The Difference between Free and "Real" poker

Time and again in these forums, and elsewhere, you’ll hear poker sages tell you that free poker is so different from poker played for real money, and that players who think they’re good but play exclusively for play chips discover that they’re really not that good when they try playing poker for money.

I hear it said often enough that I have no doubt that it’s true.

However, I don’t hear so much in the way of details of how “real” poker differs from free poker. I’d love to know specifics about this. What sort of traps does playing a lot of free poker “breed” into a “good” free poker player? How should a free player change their game if they are in a money game if they hope to do well?

My own approach to playing here has been to treat my chips like they have value, in terms of I am trying to win the most chips the fastest and most reliable way I can. But for the chips I have on the table, I don’t think about them having any value, because I believe this results in poorer play. Rather, I am thinking about the math involved in an abstract manner, calculating the odds of my hand improving, guessing the likelihood that it is the best hand, weighing the pot odds, and figuring out how to size my bets to win the hand and get value. I’m also watching my opponents’ behavior in order to see predictable patterns that I can use to exploit.

I’ve been reading poker strategy, here and elsewhere, and trying to learn from it, while trying to come to an understanding of why it says what it says, so I can develop a self sufficient poker mind that can think independently and adjust to changing circumstances as needed in order to do well and win. And I’d say it’s been working, I’ve definitely improved as a player.

That said, a poker player has to play optimal poker strategy vs. the prevailing style of game he’s playing in, and this is what worries me: that I’m learning to beat players in free poker, who don’t treat the game seriously, and that this is distorting my understanding of the game to the point where all I’m learning will leave me with big holes in my game if I ever decide to try to play for money.

It’s never been a goal of mine to turn pro at some point; it’s only been my goal to become a better player and the best that I can be, while enjoying and appreciating the game for its depth and complexity. But the better you do at a thing, and the more time you put into it, the more you become willing to invest more than just time into your pursuits. If putting in some money to get to a better level of play is what it takes, what should a player know before going committing to that next level?

Puggy, I’ve sent you a friend req so I can respond to this with a PM. After you read it, you can "unfriend me, LOL, if you wish.

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Thanks, Alan. I’ll be friends with anyone here. You especially.

I should add, I’m not considering going into money play any time soon. I recognize that, if not for the bonus chips and promotions here, I’m a streaky, break-even player who does OK. I might be on the cusp of playing really well, but until I am able to get my win rate consistently up in the SNG tables, it’s not something I’d consider, beyond the occasional very cheap real-money buy-in games.

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I can’t legally play with money (age), so take my answer with a grain of salt, and I can only speak based on watching various streams, tournaments, and reading (my brother’s friend is also a major pro and taught me the rules and basics so I have some insight from him). The play here is, honestly, not all that similar. It’s most similar to play you see in micro micro stakes (think $.01/.02). The highest stakes play on here looks most like $0.05/0.1 play.

All of these are generalizations, obviously, and there are a decent number of good players where this doesn’t apply and it can be table dependent (I’ve been at really fun tables here, and really boring / goofy ones). But here are the major differences - on average:

You’ll see far fewer limped pots and more aggression pre-flop. No matter the stakes here you regularly see entirely limped pots multiple times per orbit. This doesn’t happen at higher stakes nearly as often. The reasons are pretty obvious. It makes the pot small - you are playing for bus fare - and by allowing 5,6,7 people into the pot if you do get action it’s very difficult to know where you are in a hand so it can be difficult to navigate. So, generally, you’ll see a lot more aggression pre-flop.

You see a lot less dominated hands being played. On here, it’s pretty common to see 3-bets or big raises pre-flop called with Q6++, A6o etc. You’ll also see a lot less goofy stuff like 36o being played similarly. Yes, in the situations those hands hit it’s very profitable - but most of the time you aren’t and it usually leads to these people losing a lot of chip. This is, in general, what you see a lot in micro-micro stakes. It’s why most micro grinders play a very tight-aggressive game and it’s consistently profitable for them - too many speculative / dominated hands get played. It’s boring gameplay, but it is effective.

Finally, there is much more concern with what your opponent’s range is and what my opponent thinks my range is. Calling on here is, in general, much wider. Bluffs and range bullying will be less effective here - on average - for that very reason. For many people they won’t let go of top-pair - sometimes even middle/bottom pair - let alone anything better. This is exploitable in a very obvious way, but it also makes bluffing and bullying less effective. The balance in play is also much less common on here and people only take certain lines when bluffing / value betting and it’s often obvious. Again, easily exploitable. I’ll often call off pretty clear spots where I’m beat just to make a note of how the person plays for later use because so much of the play is unbalanced.

