For many poker players, picking a live poker room is as simple as choosing which decor they like the most. But for serious players, what’s most important is which poker room gives the best return on their time.
Of course, as with most things in poker, this is difficult to quantify. Unlike online players, live players don’t have the luxury of reviewing tens of thousands of hands to assess their win rate. Instead, live players have to rely on more intuitive judgements and casual observation.
In this article, we’re going to discuss three criteria for choosing a poker room. Think of these as the casino equivalent of poker “tells”—except much less likely to lead you to making a poor decision.
Let’s start with the most fundamental criterion: the players’ skill level.
1. The strength of the poker room’s player pool
A weak player pool is the most important thing you should look for in a poker room. It’s easy to forget that scouting out bad opponents is just as important as being good at poker yourself. Spending a few hours comparing the player pools at your local casinos can be worth weeks spent in the lab improving your own game.
So, how can you assess how strong some particular player pool is? Unfortunately, there’s no cut-and-dry way of doing this—you’ll largely have to rely on intuition as you observe other players. There are a few specific things that you should look for, though.
First, take stock of the professionals in the room. Many professionals make no effort to hide the fact that they play poker for a living, so it’s often easy to tell. If you’re unsure, look closely at their demeanour and how they’re playing. If they seem to be at home in their seat—calm, collected, etc.—and seem to be playing solidly, then they’re probably professional, or at least a solid reg.
Second, pay attention to the age of the players. Older players are more likely to be recreational, and less likely to use strategy resources like Upswing Poker. For many of these players, poker is a battle of egos and reads, not math and strategy. Younger players, on the other hand, are much more likely to be professionals, and even if they’re not, they’re less likely to be bad (maybe they just binged Doug Polk’s poker channel and picked up a thing or two).
Third, take note of how many players on average are seeing a flop. More players seeing a flop indicates loose, passive play, which is exactly the playstyle you want to be up against. Better yet, are there many limpers? Open limping (i.e., limping when no one else has entered the pot) is a sure sign of a bad player, and indicative of a general tendency to call no matter what. Some players just hate to fold. Live professional make their living from these players.
Finally, the atmosphere of the poker room matters. You want to find a lively room, with people constantly coming in and going out, lots of drink and food being ordered, etc. These things are indicative of a player pool weighted toward gamblers rather than poker players.
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2. How often your preferred game is running
Ideally, you should play at a casino where you’re preferred game is always running at the hours you intend to play. However, unless you’re exclusively a low-limit player near a busy casino, this may be difficult to find. It’s thus important to find poker rooms that offer your game consistently. Playing outside your wheelhouse too often will hurt your win-rate.
That is not to say that you should only play your preferred game. Moving down in stakes almost never means a proportional loss of expected value. In other words, if you were playing 5/10 with an expected hourly of $40, moving down to 2/5 would probably not cut your expected hourly down to $20. This is because higher stakes games are generally tougher, so you’ll make up some of the lost EV from moving down by having a bigger edge. Plus, the variance will be lower, which is always a good thing. And you can always play deeper if you want to rake in similar sized pots to your usual stake.
Remember: you don’t have to settle on a single casino. If one has a really profitable Friday/Saturday night game, but is mediocre otherwise, then play there on the weekend and play elsewhere during the week. (Profits aside, a change of scenery is nice sometimes, too.)
If you live in an area with only one card room/casino, you’re going to have to get creative if you don’t want to be at the same place every night. Consider playing some low stakes online to hone your skills, or seek out a safe local home game.
3. Whether you enjoy the atmosphere of the poker room
Now, in the introduction I said that professionals only care about their bottom line. However, we’re human, and so it’s important to think about where we enjoy spending our time. Playing in a poker room you hate for marginal gain is a one-way ticket to getting burned out and wanting to quit.
It’s important to remember that, like the money in our bankroll, our own well-being is a limited resource that needs to be managed. After all, we don’t only play poker for the money. We enjoy the game itself, and the community built around it. If you feel a poker room is starting to have a negative effect on you, for whatever reason, then consider playing somewhere else for a while. Or take a break for a couple days. You’ll come back much better for having stepped away.
It’s also a good idea to create or be a part of a network of recreational players where you play. Too many aspiring professionals have an “us versus them” mentality, which only ends up making them miserable and unlikeable. Though it might seem counterintuitive, becoming friends with the players you’re making money from makes poker much less of a grind. And sometimes those players will reveal invaluable information about themselves and other players.
What’s your favorite poker room or casino?
Please let us know in the comments below!
Hopefully this article has given you a good idea of what to look for in a live poker room.
If there’s one main upshot, it’s that you should try out several different poker rooms before deciding where to spend your time. Too many players settle into a sort of casino tribalism, where they refuse to play anywhere else, which ultimately costs them money. Avoid this at all costs.
Don’t be afraid (or too lazy) to wander around a bit before deciding which room is best for you.
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