Many people see online poker as a depersonalized version of the game where it is harder to pick up reads. It is hard to argue with this point of view. However, there are many subtle tells you can still pick up when playing online that many fail to notice.
By such "tells" I mean that there are many signs online players give off to indicate whether they are recreational players or regulars. Having this information about opponent can go a long way toward helping you make better decisions in key pots.
In this article I am going to discuss my top seven ways to get better reads on opponents when playing online poker.
1. Table Count
At most online poker rooms, there is a "search a player" feature. One of the easiest ways to get a better read on what type of players you are up against is to search them right there on the site.
If they are only playing on one or two tables, then there is a good chance they are recreational players of some sort. If they are playing on 10 tables, though, chances are better they are a regular grinders or even professionals.
If they block themselves from being searched (an option on most sites), chances are also higher that the player is a decent regular. The "search a player" technique is not a foolproof tell by any means, but often the results are pretty revealing.
2. Stack Size and Auto-Rebuy
Another common tell that online poker players give off is with their stack size and if they make use of the auto-rebuy feature.
Typically most regulars will buy in for the maximum amount at an online poker table, usually 100 big blinds (in no-limit hold'em games). The reason why is pretty simple — if you are properly bankrolled for the game (which you should be) and you are one of the better players, then having the most money in front of you is going to allow you to win the most.
Recreational players, on the other hand, are usually not properly bankrolled and they will often just buy in for some random amount that is less than the maximum. Also, unlike regulars, they will not make use of the auto-rebuy feature when their stack size drops below a certain amount.
3. Postflop Bet-Sizing
Another easy way to spot recreational players is by the bet sizing they use after the flop.
Most good regulars will rarely bet less than half the pot postflop in a cash game. However, weaker players will frequently bet much less, sometimes even just making the minimum bet amount. This shows a lack of understanding of the math of the game and is typical of players who only play the game for fun.
4. Posting a Blind Out of Position
Another sure-fire tell that online poker players give off is through how they post the blinds. Regulars will pretty much always wait for the blinds to come to them before posting. Recreational players, on the other hand, will frequently post the blinds before this — that is, as soon as they arrive at the table.
This is the poker equivalent of voluntarily paying your taxes twice. Nobody who takes this game seriously would ever choose to do this. Take a note right away when you see somebody post the blinds out of position.
5. Chat Box Tells
I am typically not a big proponent of using the chat box when playing online poker, as I feel it can be distracting and sometimes exposes you to nasty, unpleasant comments. However, there can be some merit to switching it on from time to time in order to get a quick read on your opponents.
The large majority of regulars will never say a thing as they have the chat box turned off. The recreational players are much more likely to make use of it, though. They will be more apt to use the chat box to vent about their "bad luck" as well.
6. Passive Play
Another common way to spot a recreational player is by passive play. By this I mean calling a lot preflop and postflop and then folding without going to showdown. This style of play will significantly harm your "red line" (or non-showdown winnings) and is typically not a very profitable way to play the game.
By contrast, the regulars will be much more likely to make aggressive three- and four-bets before the flop. They'll be more inclined to remain active after the flop as well, with more betting, raising, and bluffing.
7. Timing Tells
Lastly, online poker players unknowingly tend to give off all sorts of timing tells when they play.
The best regulars will try to mask timing tells by taking a similar amount of time for their actions whether they are betting for value or bluffing. Recreational players, though, will often make erratic snap decisions that give away the strength of their hand.
Take, for example, the old instant call on the flop. When somebody calls me at the speed of sound, this tells me the player took zero time to think about other options in the hand (such as raising or folding). This indicates to me the player probably has some sort of mediocre hand like middle pair or a draw. Therefore, I will be much more likely to apply pressure on later streets in order to move the player off the hand.
While online poker is played on computers and tablets and we never actually get to see our opponent, nearly all players still give off subtle tells. These can give us an idea of not only what type of players they are, but also clues about the strength of their hands.
None of the methods above are meant to be 100% foolproof. You will encounter professionals who for whatever reason are just playing on one table. They also might decide to buy in short or get active in the chat box.
However, more often than not, the seven tells discussed above will give you a better read of the type of player you are up against and a better idea about the strength of that player's hand.
Nathan "BlackRain79" Williams is the author of the popular micro stakes strategy books Crushing the Microstakes and Modern Small Stakes. He also blogs regularly about all things related to the micros over at www.blackrain79.com.