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Online poker: A whole new card game

By Sid Lipsey
CNN Headline News
Online poker sites such as provide an interactive and, if a player chooses, cost-free way to learn the game.
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(CNN) -- Your cell phone rings to the tune of "The Gambler." You think Ben Affleck's best performance wasn't in a movie but in his winning hand at the last celebrity poker event. You couldn't care less about politics, but you can argue for hours whether you should play or fold an unsuited Ace/6.

Might as well face it: You're a poker fanatic. And if you can't make it to a casino, or it's one of those rare nights when ESPN is showing something other than a poker tournament, there are a number of Web sites that allow you to play poker online for a lot of money, very little money or no money at all.

"You're not going to believe this, but I've never played poker in a land-based poker room," says Vikrant Bhargava, general manager of -- which bills itself as the "World's Largest Poker Room."

Bhargava says he finds the high-stakes atmosphere of traditional casinos intimidating. Who can blame him? With the rumbling cacophony of slot machines, screaming gamblers and fast-talking dealers -- not to mention the ever-present risk of losing all your money -- a casino isn't exactly a welcoming environment for novices.

But when you go online, it's a whole new card game. At, you'll find listings and descriptions of various poker Web sites. Some of them offer "play money" games that have no buy-in fees; all you're playing for are bragging rights and skills you can some day take to a real game.

Online poker can provide valuable, and free, lessons on when to bet, when to raise, when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em, when to walk away, when to run ... well, you get the idea.

For traditionalists who feel it isn't really gambling unless you're ... well, gambling, you can certainly play for real money online. But be warned: If you start losing too much too quickly, many poker sites will crack down with the vigilance of a watchful bartender who cuts you off after you've had one too many.'s Bhargava says players who rack up big losses are contacted by customer care agents or in some cases blocked from making the deposits required for "real money" play.

Whether it's for play money or real money, online poker is not quite like the real thing. For one, it's impossible to check your opponents for "tells" -- body language that indicates who's playing with a good hand and who's bluffing. But that limitation cuts both ways -- sometimes to your advantage. If you fidget, giggle uncontrollably or turn three shades of purple when you lie, you can still bluff effectively behind the safety of online anonymity.

All told, online poker can be a low-risk way to learn the game -- which is ironic, as poker is inherently about risk. But it's also about gaining an advantage on your opponents. And what better way to do that than to practice your skills cheaply, conveniently and online?

Judging by the traffic on sites such as, that idea is certainly catching on. Who knows? Internet poker may become so popular that in the future, instead of showing 20 hours a day of poker, ESPN will start showing 20 hours a day of online poker.

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