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Online Poker Strategy

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Winner’s Guide to Internet Poker

The number of players playing online poker constantly grows, as does the number of cardrooms. Yet online poker is still at best an adolescent in terms of the number of players playing and cardroom technology. More importantly, strategy for online poker is still in its childhood. This Guide is the first of its kind, my attempt to fill a gaping void in poker literature. This Guide is geared both for players who have never played a hand online as well as those with experience who want to learn to play better — to win, or win more. Experienced users can skip some of the basics, but even in discussions of the basics I hope experienced users find some valuable ideas. Also, many of the linked pages below offer other information that should contribute to helping you win.

Since little has been written specifically on how to beat online games, why amI? Why give away “secrets”? First, I want to encourage more and more people to enjoy poker in all its forms. Some new players, too far away or too intimidated to walk into a conventional cardroom, will be glad to start out in a relatively unthreatening online environment. Online poker games represent the best opportunity ever for new players to learn the game. Many of these players will naturally go on to also play in casinos, so this Guide should benefit brick & mortar clubs as well as online card rooms.

Second, this site has online poker cardrooms as paid advertisers, making it in my interest to create more customers for them, which in turn attracts more ad dollars. Readers should understand that I do get a benefit from writing this Guide. I’m not paid by publishers or by readers but I get compensation indirectly via advertising. So, if you find this information helpful or thought provoking, I hope you will consider patronizing my advertisers. If they get customers, they’ll pay me, and thus the online-focused pages on this website will continue to be revised and grow over time — grow with the new technology, new cardrooms and influx of new players.

Online cardrooms differ in small ways, but are generally similar in big ways. This Guide uses the practices and workings of Planetwin in its illustrations, but players should easily be able to recognize small differences between the sites when they encounter them, so almost all the concepts apply to any online cardroom. Paradise is just the example – as well as the online cardroom where most players got introduced to the game before the dawn of televised poker.

The first thing to understand is that online poker is not the same as brick & mortar casino poker (hereafter I’ll call this “casino poker”). They are different games. I’m not saying one is better than the other, or necessarily more or less profitable. They are just different in fundamental ways. Many of the abilities needed to win in casino poker of course also exist in online poker. You still need good starting cards… you still shouldn’t tilt… you still shouldn’t play at a level you can’t afford, and so on. I’m not going to reinvent the wheel on that stuff. Check out the rest of this website, the poker magazines and books to study those things that are the same online as in a casino. A flush beats a straight online. We don’t need to go over that.

Signing Up

Joining an online site is simple. You use an online payment service like Neteller (see below) or give them your credit card to buy chips just like you would buy a book at Amazon or a plane ticket at United Airlines. You don’t even have to do that at first. You can play free games without giving any credit card information. You should play the free games for at least an hour or so to get the hang of how fast the action goes, what buttons to click, what happens when you click a button that you aren’t sure what it does, all the bells and whistles of how the site works. The free games have little value in learning to play to win though. They are excellent for a total novice, offering newbies a way to practice calculating basic odds on the fly and discovering the relative strengths of hands, but you still should get off free games as soon as you can. Even playing the .5/.10 games will offer you far more useful learning opportunities than the free games.

Give thought to your login name. Some people want to be distinctive, memorable. Others want to be as anonymous as possible. Your screen name is the first bit of “table image” you present to the other players. Choose one that presents the personality you want to convey to your opponents.

Building an Online Poker Bankroll

The first enormous difference you confront between playing online and in a casino is when you go to buy chips (you can also send a bank draft or do wire transfers). Some card rooms limit you to $600 a day and $1500 a week in purchases. Since they offer $20/40 as a limit, this restriction seems ludicrous. No sensible person can play $20/40 with a $600 bankroll. The first day I played, playing $10/20, I lost my first two hands and was down $200. Clearly I could not play optimally, taking the normal swings involved when playing a sensible strategy. If I lost my remaining $400, I was simply done for the day. Winning ring game poker is all about putting in hours. If all games are about equal, and you always play the same winning way, the more you play, the more you make. So, putting yourself out of action by losing your bankroll is a critical mistake.

