Friday, August 12, 2011

Why Do People Play Cards More Aggressively Online?

I am a big fan of two rather different card games. Spades is a partner game that involves bidding, trumping, and taking tricks, while Texas hold 'em is a game of betting and shared board cards. Yet they have something in common: people play both a lot more aggressively online than they do in person.

In live tournament poker, it's usually two players to the flop and only rarely three. Many pots go to the lone raiser before the flop uncontested. Online players are much looser, and pots involving four players are more common. Online poker is also home to more "calling stations," or players who can't be bluffed off a marginal hand.

In spades, each player begins with 13 cards, so there are 13 tricks to be had in each hand. Online play is full of 12 and 13 bids, which can net players the most points but also put them in the most danger of being set. Live play, in contrast, has a greater share of 9 and 10 bids, where making the bid is safer and the game becomes an art form of avoiding bags.

The tendencies of online players are generally losing propositions. Conservative poker players rarely play more than 10 to 15% of their starting hands; play many more than this without an extremely solid post-flop strategy is asking for trouble. And players who routinely stretch their bids can be goaded into getting set if the other team underbids.

Perhaps online players aren't as skilled or aren't paying as close attention as live players. In poker, there's often much less on the line: players can enter online tournaments for a few dollars, while the buy-in for a live event is often around $100. So reckless play doesn't quite cost as much.

However, I would argue that to some extent, we all play more impulsively online, because of the web's anonymity.

In poker, there are certain situations where the pot odds dictate that you should call a bet on the river with just an ace high. This is much easier to do if you can hide behind a screen name than if you have to sit at a table full of people laughing at you after the hand and saying, "You called with ... what?!?"

In spades, I'll attempt a more borderline nil when paired with an anonymous stranger than I would with a friend I play with regularly. If it doesn't work out online, I can just leave the table in disgust with no real consequences, but in person, I might have to deal with a frustrated partner for the rest of the game.

A Fun Spades Endgame

This example is based off a play that one of my opponents made at a recent match. Suppose that your team is winning 499-341. You are one point away from winning, but also one bag away from going back 100 points.

The bids are:

Your partner: Nil
Opponent to your left: 5
You: ??
Opponent to your right: ??

Regardless of what cards you have, you should bid ... 9! You're almost certain to be set, of course, but with a successful nil your team will net 10 points for the hand and win without the risk of getting any bags. If you have a competent partner, she would only nil in this situation if it was pretty safe, given that she's first to act and that your team is well ahead. You can now focus on covering the nil without having to worry about how many tricks you take.