Not every poker table is created equal.
Let me explain: Say you've taken the first step; you've chosen an online poker room or two from the morass of possibilities and registered an account for yourself. Now it's time for your next most important decision in having that long and profitable poker hobby (or, gulp!, career) you've always dreamed of, and it's not whether to fold, call, or raise.
It's what poker table to sit at. I repeat: not all poker tables are created equal. Nor are all players, and if you want your poker experience to last more than half an hour, the first thing you must do is recognize your limitations. The worst mistake you can make in poker is to be the small fish in the great big shark-infested ocean. Follow these simple guidelines, and you should be well on your way to being the predator and not the prey.
The best online card room lobbies post statistics that are designed to help you find the poker table with the best action at any given time. One typical stat is Average Pot. The higher the Average Pot at a poker table, the looser the players tend to be. If the Average Pot is high, more players are calling and raising bets whether they've got the nuts or not. If the Average Pot is low, you've got a tight, conservative bunch, great for low-risk training but not so good for those big, adrenaline-fueled wins.
Hands per Hour
Another popular stat is Hands/Hours (Hands per Hour). The more hands dealt per hour, the quicker the game is rolling along. This could mean the players at the poker table are all quick thinkers (rather than a bunch of chit-chatters and deep contemplators), and therefore are either sharp or impulsive players. It could also mean that there are many conservative players at the poker table who consistently fold pre-flop. Most hands of multi-player poker are decided before the river. The less hands dealt per hour, the more players staying in straight through to the river (usually for the wrong reasons).
Lastly, my favorite lobby stat, Flop Percentages (or Players/Flop). This tells you how many players stay in past the first round of betting. The best poker players generally fold pre-flop unless they’ve already got the makings of a winning hand from the start. Therefore, if this number (whether it's a percentage or a ratio) is high, you've got a lot of people pulling for lady luck in the community cards. If this number is low, you've got a poker table full of tight players who know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.
Now that you can decipher lobby stats and find the choice action, you have to choose your stakes. What is your bankroll? Another way to word this crucial question is - How much are you willing to lose for the sheer pleasure of playing a game of poker? If the answer is, "Not much", you want to stay away from the high stakes poker tables. You're better off building your skills patiently at a low limit (or even micro-limit) ring game and taking small pots whenever you get the chance, folding fast the rest (and bulk) of the time. Or you could find a buy-in that fits your budget (say, a $30 + 3 tournament, a fair price for an evening's entertainment) and take your best shot at an eye-popping prize pool. If you lose, you'll at least go to bed at night satisfied from an exciting, high stakes experience that didn't cost you the clothes on your back.
On the flip side, if you've got money to burn, if you're a trust fund baby, if you're the shark and you know it (clap your fins), get in that high stakes limit game and roll the poker table over. Buy, bully, bluster, and bluff your way to wealth, or watch it all go poof! in the click of a mouse. What do you care, right? It's better than going out and getting into trouble. No Limit tournaments will give you the best bang for your buck, with buy-ins that hurt so good and prize pools that'll make a grown man weep.
Now if you spot a high stakes No Limit ring game and make that life-altering decision to sit in, you're either a madman (or madwoman) or you're a pro and I have no advice for you that you haven't already heard and deemed worthless. Good luck choosing that perfect poker table!