Live Poker – Definitive Guide (2024)

  • 17 mins read

Why is the average skill level at a live poker table at higher stakes, so much less than an online table at lower stakes?

  • What are the differences between live poker & online poker, and how do these affect which you should pick? Why are live games significantly softer than online?
  • What’s the best strategies for the straddle (common in live games)?
  • How do you keep notes effectively when playing live?
  • Learn all this with our definitive guide to live poker.

Live and online poker compared

live poker advantages

A studied solid winning online poker player, will almost certainly be able to crush live cash games at significantly higher stakes than they are winning at online. However, many winning live players will struggle to beat some of the smallest stakes online. Why is this? Let’s start by looking at some of the key differences:

Live Poker – Comparison

Live PokerOnline Poker
Players can only play 1 table at any one time.Players can play a large number of tables simultaneously.
Players receive 25-35 hands/hour.Players receive around 60 hands/hour PER table.
The rake is usually higher than online games, however as it is usually capped if you are playing deep it is too your advantage.The rake is usually lower than live games, and you could even get a big percentage of the rake back via rakeback schemes (or equivalent promotions).
The opportunity for face to face social interaction, can attract many fun players. The fact the many live cardrooms are in casinos, can attract many gamblers. Only players who can be physically present will be able to play, limiting the game to players within travelling distance of the casino, and/or tourists (where appropriate).The fact the game is played on computer screens, is likely to not attract players mainly playing for social reasons. Even if the online poker room is part of a company offering casino games, even if weak players cross over they will go broke fast. Players from all over the world can play (subject to the laws of their own country, and the rules of the poker room).
Games can be capped as high as 200bb (or even higher – in some cardrooms you can match the biggest stack at the table)Games usually capped at 100bb.
Straddling is possible in most cardrooms.Straddling is not possible.
In many locations, only a few stakes offered, and only the lowest stakes run regularly – it may be impossible for you to move up in stakes in your location (due to not enough demand).24/7 games at micro, low, medium, and high stakes.
If players want to track their wins or losses, they must actively do so.Win/losses much more visible than live poker. Automatic tracking of results, via appropriate software.
Techniques for working out ways to spot frequency information must be learnt.Key frequency information can be seen in real time via HUDs (where allowed).
If players want to study spots later, they must conscientiously remember to note down hands.Automatic hand histories, which can be imported into appropriate software for study.

Why is live significantly softer than online?

  • If you are playing online you have to compete against players from all around the world. Of course, this is subject to county restrictions at your online cardroom.
  • The weaker players are going to go broke sooner,leaving you with a stronger player pool. This is due to the much faster pace of online poker (more hands/hour). Also, the best players able to represent themselves multiple times across lots of tables.
  • Online poker usually requires electronic deposits. Thus, you can see how much you are winning or losing much easier than live poker. This means losing players will be alerted faster in black and white terms.
  • Online players are more likely to work out how to get the information they need to become better. All of which is readily available online for free, and is not a secret. Many live players may not ever have studied poker, and wouldn’t know where to start.
  • It is also easy to kid yourself when playing live that you are a winning player. This is especially true if you don’t keep actual records. Or, your bankroll is replenished from outside sources (such as another job).

weakest players are protected longer

Put another way, it can also be said that the weakest players are protected for much longer live than online.

In low stakes live games, you will see a lot more limping and donk betting. The weakest players will be found out so much sooner online. They will be left in no doubt they are losing after a while. Eventually have to learn how to play better, or quit (unless they can keep replenishing their bankroll from other sources).

Weak players who play live, often replenish their ‘bankroll’ regularly from non-poker sources (e.g. a job). Or, maybe have sat down at the poker table because they just lucked into a big win at a table based casino game. Their main aim may be having fun. Do you see them regularly playing casino games which have negative expectations? The feedback system for unstudied players isn’t that great. They could convince themselves they are a winning player when they are not. Or, if they are a losing player convince themselves they are just getting unlucky.

Should I play live or online?

This does not necessarily mean you should play live poker instead of online poker. Your aim is to have the highest average winrate per hour (bb/hour) over a large sample size. Remember you can play a large number of tables simultaneously online. This means even if you have a small winrate per table, as long as your strategy is repeatable across multiple tables, you could win a lot more per hour of play than live games. If you are confident you are winning at your stake level, it should be no trouble at all to find games running 24/7 at the next stake level online. However, live poker stakes are determined by local demand.

In order to win consistently at all but micro-stakes online, you will have to understand how to build a proper poker strategy. Compare this to many winning live players have through trial and error, or basic study, worked out only the tactics for beating the current state of their game.

This is why the live player, who understands proper strategy, can understand how to start to deal with any type of poker game – be it live or online. However, the live player who has never studied proper strategy, and is relying on tactics, will find it hard to move up in stakes live, or win at any sort of meaningful stakes online.

