Is The Online Donkey An Endangered Species?

Short answer:  yes.

Back in October 2006, in the wake of Congress’ passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, I speculated on the new law’s possible impact on online poker.  One of my hypotheses was that the new law would make funding poker sites more difficult, thereby eventually chasing the weaker players off the sites.  Seven months later, I firmly believe that I was at least partially correct.

I have no hard evidence to support this claim.  In fact, Pokerstars actually broke its attendance record in the Sunday Million this past week.  Online poker isn’t shriveling up and dying.  But in the past year, the game has certainly evolved, and there has been a palpable decrease in the number of boneheads splashing around out there. 

First, and most obviously, the general climate surrounding online poker has taken a turn for the worse.  Everyone is aware of the new law, probably because two of online poker’s former landmark institutions, Party Poker and Neteller, have disappeared.  Players seeking to fund their accounts at the surviving sites have had to use alternate means.  And, in a sharp break from past practice, the World Series of Poker, which is owned by Harrah’s, has severed all ties with online poker.  This year, Harrah’s is not allowing any advertising for online poker entities whatsoever and is no longer accepting entries wired to them by a third party on behalf of any player.  In other words, Main Event entries won via online satellite will not be honored in 2007.  All Main Event participants must either 1) win a live satellite sponsored by Harrah’s; 2) personally wire ten grand to Harrah’s, Inc.; or 3) personally hand a teller at the Rio ten grand if they want to play. 

The online sites are continuing to run “WSOP Satellites,” but the package no longer includes an automatic entry and hotel accomodations for a week.  In fact, the “package” isn’t a package at all; upon winning a satellite, ten grand in actual cash is simply dumped into your online account, where it remains available for the player to risk (and possibly lose) before the WSOP ever starts.  The almost certain fallout is that the number of entries in the Main Event will decrease for the first time in many years (ever?).  The fallout for me personally is that I will not be focusing much on online satellites, which are really nothing more than regular tournaments with a $10,000 first place prize.  The hotel package offered by the sites was a real selling point for me. 

Anyway, back to my hypothesis.  In my opinion, today online poker is indeed lacking the rampant, seemingly endless supply of idiots that it once offered.  This has been pointed out by several authorities recently, including Anthony Holden in his curmudgeonly (but entertaining, and familiar–it eloquently covers many topics perviously discussed in this blog) sequel to The Big Deal, along with other observers ranging from respected Cardplayer columnists to countless poker message board contributors.

There are two reasons for this change:  the first is the legislation.  Bad online players need to be able to replentish their accounts.  When the government made this more difficult, many of them simply gave up on online poker.  For some, I imagine, the legislation served as a sort of wakeup call.  Having to establish an entirely new, less reputable way of sending money off into cyberspace for the purpose of gambling it away probably served as an awakening for thousands of habitual losers.

The second reason for the “donkey decrease” is the availability of relatively cheap expert instruction.  On a daily basis, extremely valuable, insightful information about poker is offered on websites like PokerXFactor, Cardrunners and 2+2.  All three of these resources either did not exist or existed in a severely diminished form only two years ago.  Today, any reasonably intelligent person can learn to play solid poker.  The requisite characteristic is nothing more than simple dedication.  And millions of people possess it in spades.  Poker is a complex game that involves exploitive strategies.  For that reason it has always been evolving.  But in recent times, that evolution has been happening at hyperspeed.

For instance, online multitable tournaments are completely different today than they were two years ago.  The prevailing strategy a couple of years back was to cling to your chips and avoid elimination at all costs.  As a result, a new aggressive strategy was popularized by Gus Hansen and other pros, in which “aggression” was embodied by the stealraise, especially in late position.  “Taking a stand” against the new breed of stealers was accomplished by calling in position with a decent hand, or defending one’s blind by calling the raise and playing a flop.  That was the tournament landscape at the time:  the active players wore down the table, firing multiple barrels pre-and post-flop when defenders forced them to.  Many of the aggressors were, in actuality, tight players, but as long as no one turned the screws on them, they were able to dominate through selectively pushing hard on the hands they had brought in for a raise.

The proper exploitive strategy against the stealraise was always known, and the idea of accumulating chips in tournaments rather than simply surviving was already being bandied about, but it didn’t gain widespread momentum until around a year and a half ago, when all the online instructors and a few books let everyone in on the secret:  simply reraise.  You don’t need a big hand.  If you’re out of position, or the stacks are shallow, or you just plain suck at postflop play, that’s ok.  Just reraise all in.  What is Gus Hansen gonna do when you shove a huge stack of chips in his face and he’s holding 7-4?  Fold, obviously.  For awhile, a lot of players–myself included–have had a lot of success employing this strategy against timid players and Gus Hansen wannabes alike.  I had a lot of fun doing this in live tournaments in particular.  Live tournament players tend to be way behind on the learning curve and today are still succeptible to this maneuver in the right circumstances.   

Online, the “reshove” caused a seismic shift in tournament play.  Where a preflop openraise on the button used to succeed with regularity, it quickly became (and remains) the Rodney Dangerfield of tournament poker.  It’s nothing more than an invitation to resteal.  About a year ago, everyone and their mother was taught that resteals succeed a high percentage of the time, and that even if a resteal is called, whatever hand you hold is probably at least 30% to win the pot against even the strongest holdings.  So bombs away!  The average player, who was once scared to put any chips into the pot, became a LAGtard.  And thus was born an army of restealers.  Picking up pocket aces on the button used to make me worry about whether or not I’d get any action from the blinds.  Now, when I see AA on the button, i’m licking my chops because I’m likely to get all my chips in against a resteal. 

