10 Lessons I Learned Playing Live Poker
27 Aug, 2020
After eight years on the Internet I was a winning poker player up to $200NL, but I had never sat down at a real poker table.
I felt something eating away at me as time went on. My only experience of playing poker in real life was in college with friends, and at a few casual home games with drinks. I had never been to a casino and played the game competitively.
I needed to find out if I actually had it.
From the comfort of my computer chair I could shove all-in on the river as a bluff against an avatar on a digital screen, but could I actually do it against a real person with real money in front of me? Or was I just going to watch videos of other people doing it on YouTube and never know? The fear of not knowing was getting worse than my fear of new social situations.
So in 2015 I stepped in to my local casino to play poker for the first time.
I played locally for around 6 months, then started getting flights to play at the bigger casinos around Europe. I went for the big tournaments, but I only really cared about the cash games. You get the real experience of poker from cash games.
Anyway, the following are the 10 biggest lessons I learned after moving from online to playing in casinos.
1. Playing live poker is an experience.
There is nothing like sitting at a table and gambling against people you have never met. It is a unique situation where you can sit with people from all walks of life, yet you are bonded by a single game.
It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, or what you do for a living. If you put your money on the table and follow the rules of the game, you are a poker player like everyone else.
I can’t think of anything else that comes close to the social melting pot that is live poker. I have sat with professional poker players, successful businessmen, drug dealers, college students, pensioners, and everyone in between.
Poker is a game for the world, and every table you sit at gives you a fresh taste of it.
2. Gambling addiction is real.
Not that it ever wasn’t, but by going to the casino you can see what it looks like.
Gambling addiction is like an addiction to a computer game. You have an initial rush of excitement that hooks you, and you keep playing the game to get that same rush you once felt. Deep down you know you’re not going to get it again, but you keep playing the game because you’ve got nothing better to do, and the chance that you might means you can’t stop playing.
The winning no longer makes you feel anything, and neither does the losing. The losing just means you’ve run out of credits to play the game for a while, but you’ll be back as soon as you get some more.
The gambling addicts I’ve met know they’re addicted, and were hooked by a slot machine, blackjack, or roulette (the wheel). They oscillate between these games and the poker table for a change of pace during their stay in the casino, which is now their second home.
Gambling addicts are not bad people — they’ve just been caught by something that was out of their control.
I’m just one of the lucky ones to not get caught.
3. The casino gives you a hangover.
Nobody told me how much the casino can take it out of you.
Focusing on cards and keeping track of the size of pots whilst under the influence of the intense lighting and constant action of the casino is mentally draining. It’s stimulating at the time, but you’ll need to recover the next day.
I do a lot of programming and writing during the day, but after leaving the casino at 4AM the night before, I do a lot of nothing instead.
The casino is a separate world to the real one; everyone is awake and time doesn’t exist. When you eventually leave your concentration levels are depleted, and there’s not much you can do the next day apart from rest.
It’s an exhilarating experience, but it’s not one that I can combine with a productive day job.
4. Look to see people for who they are.
Playing live poker involves having to deal with people lying to you. It’s all good fun, but people are going to say things in an attempt to take money from you, so you need to find the truth.
And the quickest way to see what someone is thinking is through their eyes.
Before playing live poker I was happy to take people at face value, but that trait is not helpful at the poker table. When reading people you have to look for the truth, and best way to get it is from their eyes.
Be careful not to pry too deeply, but the truth is in there somewhere. The hardest place to hide a lie is behind your eyes.
Thanks to poker I learned how to see people for who they are. I always thought I was a good judge of character, but I was blinding myself to the parts of some people that I did not want to see. I saw that some of my friends were not actually my friends, whilst others were the kindest people I knew.
Playing live poker helped me to lift a veil from the world around me. Seeing people for who they are is by far the most valuable skill I picked up from my time at the tables.
5. The dealer knows more than you think.
The dealer is the most observant person at the poker table. They watch each card, they calculate the size of every pot, and they always know who’s next to act.
The dealer sees everything.
They’ve probably seen as many (or more) hands of poker than you have, and if you’re new to the casino or circuit, they’re more familiar with the other players at the table than you. So don’t underestimate their knowledge.
There have been times where I could sense the dealer knew more about the hand than I did. Their body language and tone of voice intimated that they were aware of something that I wasn’t, and they were trying to figure out if I could see it too.
Dealers are not placed under scrutiny like players are, so they’re free to silently observe each hand as it unfolds without the pressure of being watched. People will inadvertently give information to the dealer that they’re trying to keep from other players.
You should never expect to get any clues from the dealer, but sometimes they give away information without knowing it.
The dealer is the extra player in every hand you play. Be aware of them.