I will say part of the challenge of this site is the difference in players though. You have people that play like the worst micro-micro stakes players alongside a small but not insignificant minority of reasonably skilled players. It can take some time to figure out which is which and that can mess with your game at a table for awhile.

Again - these are generalizations don’t get offended I’m probably not even talking about you!


With real poker you win an lose real money…

To illustrate, first take a paper towel and tear it up in small pieces and throw in it the trash: then, take a twenty dollar bill and tear it up and throw it in the trash…can you see the difference?



Very well said. Looking forward to playing with you @JakPak.

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It’s late and I have to get some sleep. I’ll get at you tomorrow or the next day Pugs. I have a lot to say in regards to this post and the questions it contains. I do play quite a bit of live pokers for $'s. Mostly low stakes ring games at $1/$3 $2/$3 and some $2/$5. I also have played many tournaments in low to med stakes with buy-ins from $100-$1700. I started playing on Replay end of Feb this year with 200K in chips because I relocated and now live 3 hours from my home casino. Later, friend request sent. P.S. I read @JakPak reply and he says some really good things in his post. Cheers. :slight_smile:


Puggy, its not so much … free versus $$$ , its more of a … Live versus Online. I used to play @ FullTilt, and I learned on free chips, but they had a way to earn real money by playing in 180 or 360 ppl SnG Freerolls, that only paid top 3… .01 - .02 - .03 …or… .02 - .03 - .05 … so winning a 360 person Freeroll SnG(mt) got you real monry to use. I then play’d to a point ( when they were shut down to USA players ) where I had like 80-90$.

At the same time during that point I play’d alot of “bar” Holdem tournies, and took 2 trips to Vegas, 2 summers in a row… I can say this… while your local bar tourney plays like a 15-50k MTT here, playing Live in Vegas for 1/2$ NL is nothing like playing online for 1/2$ back on FullTilt… didnt seem like it to me…

Free or real… you still have ppl playing who can’t afford to lose versus those who can. Live you have slower hands being play’d, and all the visual/audible clues as add’d information on your opponents. Whereas online , whether for $$ or free, you have very limited information that can be obscured by someone having a crappy connection to the net.

I found that even for real cash, online micro-stakes and very low stakes tables/tournies… play’d alot like they do here…even tho here its all free to play poker. You wouldn’t expect your local 50 seat Bar MTT to play like a 50-100$ 50 seat MTT in Vegas… and its not very often you can play those “free” Bar MTTs.

I’m a USA player who wont break the law, so can’t play Online for real cash. I kinda enjoy the “boiled-down” information you only get Online… after awhile just as a blind person can in ways see, an online player starts to “see” online “tells”. Its far easier to use “fake-tells” online, in my opinion, than Live. I’ve tried playing a few of those Bar MTTs just like I would online, ignoring all visual/audible clues… and I must say its actually effective.

Go play a 100$ buyin MTT in Vegas, versus your local Bar MTT thats free2play… and I think there’s your difference right there… :space_invader:


Speaking for myself, Replay has helped me play a much better live game…for instance, I don’t have to think when determining if 2 cards connect or not (ie 7-J, 8-Q etc) or whether I’ll play those 2 preflop cards.
Of course most players are looser when playing for free chips but I run across a lot of tables here that play their free chips like real money.
The only thing online play doesn’t show you is your opponents body language…just my 2 cents :grin:


Not thinking always helps my game

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should be all the same your suppose to be fine tunning your game here.
what irritates me the most is people that go all in every hand!!!
wheres the skill my 2 year old son can do that…

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I think this video shows some of the differences between top level poker and RPP. On RPP four players probably would have shoved preflop, but if not, then certainly 4 players would have shoved on the flop.

As it happened, there were four players in the hand holding 99, TT, AJs, and AKo, and AKo shoved the flop with the nut flush draw and the rest folded, including a set of tens. I can confidently state that this could never have happened on RP.

The commentary and analysis in this video is also very interesting.


Not quite. On RPP, all four players would have limped, along with some others. Then, facing the jam, the UTG+1 player that for some reason limped with 6 :heart: 2 :heart: calls, as does AJs and the set of tens. The pair of nines escapes barely scathed. Turn and river are relative bricks, 8c and 2s.

Meanwhile, floods of comments appear on The Fairness Debate’s thread about how live poker is rigged, “juiced for action,” using a faulty RNG, &c. The guy with 99 complains that he never makes inside straights except when he folds, before someone reminds him that he still would have lost to the flush.


I do not believe in luck yet I agree poker is a game of chance.
My best night playing for real money at a casino was very strange indeed.
They had a bad beet jackpot for those who had at least an “aces full” full house…
On my fourth hand after buying in I hit pocket 4s and three aces came on the board.
I won $1000 with a losing hand. A lady had the fourth ace .

