Back in 2004, the vast majority of online poker players were terrible. You could pick a table at random, sit in, and expect to stack donks constantly. While most players are still bad, sitting in at random tables is no longer the best strategy.
Carefully selecting your cash game tables will make your life a whole lot easier. Why play against a bunch of nits if you can avoid it? Before you pick a table, make sure it looks like a soft one.
Look at the Table Stats
Every online poker site has a list of tables and stats for those tables built into the software. If you look at the lobby of any poker site, you’ll see stats that display the average pot size, the percentage of players to the flop and the number of hands per hour. Look for tables that have the highest numbers in all categories.
For the average pot size, a higher number means that more money is moving around the table. If you’re better than the average player, that means there is more money for you to get your hands on. Low average pot sizes indicate that people are holding onto their money with a tighter grip.
The percentage of players to the flop is my favorite metric to look at when looking for tables. A high number in this area means that the players at that table have loose starting hand requirements. This indicates the players are either extra fishy or extra aggressive. In either case, this is a good thing to see at a poker table. If the number is low, it means you have a bunch of tightwads sitting around watching each other fold hands all day long.
The number of hands per hour isn’t too big of a deal, but it’s nice to see a table that moves at a decent pace. If you are a winning player, a higher number of hands per hour translates to a higher hourly win rate. Again, this number is not a big deal, but it can be used to break ties between two good looking tables.
Remember to take table stats with a grain of salt. A single big hand or a couple of odd hands can skew the stats for the short term. Plus, some players tend to leave immediately after losing a big pot. This can completely change the dynamic of the table by the time you take your seat. This is not saying table stats are completely worthless – just make sure you go in prepared for anything.
Look for Short Stacks
The majority of cash game tables online have a maximum buy-in of 100 big blinds. At $1/2 NL Holdem, the max buy-in is $200; at $0.25/0.50, the max buy-in is $50; and so on.
Buying in for the full amount maximizes your expected return. There is no advantage to buying in for less than the maximum amount. In fact, a player buying in for anything less than 100 big blinds is willingly putting himself at a disadvantage against players who buy in full.
Thus you can expect that most players sitting with less than the full buy-in are either terrible or close to broke. You want to play against these guys, since they will almost certainly hand you their cash without a fight. There are skilled short stackers out there, but those players are few and far between.
A table with one or two shortstacks is almost certain to be profitable for you. If possible, pick a seat from which you’ll have position on the shorties. Buy in full and watch them hand you their cash. Just try to avoid tables that are full of short stackers. You still want to see enough money at the table to make it worth your time.
Note – shortstacks can also be frustrating to play against. They like to go all-in randomly and they can cause problems when you’re trying to play pots against other big stacks. If you get frustrated easily by shortstacks, then there’s no need to go out of your way to play against them. Just look for tables in which there are no shortstacks.
Look for Loose/Passive Opponents
A loose/passive player is one who likes to play hands preflop, but doesn’t like to raise them. These guys are also known as calling stations, or more generally, fish. They are pretty easy to identify if you run a tracking program with HUD stats.
Look for players who play more than 30% of their hands preflop. On a HUD this translates to a VPIP of 30% or more. Even better are players who play more than 30% of their hands preflop and raise less than 15% of hands preflop. On a HUD this translates to a PFR of 15% or less. Players with stats like these are passive fish and will hand you money easily.
If you don’t have a HUD, that’s okay. Just watch a table for a couple minutes before you sit in. If you see a player calling 3-4 hands preflop over the course of 6-7 hands, it’s a safe bet that he’s terrible. Sit in.
If you see a player flat-calling preflop raises consistently, that’s also a sign of weakness. Sit in.
If you notice any players flat-calling lots of bets postflop, that’s probably a mark of incompetence as well. Sit in.
Look for Revealing Screen Names or Avatars
This one can go either way. Some poker players purposely pick deceptive screen names and avatars to give you the wrong idea. But for a quick glance to get you started, it can come in handy to look at screen names and avatars.
Having said that, a player’s screen name and avatar can give you vital information about his playing style. Think about it: the average amateur will view his online persona as an extension of his real-life personality. Thus you can make inferences about a player’s style by how he presents himself at the table.
A screen name that reflects old-guy interests–e.g. cars, children, spouses–generally indicates an older player. From this we can infer that he is less likely to play in a modern aggressive style, and will probably be more passive than your average opponent.
A screen name that reflects pop culture or youth culture–e.g. internet acronyms, memes, rock bands–generally indicates a younger player. It’s safe to assume that a player like this will have at least a passing familiarity with the modern game. Thus you might expect to see a more aggressive, strategic approach to poker.
Screen names and avatars that make references to old running jokes from TwoPlusTwo.com are probably skilled players. These players have spent a lot of time at the 2+2 forums and probably know quite a bit of poker strategy. Definitely not a good sign at any table.
If a player has an avatar, that indicates he’s put some thought into it. When looking at an avatar, try to deduce what type of person would pick that type of image to display. For example, if your opponent has a sports team logo you might conclude that he likes action, has idle time, and spends hours passively watching television (rather than practising poker!) If you see a player like this sitting at a table, he’s probably not a pro. It’s usually a safe bet to sit in.
Over time, you’ll start to notice patterns and connections between screen names and player types. While you shouldn’t put too much stock in these sorts of tells, they can be useful when you’ve got little else by which to judge a player.