism of fire:

  • Make sure you play in a distraction-free environment – no TV, kids, ringing phones, etc.
  • Set a time limit and stick to it.
  • Remain patient during the inevitable streaks where the cards aren’t falling for you.

And, most important, keep an eye on the bald guy.