Chances are some would have folded pocket fours after the flop with two aces showing but I called to see the third ace hit the board on the turn. Then I had to call to the showdown to expose the bad beat.

L&R to all


How much was the pot for that hand?

@puggywug - this is an interesting question and deserves a real answer. Fortunately for you, I have looked at more data over the past year than anyone who isn’t doing this for a living should. I have collected data from 2 low stakes online stables that I invested in, along with the data from several teaching pros I’m working with. All told, I have studied databases containing more than 5 million hands combined, across several stakes and locations. All of the data is recent (from the past ~2 years) and is being added to at a rate of at least ~250K hands per month. None of this is directly from Replay Poker or other free sites because I don’t have access to it but logical inferences can be made nonetheless. Anytime RP wants to give me access to their 500 million hands, I’d be happy to analyze those too (hint, hint).

If you don’t mind, I’d like to modify your question from “What’s the difference between free and real poker?” to “What are the theoretical and practical differences between poker games being played at various stakes?” If I just took your original question at face value, the answer would be “nothing”. There is nothing fundamental to the game being played anywhere that requires it to be significantly different from any other game of the same format being played anywhere else (aside from various house rules). A game here is fundamentally the same as one dealt in Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio. The differences are all based on how the player pools in each venue approach the game. Note that I said player pools (populations), not any specific player because this is important.

I also wanted to break out theoretical and practical differences because they aren’t always significantly correlated. For example, lets take 2 heads-up games at any stake you want: The 1st is between 2 people who have no idea how to play the game at all and so have agreed to go all-in every hand and see what happens. The second is between Claudico and Libratus (2 AI programs that have solved HU play). These programs will play perfectly against each other on every street. Despite the obvious differences in the level of play between the 2 games, in neither game will any player be able to exploit the other. So, over enough hands, all players will show losses equal to the rake. The reason for this is simple: In the 1st game, neither player is capable of exploiting the other and in the 2nd game no exploitation is possible because each is playing perfectly. Theoretically different approaches but practically they are the same.

Before this thing gets too in the weeds, let’s address the heart of your question. Think of all of NLHE as existing on a continuum. On one end we have the theoretically most imbalanced HU game possible, between the worlds worst player and the worlds most exploitative one. The 1 player will only complete/check/call with any 2 cards until the river. On the river, he will shove the absolute nuts and check/fold every other hand. In a game like this, the bb/100 available to be exploited by the good player approaches the theoretical maximum. Since I have no idea what that is, and since this game will never actually happen, lets call that upper limit 1000bb/100. This means that the bad player is making enough mistakes that the good player can exploit to win a maximum of 1000bb for every 100 hands played, over time. On the other end you will have the perfect HU game where the bb/100 available to be exploited = 0. As mentioned above, neither player will make any mistakes and so there is no way for one to exploit the other.

With enough data, we can place as many games as you want to divide the poker universe into onto the continuum I spoke about above and order them from most exploitable to least. For simplicity’s sake, lets just use the bigger groupings, like online 10NL, 25NL, 50NL, 100NL … Live 1/2, 2/5, 5/10, 10/20 … and ignore the geographical differences (Las Vegas 1/2 games are tougher than Atlantic City 1/2 games, which are in turn harder than say Biloxi 1/2 games). In general, the populations of lower stake games will be more exploitable than the populations at higher stakes games. The game will progress from nearly random to nearly “perfect”. If you wanted to graph this out, you’d put bb/100 available to be exploited on the y-axis from 0-1000 and the various games along the x-axis ordered from least technically sound to most. What you’d wind up with is a negatively sloped curve, steepest at the beginning and leveling off as it approaches the solved HU game.

As far as where the free games fall on this continuum, we’d have to look at the various stakes and analyze the data to get a precise answer. I don’t think its accurate to say that the 50/100 games play the same as the 500K/1M ones. Each would fall somewhere along the line. I don’t have hard data for this site but since we have had several players run through stakes rapidly, I think we can make an educated guess on how exploitable they are. Maximally exploitative players like @Idi0tpLaYer have won several hundred bb/100 over enough hands/time to be considered significant. If we use her estimated winrates as the maximum available to be exploited, we could then place at least the medium and high stakes games on our line and see where they play relative to “real” games. Using 300bb/100 as the maximum possible exploitation, these games would fall somewhere below 1/2 live or 20NL online. This is also supported by the maximum observed winrate (over 100K hands) vs a panel of bots programmed to mimic 1/2 live play, which was slightly over 300bb/100.

I’m happy to get into the actual data and show specific examples of how play differs if anyone is interested. For reference sake, these are some numbers from a blend of Vegas 1/2 games and 25NL online. The math wonks will understand what these numbers indicate and why they show a population that can be massively exploited. These are the numbers you would use to map out your exploitative strategy unless/until you had player specific data.