In casino poker, you can reach into your pocket and grab more cash (for good or ill). Not so online. The first thing you need to do is build an online bankroll. No matter if you are properly bankrolled to play $40/80 in a casino, when you first join, you should avoid playing anything higher than $5/10 for 48 hours. (This also makes sense just to get used to the technology.) If you want to play bigger than $5/10, charge up $600 the first day, then $600 twenty-four hours later (even if you don’t play), then $300 the next day. Now with a $1500 bankroll you can carefully play $10/20 — at least as long as you stay above $500. If you sink that low, it is important to again play smaller, even $3/6 or $2/4, until a week passes and you can again add another $1500 to your bankroll. Basically, you can’t play correctly online until you have accumulated a correct bankroll.

A quicker way to build you bankroll at most online poker rooms is to transfer funds from an existing player. Obviously none of the above applies if you have a friend who can just transfer you $10,000.

The online cardrooms have their reasons for limiting buy-ins, from protecting players from blowing their brains out in one session to not wanting to deal with substantial contested credit card charges. While these are legitimate concerns on the cardrooms’ part, the restricted buy-in is an artificial obstacle to winning that has to be overcome by new players. After establishing a record of play over a period of time, players can Email customer support for an increase in the different bankroll restrictions.

The current best deposit and withdrawal choice available for online players is through Neteller. Its website details convenient ways to get paid, including direct deposit into your checking account. Even though it might seem complicated at first, Neteller is an easy way to promptly and securely move money around online, and into your pocket. Players unfamiliar with Neteller (and FirePay) should click to read this overview of how-to use Neteller for Online Poker Transactions.

Cashing Out and Your Internet Bankroll

Another artificial problem the online cardrooms create out of necessity involves cashing out. Suppose you have carefully charged up a $1500 bankroll, and you have won $800 in a week. Not bad. You want that $800 in your pocket and you want to make another similar amount the next week. Well, you can’t do it using a credit card. The cash out rules require you to first pay back your original deposit method, and then get sent your profit. So, to get your $800, you have to pay off that $1500 you sensibly charged up, leaving you with a zero bankroll. It’s a bit complicated, but in essence, cardrooms require winning players to play on their profits, not on their credit cards.

So, if you don’t have a friend to fund your account via a transfer, the process you need to do is: play carefully at a moderate limit until you have been able to charge up an adequate bankroll, play at your chosen limit, pay off your original deposit as you win amounts above that adequate bankroll figure, then finally cash out your profits that exceed your chosen bankroll. For example, you want to play $20/40. You buy $1500 your first week, and win a few hundred dollars playing $5/10, $8/16 and $10/20. The second week you charge an additional $500, (in this example, if the cardroom has a $2000 monthly maximum) so now your bankroll stands at $2400, and you begin playing $15/30. As you continue to win, you pay off your credit card (or Neteller) to the level that you always have a $3000 bankroll (or perhaps a $2000 bankroll with your entire weekly $1500 worth of charges available to you). Finally, on a weekly basis you cash out your winnings that exceed your $3000 bankroll.

I don’t mean this to be taken exactly literally, but it should be clear that much more so than in casino poker, you need to manage your bankroll online. Leaving some liquid cash on Neteller is a good idea too so you can be sure to take advantage of any deposit bonuses a cardroom might be offering. You have to adapt and work around the cardroom restrictions. Being in action every day at the limit you want to play at is how you maximize profits, and online it takes some strategic planning to accomplish this.

The Lobby

Working the lobby is as important as working the game you play. In casino poker you can walk around the room, briefly look at all the games and limits being played, and study what type of game each one is. On the other hand, the online lobby offers a wealth of information just by clicking buttons: average pot size, number of players seeing the flop, how many hands played per hour, names of the players in each game, who is on the waiting list, and how many games of a particular limit are underway. (There is also another critical use of the lobby, but we will get to that below.)

