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The first time I played casino poker against live opponents for real money, they went through me like a freight train through the wind. The next time wasn’t much better: I felt like a rag doll in a dog’s mouth. But the third time I played in a public card room, I finally found my feet. With a little bit of confidence and a little bit of luck, I was able to walk away from the game with a few more beans than I had when I began.

That’s called education.

And education isn’t free.

But it’s close. In the poker world, at least, it’s pretty darn close indeed these days.

When I started out in public card Slot Online rooms, there were no computer simulations to help me learn how to play. Heck, there were barely computers. Needless to say, the internet and all its wondrous resources were still a gleam in some geeks’ eyes. Even poker books (good, simple, useful ones at least) were few and far between. Nor could I turn to magazines like this one to fill in the blanks. I had to learn as I went along.

But it’s a new age now, and you don’t have to struggle like that. If you’re interested in casino poker, you can learn everything you need to know, and play hundreds of hours in simulated games, before you ever take a seat in a real cardroom against live opponents. What follows is a list of some sources you can turn to for more information about how to play poker, how to play it well, and how to get the most out of your poker playing experience.

First, the books. Since most casinos offer seven-card stud as their least expensive (and thus entry-level) game, I recommend George Percy’s Seven Card Stud, the Waiting Game. For beginning hold ’em players, check out Hold ‘Em Excellence by Lou Krieger; Lou’s Poker for Dummies is another wonderful general introduction to the game. Anything by Mike Caro is worth reading, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention my own Pro Poker Playbook and Killer Poker. If you prefer your information in video form, that’s available too. Titles to look for include Fifth Street Video’s Texas Hold ‘Em (Fundamentals for Winning) and Steve Fox’s Poker for All.

Next, software. Wilson Software’s fine line of products includes Turbo Texas Hold ‘Em, Tournament Texas Hold ‘Em, and others. You might also investigate Masque Publishing’s World Series of Poker Adventure. It’s informative, educational… and fun! All of these books and software titles, and a host of other invaluable resources are available to you through the Gambler’s Book Shop (www.gamblersbook.com) and elsewhere.

On the internet you’ll find more information about poker than you ever dreamed possible. Your first stop should be this very site (oh look, you’re already here!) which not only provides a great broad swath of strategy content for beginning and experienced players alike, but also serves as a portal to all things poker, both on the web and in the real world. If you want to try out your poker skills against other players, absolutely free of charge, most of the online poker sites offer free-play options. Here you can get a feel for the game without risking your money or risking any of the rookie embarrassment you might feel if you were playing face-to-face.

For an ongoing education, stop by any poker room every two weeks and pick up your free copy of Card Player or one of the other fine poker magazines. Here you’ll find a wealth of tips and tactics, as well as tournament schedules, contact information and much more.

Speaking of tournaments, most experts agree that tournament play offers poker newcomers absolutely the best bang for their buck. For entry fees as low as fifteen dollars (or sometimes even zero dollars!) you can enter a tournament, get hours of experience playing in a real poker game against live opponents and – who knows? – maybe even win the darn thing, or at least finish in the money. Believe me, a $15 entry fee is a tiny price to play for the amount of education you’ll get – and confidence you’ll build – from even your very first poker tournament.

So there you have it: books, software, internet, magazines, tournaments. These are the five pillars of your poker education. With just a little time and a little (fun) study, you’ll be ready to rip ’em up in the public cardrooms, or at least ready to sit down in a game without the feeling of showing up naked at your final exams.

In my next column, I’ll start talking about the specific play of a specific game: Texas hold ’em. This version of poker is currently the world’s most popular; it’s the game they play for a $1 million purse at the World Series of Poker every May at Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas. Though you’ll certainly find other games around, most notably seven-card stud and Omaha high-low split, hold ’em is the basic game that most public cardrooms spread, and most public cardroom players play.

So stay tuned for that. But in the meantime, I have a homework assignment for you. (You didn’t think I was going to do all the work myself, did you?) First, go to the internet or a bookstore and find yourself a full and complete description of Texas hold ’em. Then lay out a few hands of the game on your kitchen table so you can start to get a feel for how the game is played and what kind of hands you’re likely to see. Finally, go to a casino or cardroom (or an online casino if you don’t happen to live in a place where poker is played in public) and… just… watch. Spend an hour or so observing the players, the dealers, the betting, the structure and the strategy of the game. If you just do this, if you just spend some time in a card playing environment, then when it comes time for you to plunk your money down and get involved yourself, you’ll find that the realm is a lot less foreign and scary than you might have thought before.

And then they won’t go through you like a freight train through the wind!