Fold to c-bet: 46%
Fold to turn c-bet: 25%
Fold on river: 20%
Raise river: 8%


I’ve been reading all the responses here, and resisting temptation to say anything back, so I could get a range of opinions.

I’m not sure what I expected to hear, which is after all why I was asking. Some of the responses weren’t very helpful, while others I think were very well-intentioned.

I’ll try to map out a bit of what I was trying to look for, without offering an answer to the question myself.

When you talk about “real money” poker, there’s two types: online, and live.

When it comes to online, the experience of using the user interface is probably pretty much the same wherever you go, so if you’re playing a lot of free online poker, moving to a money online poker game should be fairly comfortable, at least as compared to moving to a money live poker game. The difference in play that I would expect would be from players psychologically taking the game more seriously, trying to win money, not just screw around. How seriously players would take the game would vary depending on their risk tolerance level, so you never know. You could be at a table with a billionaire who literally doesn’t care if they lose $10k a hand for the next 100 years, or you could be at a $0.05/$0.10 table with jagoff players who don’t mind throwing $20-50 around just to mess with the nits who are trying to play a decent game. In other words, you could run into bingo-itis at any stakes level, really, although it should be less likely the higher up you go, but you just never know unless you have some idea who you’re playing with. In an online game, there’s user profiles and personal history, but you still probably don’t have very much to go on there.

In terms of the actually play style, or strategy, I don’t know (which is again why I asked) but my hunch is that you’d expect to see tighter opening ranges, less bluffing, and more aggressive betting – all more or less for the same reasons, to protect that real money. Beyond that, I’m not sure, but maybe I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that there’s more 3-betting, more slow play/trapping, and perhaps other advanced moves that doesn’t work very well in free poker due to players being willing to call with ridiculous card because there’s nothing of real value at stake when they do call. As to what might constitute such “advanced moves”, I don’t really know. I would kindof expect to hear that position factors into real-money player’s strategy especially strongly – I know it’s very important in Texas Hold Em, but I don’t see as much evidence for players taking position into account so much in the games I play here. Some, yes, the better players, but a lot of players here don’t seem to be very position-ally aware when they’re in a hand – although in recent weeks I’ve been seeing a lot of players who hit top pair in early position playing check-raise a lot more, or check-call a lot more, than I did several months ago.

Now, when it comes to live “real money” poker, there’s a whole bunch of additional factors that come into play: You can read your opponent’s faces and body language. And they can read you. The table doesn’t provide any “heads up display” type info telling you the exact size of the pot, or what the best hand is that you’ve made with the board, or the exact size of everyone’s stack. This adds a considerable cognitive load that you have to manage. The trade-off is that you do get more time to act in a live game, as compared to a turbo SNG here. And you need to use it, to take all that information into account. You might also not get as clear a view of the cards on the table as you do on the computer screen, and if you’re not sitting close to the middle and have poor eyesight, this could cause problems simply reading what your hand is (I’m very nearsighted IRL, so this is something that would potentially be an issue for me, where it’s not at all an issue playing online).

If you’re not accustomed to keeping track of the size of the pot, you’re going to need to figure out how to do that quickly. The easiest thing for that, I guess, is to count the BB’s that go into the middle, and develop your short term memory so that you can hold onto that number without forgetting it a second later when your brain shifts focus to something else for a moment. The nice thing about counting BB’s is that its’ easier to calculate the pot-odds since you’ve reduced the problem to the least common denominator already. To be able to do this, you need to be focused at all times, and very sharp to not allow your attention to wander when there’s a lull and miss someone’s action.

There’s also the potential in live poker for things like misdeals and other mistakes, such as misreading a showdown. While this should be rare if you’re in a casino with a professional croupier, if you’re playing in someone’s living room that might well happen from time to time, and you’ll need to make sure that the showdown is read correctly, since you don’t have the luxury of it being read and resolved by the computer.

This is all just the stuff that came to me off the top of my head (more or less) as I thought about all the dimensions and angles that go into a poker game, but I don’t know if I’ve touched upon everything. As deep as the game is, I’d be surprised if I had. But perhaps this is a pretty good start on it, anyway.

I’d like to know what everyone thinks about this, and if they have more they can add.

This may not have been the best hand to choose if trying to compare RPP to “top level” games. It was a pretty poorly played hand, especially by Maria Ho. If you are going to flat a 3-bet with TT and these stack depths, how on earth do you fold when you hit middle set? Of course Maria Ho is an uber-nit late in tournaments. She’s so tight that she makes Helmuth seem positively reckless.

Agreed that the hand would likely have been a shove-fest in many games here or in some low-stakes tournaments elsewhere.