Each bit of information is something we can use to choose the right game and limit. Some folks like wild games. Some prefer more passive ones. Some like full games; some prefer short-handed. Players who are nearly equally competent in all games can choose between dozens of games at the limit of their choice. Game and table selection is a critical part of casino poker. Fundamentally, it is even more important online. At first glance it might seem that table selection is less important online because it is extremely easy to move from one game to another. I think that really is just an argument for why table selection is more important online. The tools are available for players to be constantly aware of where the good games are. Constant vigilance is a price of winning online.

When signing up for games, never choose the “any game at this limit” option. This hamstrings your ability to independently manipulate your position on each sign-up list. For instance, if you’ve signed up for any $15/30 Holdem game, and your name comes to the top of the list in a game filled with players you don’t want to play with, if you pass this game, you are removed from all the $15/30 lists. Likewise, if you rise to the top of the list on a game that doesn’t look good now, but has potential because of others behind you on the waiting list, you may want to unjoin that list and then rejoin again at the bottom — perhaps when your name, now seventh, rises to the top, the game will be good. If you’ve signed up for “any game,” that option is not available to you. You simply will be put at the bottom of every single list you are on!

At the busy online cardrooms, you have many options to choose from, and a lot of information to use in choosing. Don’t restrict yourself. Keep several cardrooms on your computer to choose from.  Look for the games that fit with your style. When your game texture changes from favorable to mediocre or worse, cruise the lobby for greener pastures. Keep constantly vigilant. Knowledge is power.

Playing Two Games

One enormous difference between casino poker and online is the ability to play two (or more) games simultaneously online. Many players choose this option. And that is very, very, very good for us. No matter how good a player is, it is inevitable that when playing two games, a player’s ability will diminish a little or a lot. A player making $20 an hour playing one game is simply not going to make $40 an hour playing two games. It’s a certainty that sometimes hands will overlap, small opportunities will be missed, decisions rushed. This player may do better overall by playing two games, say making $34 an hour combined from the two games, but as opponents, they will do less well in any particular game they play in. This means, instead of facing a player who has an expectation to take $20 an hour out of our game, we face one who will only take out maybe $17. And, a player who expects to lose $30 an hour will now lose $37 an hour (or whatever) in our game. There may be a few scatterbrained players who the confusion of playing in two games actually benefits but those people will be rare, and they will likely play so poorly that it hardly matters.

So we have some good players’ expectation going down, and some bad players’ expectation going down. Where does that expectation/money go? Some of it should go to us. The other lobby monitoring skill I mention above is: you should monitor the lobby to see which players in your game are playing two or more games and who isn’t.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying you shouldn’t play two games (once you have experience playing online). If you are like the player above who could make $20 an hour playing one game or $34 an hour playing two, by all means play two. You should just recognize that there are many strategies available to be used against a player playing two games.

For instance, suppose you are head-up in a fairly passive Holdem game against a player who is also playing in a high-action second game. Suppose you both check the flop. Now the turn card comes, and you pause. You take some time. You know what just happened? Your opponent very possibly was just dealt a hand in the lively game. Maybe even a monster! Maybe he has two aces. He doesn’t want to be dawdling over this stinky little pot here, so he may check the “check/fold in turn” box as he impatiently waits for you. You should see where this is going — players who play two games inevitably are going to be easier to bluff. Why call with bottom pair at this table when you can be raising with two kings on the other table? Why waste time waiting for some dip taking time over a tiny pot when it’s just been raised in your other game and you have AsKs?

Of course, your opponent might have 72o in the other game. But the point still remains, this opponent will simply be more bluffable because sometimes he will have good reason to focus his attention elsewhere.

And it’s not just bluffing either. Against opponents playing two games, you should be much more willing to value bet mediocre hands. Suppose a Holdem board is Ts7h2d. You bet 66. Your opponent, holding KsQs, is dealt two jacks at his other table. It should be obvious that in general you are going to win a lot more pots uncontested from players who play two games.

Players playing two games will generally lay down their small blind more; be more likely to go on tilt (two games to get a bad beat!); be more likely to actually have a strong hand when they do play a major, drawn-out pot; be more likely to use the check/fold/raise “in turn” buttons; be more likely to play straightforwardly; and any number of other things. While alone none of these may be huge, they add up to John giving away a significant advantage to a player who knows John is playing two games.