6. Don’t splash the pot.
When you throw your chips in to the pot, the dealer needs to gather them to check that your bet or call is correct. It might not seem like a big deal, but splashing the pot gives them unnecessary work to do.
The dealer’s job is hard enough as it is, so don’t make it any more difficult.
And like I say, you want the dealer on your side. If you get on with the dealer, you will have more freedom when you play. They’re not going to give you any special treatment, because all players must follow the same rules, but they will be inclined to give you more control at the table without their interference.
They won’t interrupt you when you’re thinking. The won’t prompt you for your action when you’re already aware. They’ll let you play at your pace as long as it’s fair.
They’re small things, but they make a difference.
The more comfortable you are at the table, the better you play, and having a good relationship with the dealer forms a foundation for your comfort. They’re a human being like you, so say hello when you sit down, tip when you win a big pot, tip again when you leave, apologize when you make a mistake, and don’t splash the pot.
7. Poker won’t bring you meaning.
Poker can bring you money, but it won’t bring meaning to your life.
You’re not building anything, you’re not helping anyone, and you’re not contributing to the world. You’re just taking money from other people.
I had a dark night after a long session at the casino when I realized that playing poker wasn’t going to provide me with the life I wanted. I love the game and the mental combat that comes with it, but deep down I knew something was missing. I want to build things and make a difference, and playing poker full time was just going to turn my life in to an endless game.
You often find poker players talking about setting up a business one day, or moving in to lifestyle coaching in an attempt to fill the gap that poker can never fill. Poker is a great game, but that’s all it can ever be.
You’re better off being the businessman who plays poker, than being the poker player who wants to run a business.
8. The casino lifestyle isn’t a glamorous one.
Playing poker at a casino is made to feel awesome. The venues are classy, the action is buzzing, and the service is exceptional.
And aside from the delicious Chicken BLT sandwiches, it’s all a veneer.
The reality is that you’re just another source of money. You’re made to feel good so that you spend more time inside, but when you leave your sense of value falls from beneath you. The poker room is slightly immune to this effect because you’re not playing against the house, but the seduction is always around.
Playing poker is much easier if you don’t get sucked in to what the casino tries to offer. Be yourself and ignore the allure. At the end of the day you’re a mercenary, and the casino just provides the battleground.
9. Trust is a fundamental quality. You should look for it in everyone.
In the casino, trust is paramount. It’s the undercurrent that keeps the casino afloat.
The fact that you can leave thousands of dollars on the poker table, walk away, and come back knowing that every chip will be exactly how you left it is a deeply reassuring experience. It’s a level of integrity that’s hard to find in everyday life.
Trust makes your life infinitely easier. If you only work with people you trust, you completely avoid the effort and stress involved with protecting yourself in the event that something goes wrong. It allows you to do business and move forward with freedom.
The amateur you trust is more valuable than the professional you don’t.
10. Nothing beats pulling off a bluff in real life.
Pulling off a bluff online feels good, but pulling one off in real life feels incredible.
You can feel a big bluff when it’s coming. You’re on the turn, and you know your opponent doesn’t like the pressure. The river card hits the table, and now you know the only thing between you and taking the money in the pot is the courage to make the bluff.
Your heart is pounding through your chest. You subdue every vibrating fiber in your body and push your entire stack in to the middle of the table. You use all the emotional strength you have to produce the words “I’m all in” in the calmest tone you can.
And then you wait.
You just need to hold it together. It feels like an eternity, but this is why you’re here. This is why you play poker. One wrong move and your money is gone.
And then it happens.
Your opponents slides their cards in to the middle of the table, and the dealer starts gathering the chips. The valve is released, and you collect your chips and your self. It’s a moment of silent glory, and a deep contentment of knowing that you’ve still got it in you.
Winning money is the attraction, but the bluffs are the thrill. If anyone asks what pulls me to the live poker tables, it’s this.
Getting up from my computer chair and walking in to the casino was a scary move, but I’ll be forever glad that I did. I knew how to play the game, but playing live poker allowed me to see the people inside it. And that’s what made it so worthwhile.
I learned more about people in that first year than I’d ever learned before. It was a crash course in life, and I’m a more confident and open person today because of it. The world is less scary once you’ve ridden through your fears and pulled back the curtain on what you don’t know.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.
I’ve met both some of the best and some of the worst people at the poker table. But then again, to get the deepest experiences in life you need to be prepared to run in to the full range of human beings, and poker will deliver them to you like no other game in the world.
And then you’ve got to try and take their money.
I’ll always love poker. It’s not the career I want for my life, but it’s a damn good game. If you’re thinking about walking in to the casino for the first time to try it out, you’ve got my recommendation, whatever your reasons may be.
I just needed to find out if I had it.
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