Online poker cash games, especially with multi-table play, have been touted as an easy money maker for new poker players. The reality is the very best poker players make only about a one percent edge in multi-table online poker play. The author of this article describes his first year of multi-table online poker play, and provides advice from winning online poker players on how to build an online poker career, with multi-table play or not.
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Balancing on the Brink of Hell: The Reality of Multi-Table Poker

By Syph
(From Blackjack Forum , Summer 2006)
© Blackjack Forum 2006

[Editor's note: This article was originally part of a discussion on the BJF/PTF message boards on getting started at multi-table poker in online poker rooms.

I admired the author for this post's accuracy and honesty. Although there are scores of posts on various poker forums boasting of huge profits from online multi-table poker, I personally know only a handful of dedicated professional gamblers who are making significant amounts of money this way, while I hear from many players who are struggling.

After Syph put up his original posts on multi-tabling, a player posting under the handle newbie47 asked, "In your opinion, where did you make your errors? Did you try to start multitabling right away? Do you think you might have done better if you practiced more at the lower levels? What happened to make it not work for you? I know this seems like rubbing salt in an open would, but some of us new guys could benefit from the lessons your experience could teach."  

My guess is that a lot of online poker players would like answers to these questions. —A.S.]

The Changing Landscape of Multi-Table Poker

I caution against the urge to play ten or twenty tables of online poker cash games simultaneously. Truth be told, although you'll find every poker Web site talking about how easy it is to win large amounts playing multi-table poker, where supposedly all you need is a tight, aggressive strategy, the fact is only about 10% of online poker players are actually profitable.

What are the odds you're that guy if you're flicking through many tables like a video game?

Personally, I've found the allure of multiplying my profits via max tables to have been detrimental to my game. The law of diminishing returns is in full effect—a painful lesson that I've only recently been made aware of.

I think my initial error was underestimating the difficulty of the game, regardless of the level. When the stats suggest ninety percent of the people who play online are long time losers ... you really have to ask yourself if what you're bringing to the table is going to beat that standard.

I remember playing on a Crypto site a while back. Small stakes, $1-$2 limit poker. We were all in a chatty mood ... it happens, sometimes a break in the silence will lead to all sorts of discussions. Before you knew it, we were all talking about what books we had read, what programs we were running, and what stats we had on each other, and how our auto-rating programs had rated each other.

Three-quarters of the table, if memory serves, had read Small Stakes No-Limit Hold'em by Ed Miller, Winning Low-Limit Hold'em by Lee Jones, and The Theory of Poker by Sklansky. Over half the table had Poker Tracker and some form of HUD (heads up display), such as PokerAce.

As one player commented: "This has to be the most skilled $1-$2 table I've ever played."

Of course, conventional wisdom suggests to find another table ... nonetheless, it illustrates the changing landscape of the game. Whenever you come across an article online talking about how easy low limit games are to beat, much of this is based on dated, live game advice.

What I've Seen Playing Multi-Table Poker

Even Small Stakes Hold'em, which is an excellent book, suffers from this. Nowhere will you find charts on blind stealing, for example, as it is assumed that low limit games are played far too loose, to the point of having a preflop chart for when six or more people limp in.

Other than some crazy European games on the weekends, I've never witnessed this phenomena. I HAVE witnessed 17% preflop percentages (i.e.: 1-2 seeing the flop) in full ring games on Absolute Poker at the $1-$2 level. And it's not that uncommon. Incidentally, this site accounts for about $20K of the $100K bonus money one Web site suggests you can clear in one year as a breakeven player. [Editor's note: At Blackjack Forum, we dispute the claims of that site.]

(Side note: If you're going to play at Absolute Poker, you'd better brush up on your blind stealing. As this is not covered in Winning Low Limit Hold'em or Small Stakes Hold'em, perhaps Hold'em Poker: For Advanced Players, by Sklansky, might help. Also, get rakeback first, as this is one of the few sites where you can qualify for both rakeback and the weekly bonus.)

I saw a post recently asking where the best sites are to play. With all due respect, I can tell you right now that this sort of question is already coming from a losing player. And no, the bonus money won't cover his losses.

A winner doesn't ask these questions. He already has thousands of stats on virtually every player he's playing ... even if he's never played against them before (quasi-underground programs like PHG will allow you to datamine Party Poker tables while you are sleeping) . They've already been autorated, and he's likely actively hunted down the weakest players and put them on his fish list.