We suggest you study poker the right way, to give you the best opportunity to beat any game. Track your results, and decide what is best for you.

Straddling

poker straddle

In live poker cash games, there is often the option for a player to put in a straddle. We will discuss what exactly a straddle is, and whether you should partake. Whether or not you partake in straddling yourself, if someone has straddled this will have massive consequences for your strategy – we will discuss exactly what you must think about in straddled pots.

What is the UTG straddle?

  • In Texas holdem, every hand usually starts off with the player on the left on the button posting a small blind, and the player on his left placing a big blind. The big blind is often (but certainly not always) double the small blind.
  • The player on the left of the big blind places the UTG straddle, and is usually for (but certainly not always) double the big blind. e.g. in $2/$5 live poker the straddle is normally $10, in $1/2 live poker the straddle might be $4 or $5 depending on the cardroom. Players can straddle UTG in most live poker games.
  • The difference between the straddle, and the other blinds, is that the straddle is usually optional (although all the players on the table may agree that everyone will straddle, when they have the option).

If UTG straddling is optional, should you partake?

  • Imagine you noted how much money you won or lost in every single hand you played in full ring live cash game poker, noting down your position each hand.
  • If you had a reasonable sample size, even as an overall winning player you are likely losing from both the small and big blinds. This should not be a surprise – even if you put in no further money in preflop in these positions you have lost your blind.
  • If you do put money in, unless you manage to take the pot down preflop, you are guaranteed to be out of position postflop if you are in the small blind, and quite likely to be out of position postflop if you are in the big blind. This makes it harder, all things being equal for you to win the pot, especially if not playing short stacked.
  • In isolation, clearly putting in a third blind in the UTG position (when you don’t have to) is not to your advantage. The fact that you get to act last preflop, does not make up for this – you will still likely be out of position to one or more opponents on upto three streets postflop.

If you find a game where others are straddling and you are not, this is great for your bottom line (of course, if you morally have a problem with this, that is another matter).

So why do players straddle?

  • They usually want to make the game bigger for a variety of reasons (they may be action junkies, they may have lost a buy-in or too and want to try and get their money back quicker, or they may be winning players wanting to turn a ‘boring’ game into something more interesting).
  • Let’s say you are playing $2/$5, and the majority of players have a lot of cash behind (i.e. you are playing deep). Let’s say for whatever reason pots are remaining relatively small, then by encouraging players to straddle pots usually become bigger – some players will be playing out of their comfort zones in these straddled pots, other players may tilt after losing a bigger pot that they wouldn’t do in a smaller pot, and the list goes on. If your reason for straddling, is that you feel it will encourage others to do so as well, and you feel the bigger game will be better for your bottom line then go for it! Many recreational players seem to want to defend their straddle, when they shouldn’t – and, as a studied player you can take advantage when you are in position.
  • When you are playing $2/$5 live cash, there may be players in your game you would love to play at $5/$10, especially when they are playing deep. However, for whatever reason they won’t join the $5/$10 game, but will play in a game that is effectively $2/$5/$10. This is interesting as the $2/$5/$10 is actually a bigger game, than the $5/$10 game they won’t join!

However, if you start straddling because you think it has a positive expected value, but no one (or the majority of players) joins the party, you should stop.

Treat Straddled pots differently from non-straddled pots!

Whether or not you are straddling when it is your turn, in straddled pots you must absolutely take the following factors into account:

Effective Stacks, SPR, Playability

In straddled pots, remember the game has become shallower from the outset. Imagine you are playing live $2/$5, and everyone has $500 in front of them. Each player has 100 big blinds (without deducting the blinds, or straddle). If instead you are playing the same game, but the UTG player has put in a $10 straddle, each player only has 50 big blinds (without deducting the blinds, or straddle). This means there is going to be a significant reduction in the SPR going into the flop.

Profitability

As the effective stack sizes become shallower the following hand types will become…

…more profitable, all other things being equal:

  • Premium pairs (e.g. KK)
  • Premium high card hands (e.g. KQs)

The main reason these hands become more profitable, is that you are more likely to realise your equity as your opponents won’t be able to get you to fold your hand on certain runnouts than if there was more money behind.

…less profitable, all other things being equal:

  • suited connectors (e.g. 98s)
  • small pairs (e.g. 22)

The main reasons these hands become less profitable are:
(1) your implied odds of making your flush/straight with the suited connectors, or your set with your small pair decrease
(2) it will be more difficult to perform a semi-bluff, as it will be more difficult to get your opponents to fold

Consider different sizing

Having said that, you have a say in what the SPR is going to be on future streets with your bet sizing decisions (whether that be open raises, 3-bets etc.). In a straddled pot, if we think a lower SPR going into the flop, would be more advantageous for us (perhaps because we think we have a postflop skill edge over our opponents) we can size in a different way than we would in a non-straddled pot.

