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"If I only had an hour to chop down a tree, I would
spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe."
-- Abraham Lincoln


The invention of online poker makes learning how to play poker dramatically easier. While some people insist "play money", free poker games tell you nothing about your ability as a player, I don't think that is right. (Free Texas Hold'em and other poker games are available at any of the online card rooms linked on this page. Also, novices should check out the How to Play Poker page to be directed to the newbie-focused pages on this site concerning rules, hand ranks, and so on.)

First, and most important, learning to play poker well is a process, an evolution, a journey even. It requires stick-to-it-ness. The first time anyone plays, they stink, if only because they don't know all the rules. People who are inclined to give up at their first failure make terrible poker players. Even if you don't get clobbered your first time, you will soon. You must be able to handle losing.

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And then you must have a desire to get better at the game. Simply playing should not be your end goal. Improving at a game that has choices is a big part of the fun of the game itself.

Free online poker games seem pointless on the surface. Except when play money can be turned in for promotional stuff (clothing, books, poker chips), winning or losing play money makes zilch difference. But if you are trying to get better, you aren't playing for play money. Simply put, you are playing to learn.

The currency of real money poker games is just that, real money. That is the point of the game. Online play money games are wholly different. They are like "implied odds". New players should play them specifically to learn how to play better, including controlling emotions, reading player betting patterns, test your stamina, etc. The point of the game should not be to accumulate play money chips. The point should be to help learn how to accumulate real money chips!

While the free poker games have obvious limitations, they can tell a new player quite a lot. If you can't beat the play money games, you will not beat any real money game. The play money games have no rake and absurdly poor play because they are free games.

This is an important thing to understand if you are newbie. After a small amount of hours it makes sense to get off the play money tables, but if you log considerable hours playing play money, and you are losing, it is 99% likely you play badly.

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Play money tables can help players learn the relative strength of hands... like seeing that KQs will win more and bigger pots than 96o. Play money games online will help a player learn to play poker better than any other single resource that has ever existed.

But like any beginner thing it's limited. The "better" is like going from zero to 10 miles per hour. Moving at all is a lot more important than not moving, but you can't accomplish much if you stay at 10 miles per hour your whole life. The play money games should take you from knowing nothing to the level of "novice" about twenty times faster than any of us who had to learn the game other ways. But anything more than about ten or fifteen hours on the free poker games is likely a waste of time, if your goal is to learn to play poker well, especially since low limit games as small as one-cent/two-cent exist online. (Play money games are also useful to experienced poker players who are Internet/computer newbies. You can spend all the time you need learning how to play online without risking a penny.)

The basic lesson a new player needs to learn is: how to beat a poker game. The specifics of how to do that vary. Beating play money games is similar to beating very low limit games, but not all that similar. But it's not the actual skill in beating the play games that is important. It is simply the process of figuring out how to do it -- how to beat whatever style of game you are in. That "how to" may not be very useful in any other poker game, but that doesn't matter.

Poker is assembling a puzzle from the pieces you manage to gather together. The actual pieces don't matter, and will vary and change and never be the same. Your job is to master the pieces -- both the pieces you are involved with at each individual moment, and the pieces that carry over from session to session and year to year (like discipline and bankroll management).

Learning valuable lessons from online play money poker games is just the first of hundreds of puzzles a new poker player needs to put together.

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