This is the landscape a solid player has to navigate in. The days of playing a winning game after reading Lee Jones are long gone.

But to continue with your questions, my first mistake was underestimating my opposition. From this followed the belief that I had an edge simply by playing tight and aggressive.

Win Rates at Multi-Table Poker

A winner at Limit Hold'em has very similar win rates to those attained by a single deck blackjack card counter. I spent a year playing single decks full-time in Nevada, so I was fully aware that even with a healthy advantage you could go tens of thousands of rounds in the red before your EV made itself known.

I reasoned that if my opponents were fools, I could autoplay 10, 15, even 20 tables at a time simply playing tight and aggressive. Even at the $1 tables, that could be $20/hr, bonuses would literally double this figure, and ... bammo! $40/hr off a mere $300 bankroll from multi-table poker online. I'd be playing so many hands per day (upwards of 5K-10K) that fluctuations would be ironed out in short order, virtually guaranteeing a profit over the course of a few days.

Perhaps not the most appealing occupation, but I've had worse.

And, shucks, even if I were a breakeven player ... I could supposedly still make $100K in a year off bonuses.

How could I fail?

The answer is: Quite easily. Even a slightly negative expectation will completely wipe you out in short order. The line between a winner and a loser is so fine, there really is no middle ground.

Here's a quick no-limit hold'em analysis, where the advantages a solid player enjoys are generally considered to be far greater than at limit (bit of trivia here, Sklansky once mentioned that no-limit would never catch on because the poor players would go broke too fast).

At the micro level, a 30% rakeback will account for about 30% of your total profits. That means that every time you shove in your $25 stack, your rakeback will amount to about eight cents.

($50 pot x 5% rake / 10 people with 30 percent returned to you = 7.5 cents.)

If eight cents is one-third of your profits, a solid, winning player at No-Limit will make about twenty-five cents for every twenty-five dollars he wagers.

About a one percent advantage.

And remember, only one in ten players are long term winners. And to make this standard requires considerably more understanding of the current online climate than is generally advertised.

Advanced strategies will be required to beat the low limit games on some sites, auto-rating programs will be used against you on micro-level no-limit games, and while you play anonymous programs will be tracking and identifying your weaknesses. Collusion, multiple accounts, bots, and other forms of cheating will also be at work, to varying degrees. When the difference between a winner and a loser is about one percent, can you really afford to be up against any kind of cheating at all?

Tough game, huh?

This is also why aspiring for "breakeven" play is losing play. A solid, long term winner, even with all his education and technology, has an ever-so-slight advantage. And a solid, long term loser is playing with an equally slight disadvantage.

A breakeven player is balancing on the brink of Hell, and no bonus will save his ass.

Much less return him $100,000.


Observe a Pro if You Can

Ok, on that happy note, I'm still playing the game.

But you can only battle the tide for so long before you must admit that what you're doing is not working. I've been fortunate to have made friends with those in the community who are successful. Their insights into the game you are playing can be amazing.

As a side note, I've had the privilege of meeting James Grosjean. Before I met him, I had never spotted a hole card in my entire year of counting pitch games. The very same day I observed him, I spotted three. After which, I abandoned card counting, and never bothered with it again.

(This is not to imply I became successful. Only that my understanding of how a professional plays was so altered by this brief meeting ... the old methods were abandoned in a heartbeat.)

But back to poker.

If you wish to play this game, excel at it. Don't play it to clear a bonus, or make x amount of money. That was my error. I was so caught up in the potential money, I was never actually interested in the game itself. It was simply a matter of getting through so many hands to get in the long run as fast as possible (well, that part was achieved ... lol).

So I've taken a step back, starting at ground zero again, under the tutelage of a seasoned pro. This probably isn't neccessary for everyone, but if you're ever given the opportunity, I'd advise taking it. Of all the paths to take in this world, my money is on those who emulate success.

And successful players are doing very well at this game. Solid players are returning six figures a year, the talented are closer to seven.

And there is no reason anyone reading this can't do the same.

All the best,

(P.S. But I'll reiterate, these are simply my experiences and thoughts. They should all be taken with a grain of salt. Much better is to seek the advice of those who win, not the ramblings of those who don't.)  ♠

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