The exploitive strategy against the restealers became somewhat prevelant at least six months ago, but is only now reaching widespread acceptance.  There are two things you can do to counteract resteals:  1)  call reshoves light; and, if the stacks are deep, 2) put in the third raise. 

The first strategy leads to a situation that was unfathomable two years ago but is now commonplace, and it goes like this:  about halfway through a tournament, with the blinds at 100-200 with a 25 ante, player A openraises from the cutoff for 650.  It is folded to the big blind who pauses for a second and then moves all in for 4700 chips.  The cutoff instantly calls, leaving him with only 1500 chips behind.  The entire table anxiously leans forward to see what hands are revealed.  The cutoff has A-9 offsuit, and the big blind has the 10-9 of diamonds.  Two years ago, everyone would immediately assume that both of these players were completely out of their minds.  Today, this hand is pretty typical.  The cutoff knew that the big blind was shoving a wide range of hands, so he made a stand with a hand that was likely to be favored.

The second strategy takes even more guts and goes something like this.   The scenario is the same, but both players have 10,000 chips.  The cutoff raises to 650.  It is folded to the big blind, who reraises to 2200.  The cutoff thinks for a moment and then moves all in.  The big blind folds, and the cutoff shows everyone J-8 offsuit and drags the pot.

This is the kind of poker that is being played now in online multitable tournaments.  No one, not even the poor players, is weak-tight.  Errors now tend to be errors of aggression, rather than errors of passivity.  The last bastion of crappy passive play–the most exploitable form of play–appears to be live tournaments, where the nitty player is alive and well.  But online?  Thanks to the recent legislation and easy access to instruction from very bright players, it’s a shark-eat-shark world.  What is the next evolutionary step?  Maybe it’s the kind of poker that was played in the 1980’s, when no one ever entered a pot with any kind of marginal hand and everyone sat around folding.  That would be amusing.

While most multitable donkeys have either disappeared or evolved, leaving the remaining players to continually adapt to one another, the situation is even worse in sit-n-go’s.  While sit-n-go’s used to offer a huge rate of return to any player who knew basic tournament concepts, this is no longer the case.  In fact, nowhere has the online landscape changed more than in this area.  What was once the province of donkeys looking to play a quick one-table tournament is now a total minefield.

The reason:  preflop sit-n-go strategy, especially near the bubble, is nothing more than a math problem, and a solvable one.  Because sit-n-go stacks are relatively shallow, postflop play ceases to exist, and the game always boils down to a single decision:  push/fold.  In the past year or so, several poker scholars have “solved” the correct strategy for pushing and folding hands in the various stages of sit-n-goes (and labeled this study “ICM,” which stands for independent chip modeling), and their solutions have not only been posted on websites, but have been taught in both online videos and live lectures.  Just as is the case with multitable tournaments, the only characteristic required for becoming proficient at sit-n-go’s, provided you have a modicum of intelligence, is determination.  In multitable tournaments, there are numerous adaptive strategies that can overcome whichever strategy is employed.  This is less true in sit-n-go’s, which can be more or less completely mastered.

So what happens when nine sit-n-go masters sit down and play a sit-n-go?  The results become almost random and the house takes its cut.  There are still very small edges that can be pursued, but pushing/folding on the bubble is something that there is an indisputably correct way to do, and there is nothing much anyone can do to counteract it when it’s done properly.  I began to notice that the overall quality of sit-n-go play was improving several months ago, and my solution was to drop down to lower stakes sit-n-go’s, where I imagined some idiots might still reside, allowing me a continued high rate of return.  Unfortunately, learning solid sit-n-go play is so easy that I’ve noticed decreasing numbers of ill-informed players remaining even at lower stakes.  There are still tons of expert players, many of whom are multitabling, at the lower buy-in sit-n-go’s. 

Sit-n-gos are really not worth the trouble unless a readily identifiable donkey is at your table.  It’s a shame, because I used to love them.

It appears that the final frontier for really shitty online poker play is in cash games.  It is in cash games that a smart player can employ one of the last weapons available to him against the much-improved masses:  game selection.  It is easy to tell, by looking at statistics, or by simply observing a cash game, whether a lousy player(s) is present.  There was a time–in the glory days when donks roamed the earth and sat in every game–when doing this wasn’t necessary, but I am now actively looking for dummies when I pick an online cash game.  Game selection is, quite simply, an integral part of the arsenal, and one that I’m not ashamed to resort to.

So what am I really saying in this windbag blog entry about how tough online poker has become?  That I’m disillusioned?  That I’m not good enough to make it?  That my adventure is over?  No, no and NO.  I’m doing quite well, thank you.

I do intend to do the following:

1) Play more live poker.  A little something called the World Series of Poker is almost upon us, so it shouldn’t be hard.

2) Play fewer sit-n-go’s and even more cash games.  I’ll miss my old addiction.

3) Try and stay a step ahead on the learning curve in multitable tournaments.  The answer to “what is Sugar D doing in this hand?” will hopefully be “I have no idea” more often than not. 


5 thoughts on “Is The Online Donkey An Endangered Species?

  1. Speaking as an average to bad player, I have noticed a decrease in bad to horrible players that are playing online. I suppose it is as Charles Darwin said long ago.

    So, does this mean you’re not going to focus that much on playing in this years Main Event?

  2. I swear the $.05/$.10 NLHE tables on Full Tilt are now populated exclusively with P5ers playing 6 tables at a time. Oh…and me…learning to love my inner LAGtard. At least Bodog is still pretty rich in donkitude at my (bankroll’s) level.

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