McHaffie: MCU lesson 035 / Poker’s best training

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Poker Player newspaper in 2004.

This is part of a series by Diane McHaffie. She wasn’t a poker player when she began writing this series. These entries chronicle the lessons given to her personally by Mike Caro. Included in her remarkable  poker-learning odyssey are additional comments, tips, and observations from Mike Caro.

Diane McHaffie index.

Diane McHaffie is Director of Operations at Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy. She has traveled the world coordinating events and seminars in the interest of honest poker. You can write her online at

Diane McHaffie

Lessons from MCU

— With bonus content by Mike Caro (pending) —

Lesson 35: Poker’s best training

The first time that I watched poker being played for real was on the Internet. It seemed like a less intimidating way to learn, because there’s not much embarrassment associated with being a rookie player.

So, I asked Mike, “What’s the best way for a beginner to learn how to play poker — online or in physical poker games?” He said there wasn’t a “really right answer.” He pointed out that some physical games are more useful learning tools than others.

Hoping to get lucky

For instance, playing poker at the kitchen table usually features weird rules and wild cards. Mike says these games have the potential to be more harmful than helpful. They consist of too many strange outcomes and players that bet on almost every hand, just hoping to get lucky.

This doesn’t make for good training. When you compete for real money in a casino, you need to learn to throw away most hands, playing only those that are profitable.

Typically, most home games are low-limit; therefore, the bets aren’t high enough to be meaningful. With little incentive, you and your opponents aren’t likely to be carefully considering the outcome of your decisions.

Mike says, “If you’re going to learn poker in the real world, instead of online, you should choose a game where at least some players are serious enough to make rational decisions. Yes, it’s more profitable if they aren’t playing seriously at all, but you can sacrifice that small profit now in order to train yourself to handle more serious games with bigger limits in the future.

“So, the concept here is that, when you’re learning to play poker, you actually do want to play against opponents who care a little about making good decisions. Once you’re experienced at the game, and you’re playing for more significant stakes, then you want to play against the weakest opponents you can find. But you’ll never recognize what’s weak and what’s not in free-for-all home games where almost everyone plays almost every pot. You’ll never master important poker strategies by playing weird games instead of the staples like hold ‘em and seven-card stud that supply most of the profit for winning players.”

If you’re going to start your poker career at a real table with live opponents, you should choose one where the stakes are comfortably small. Play against at least some opponents who are actually trying to compete. The lowest-limit games at a real-world casino might be the best training games for you.

My question is: Are you likelier to get a more profitable training session playing online, or in the real world?

Significant advantages

Watching the poker games on, I’ve noticed that there appears to be a large number of beginners, especially in the free, just-for-fun and lowest-limit games. I think those lowest limits are where I’d begin. The advantages are significant.

You can watch those games without being noticed. You can learn all the rules and procedures online without the pressure that you would experience at a traditional table. You won’t feel embarrassed by your inexperience. Online, you’re prompted when it’s your turn to act, and the antes and blinds are put into the pot for you.

When you get comfortable playing online and decide to play at a real table, you’ll find it easier to adapt to the procedures – because they’re essentially the same. Online is a very good place to learn to play and be comfortable learning — although it isn’t a place to master tells and psychology.

Most online poker rooms spread ultra-small-limit training games – even 10- and 20-cent limits — which real casinos can’t offer profitably, due to dealer costs and space limitations.

So, after discussing the good and the bad with Mike, my conclusion is that the fastest road to profitable poker for beginners is playing small real-money games online.

Other choices also may be acceptable for learning poker, but playing online for real-money at small limits is what I recommend. If you’re like most of us, soon you’ll check out your local cardroom for further challenges.  — DM

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