For example, in a $2/$5 game ($500 stacks):

  1. we might open raise to $20 (i.e. 4x the BB). Let’s say we do this in MP, the button calls, and the blinds fold. The SPR going into the flop is 480/47 = 10.2
  2. however in $2/$5/$10 pot we might open raise to $30 (i.e. 3x the BB). Let’s say we do this in MP, the button calls, and the blinds/straddle fold. The SPR going into the flop is 470/77 = 6.1. If instead we had stuck to our 4x open raise, and got the same action, the SPR would be 4.7

Stealing

It is easier to steal (that is raise in late position, hoping the out of position blinds fold) when there are just the standard two blinds to get through, than three blinds. All things being equal, you will want to do a lot less stealing.

When you are in the blinds

  • The small blind becomes harder to play, as you still have 2 (instead of 1) players left to act. They both have position on you preflop and onwards.
  • The big blind is also harder to play, as you still have the straddler left to act , ho has position on you both preflop and onwards.

In both cases, we would suggest squeezing and 3 betting more. Your aim is not to give the remaining blind players an incentive to call in position (and thus not allow them to realize their equity).

Button straddled pots

  • There is a less common straddle, which you will sometimes see, which is a button straddle (as the name implies, in this case the button places the third blind, instead of the UTG player). Usually the small blinds acts first preflop, and the button last preflop.
  • In this game, the small blind and big blind have it particularly bad – of course they are being forced to put money in preflop like any other Texas holdem hand, however this time they have to act 1st and 2nd preflop!
  • The button, on the other hand, gets to be in absolute position on all streets (including preflop, unlike normal). This is great for him, and button straddling is lot better than UTG straddling!
  • You will find the small blind and big blind (correctly) fold more often than a non-straddled game, if there is a button straddle. This means if you are opening the pot in the UTG-CO position, you have less players to get through – only 1 blind (the straddle) remains. So, if folded to the CO, a steal often only needs to work versus 2 players (the button, and the straddle).
  • In an unopened pot, where the small/big blinds have folded, if it is folded to us in the UTG-CO positions we should use larger sizing than in a non-straddled game (all other things being equal). We want to give the button a worse price to continue.
  • If we face an opened pot, generally we are looking to 3 bet or squeeze. The reason is if we just call, the button is likely to get a great price to come along – as he gets to pay a discounted price to call having put in the straddle, and he will have the benefit of position.

Live Poker note-taking

Why must you take live poker notes?

live poker note taking

Playing poker without making notes, is not a great idea if you are looking to improve your game. Whatever your experience level, you will for sure make a lot of mistakes whilst playing. Sometimes you will not realise you have made mistakes. It is important to capture complete and accurate live poker notes. This is so you can analyse these in a fair way later.

As soon as you sit down at the table, you should note the following (and update this, should anything change):

What information should I note?

  • Information about the game conditions, e.g. date / location / stakes / minimum & maximum buyins

Then for each hand of interest, you should note

  • Your cards?
  • Your position?
  • All the actions, on each street for every player involved.
  • A description of all players involved.
  • If there was a showdown (or any players voluntarily show their cards) what did you see?

Example of good live poker notes

Date: Jan 8, 2023
Location: Pete’s homegame, New York (takes place weekly, with the same player pool – so all players know each other)
Stakes: $2/$5
Buy-in: $200-$1,000

We are playing 9 handed, and this is the first hand of this week’s homegame
Hero, who has $1,000 to start the hand, opens AhKs in the UTG position to $20 (this is hero’s usual open size, and also the usual open size for the game).
Henry, who starts the hand with $1000, calls on the Button
Henry is a winning TAG, he a regular at this weekly homegame – and I know he studies & plays poker regularly
John, who starts the hand with $750, in the SB position, who is a loose passive 60 year old recreational player completes – he is also a regular player at this weekly homegame, but he doesn’t play any other poker.

There is $60 in the pot, going into the flop, which comes:
Kc 6s 5c
Hero cbets $50
Henry raises to $200
Hero calls, John folds

There is $460 in the pot, going into the turn, which comes:
Th
Hero checks
Button checks behind

There is still $460 in the pot, going into the river, which comes:
9c
Hero checks
Button bets $450
Hero folds
Notes: Should I consider re-raising Henry on the flop? Should I call the river?

Save time at the table

You should use shorthand to save time whilst at the table. The more time you are focusing on the game the better. Something along the line of the following will still capture all necessary information, which you can use to write up a full hand history (including notes about players, your questions about the hand) shortly after the game. You can also do this during the game (if you are not involved in a hand, and it doesn’t seem interesting).

9h H AhKs UTG 20, BUT Henry (1000) & SB John (775) call
F Kc6s5c H50/c, B200, Sf
T Th x
R 9c Hx, B450, Hf