Thursday, June 3, 2010

Are the “Learn to Play for Free” Poker Sites Good Learning Tools?

We’ve all seen the poker commercials for free poker sites over and over. They bombard us all the time. They are quite entertaining and often a bit humorous even. “Learn to Play Like the Pros” and “Find the Poker Pro in You.” Their basic message is always the same – come play with us and you can learn how to be a top notch poker player for absolutely free. It won’t cost you a thing.

Since you are reading this blog (and thank you, Grundy, for allowing me to contribute to it), you probably aren’t too worried about playing on free sites. You’ve moved past them or never played on them from the start. However, if you are like me, you also have a lot of friends asking you for advice on how they can learn to play poker or get better at it. So, the question is, are the claims of the free poker sites true? If our friends play free poker, can they become top notch poker players? Can they even become winning poker players?

I’m afraid the answer to those questions is an emphatic “Heck, no!” In fact, these sites will probably teach your friends to become losing players if they play there long enough.

Tell your friends to avoid the free poker sites at all costs. Anything they learn from them will probably be counter-productive to being a good poker player. Worst yet, and here’s the kicker, the reasons why these sites will not teach you how to become a good player are not the reasons you may think.

Many people believe “free poker” is bad for you because players play differently if money is not involved. We’ve all seen a player comment, “I wouldn’t have done that for real money.” Don’t believe them – they would have done that for real money and they have probably done it for real money. (Similarly, I wish I had a nickel for every time somebody published a poker hand in a forum and prefaced it by saying “I don’t normally raise here, but …” Yeah, right…tell me another one.)

The truth is that you can find all kinds of players when playing free poker, and most of them are competitive enough to legitimately try to win the “play chips.” The reason to be afraid of playing for play chips isn’t that people are not trying to win; it’s that they don’t know how to win.

Not only that, but the few players on these play sites who are decent players are drowned out by the poor players who readily throw around their bad advice (and criticisms). Let’s take a look at some of the comments I’ve seen on free poker sites recently and explore why they are so dangerous.

  • “Never raise pre-flop in Omaha Hi/Lo.” – Are you kidding me? Who knows where this kind of crappy logic originated, but the scary thing about it is that many players on at least one particular poker site not only believe it, but get right down angry when other players raise pre-flop. Players who do not believe in pre-flop raises (they not-so-affectionately call it “pre-flopping”) often stall when deciding to call the raise (presumably to punish the “pre-flopper” for raising), call players who raise pre-flop idiots, and often ridicule players when they raise pre-flop and don’t win the pot without ever realizing it’s not the number of pots you win, but the number of chips you gain or lose. These types of players are the worst you can encounter. Not only are they wrong, but they are so convinced they are right, they freely give out their bad advice to unsuspecting players – very dangerous, indeed.

  • “You should never bet after somebody is all-in.” – This may be my favorite online tournament fallacy. Again, this is something that many, many players who play free poker believe to be a cardinal rule of poker. As we all know, there are times it is unwise to bet when another player is all-in in a tournament. There are also times when you should bet into a dry side pot. Unfortunately, players who play the free poker sites like to create hard and fast poker standards so that they can play more “formula” poker and use their judgment less. This is a bad lesson to learn since there are no hard and fast poker standards in a game in which no two situations are ever the same. (NOTE: This comment also seems to occasionally rear its ugly head in cash games, too. How anybody can believe this in a cash game is beyond me.)

  • “I’d rather not get pocket aces, they are a losing hand.” – I was amazed at the number of times I saw this comment. What I noticed was that people who play free poker simply do not play pocket aces (or other strong starting hands) very well because they simply do not understand poker odds or choose to ignore the odds. A hand that is a 3:1 favorite still loses 25% of the time and will lose even more often if you misplay it. It’s amazing how players remember the one loss twice as long as any of the three wins and assume pocket aces are simply not that good.

  • “This game is mostly/all luck.” – This is what losing players say to justify their losses. Their ego can’t handle their incompetence. So, they convince themselves that they play well, and they are just unlucky. The second a player buys into this theory, he/she is a losing player. Don’t subject your friends to this nonsense.

Overall, free poker sites are just not what they are cracked up to be. You’ll get bad advice, see players trying to remove judgment from their decisions, see players ignore poker odds, and fail to take responsibility for their own incompetence instead of trying to better themselves through self-analysis.

If you want to give a friend a good start in learning how to play poker, I’d suggest buying them a good poker book or two, and then taking their money in some good home games. They’ll learn more and you’ll profit (for awhile, anyway).

This has been a post by amateur poker journalist Ken Carlson. If you like the article, please let him know in the comments.


  1. Hey, that guy's a pretty good writer. You should publish more of his stuff, Grundy.

    Just kidding - thanks for the opportunity to write an article for you.

  2. I liked the article as well. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. In almost all of the points that were made, you could also say: "That depends" ... depends on position, chip stacks, reads, etc. etc. Enjoyed the guest post. But I also enjoy the "Grundy" posts.

  3. Grundy is the man, isn't he.