Just like in casino poker, online your income comes from the application and re-application of your advantages over the long haul. Each one of the small edges that the two-game players give up represents a real amount of money in our pocket. Pennies from here, quarters from there… adds up to a lot of dollars in the long run.

Most important, playing two games leads to players taking more emotional defeats in a short period of time. Two game players inevitably tilt more than one game players.

Finally, if you are a losing player, here is the number one lesson for you: play only one game at a time. You will lose less money.

Monitor Stack Sizes

Keep an eye on the precise size of the short stacks. Some cardrooms have poor rules where a bet of any size below a full bet does not constitute a raise. For instance, playing $10/20, on the turn you check with the intention to checkraise. A player bets all-in for $19, and another calls. Your plan is screwed. All you can do is call. On the other hand, if you know that player has $21, you will be able to checkraise. In casino poker, you very often can’t tell how many chips a player has left. Online you know within $1.

Another consideration here is because of the bad rule about betting, be careful about completing bets. If two people check, then somebody bets $19 all-in, you better have a super-monster to make it $20. Those first two players can’t checkraise the $19, but they can checkraise you when you make it $20. Likewise, a player behind you can raise it to $40 if you make it $20, but can only raise it to $20 if you just call.

Like in casino poker, bigger stacks tend to get bigger respect, especially from new players. So always keeping a decent amount of chips “in front of you” is a good idea. However, you should always have enough chips available in your bank to jump into a different game. If you keep your whole bankroll in front of you, you can’t buy-in to second game without cashing out of the first.

Playing Promptly

If you are a winning player, a smooth, prompt game is almost always in your favor. The more hands you are dealt in, the more money you make. So be sure to check the “muck losing hands” and “auto-post blinds” buttons. There are times you would want to uncheck the auto-post option (like if you go to answer the doorbell or the game gets short and you consider quitting) but I can’t think of any reason to ever uncheck the muck losing hands button. Also, if you do leave your computer, check the “sit out next hand” button rather than getting dealt in and letting yourself “time out” when it comes to you to act. While it’s rude to make people wait for you when you are not even in the room, you also shouldn’t slow down a game in any case because a slower game is generally a less profitable game.

Perhaps 5% of online players are very rude. Sometimes literally half the game is spent repeatedly waiting for the same self-absorbed player to act on his hand. While this obnoxious behavior might tilt opponents a bit, creating enemies and being a jerk is seldom profitable in the long run. Playing promptly is the courteous and profitable thing to do.

Careful When Using “In Turn” Buttons

While the online software is mostly terrific, there are minor glitches you should try to avoid. The “in turn” buttons allow you to act on a hand before it actually is your turn, allowing you go back to reading or playing another game or vacuuming. But on occasion, especially when you have an internet connection delay, when you click the “check in turn” button, the action may actually be on you already and at that instant the yellow “call” button will pop up right above where you are trying to click “check”.

My own misfortune with this came when I had JJJ3 in the big blind playing Omaha8. No raises so we saw the flop – A76. Okay, not one penny of my money is ever going into this pot with this hand on this flop. The small blind doesn’t act for a moment, so I click “check in turn.” But I was having an Internet delay, and all of a sudden me clicking that area of the screen means I call the small blind’s bet! Ten bucks I’ll never see gain.

These buttons can be useful tools, but often should be avoided (see the “online tells” section for more reasons). The button that seems to be the most dangerous one is the “fold” one. If you check in turn, then click the fold button, and nobody bets that round, your hand will be mucked the next round, even if there is again no bet.

Online Poker Tells

The in-turn buttons lead to the most obvious tell unique to online poker. If the blinking light representing a player acts immediately, it’s likely this person has clicked the box of an in-turn action. It is very often easy to determine when a player has a no-brainer hand. The immediate “check” can often incredibly revealing. If you are first to act, and for some reason take a moment before checking, and your three opponents immediately check behind you like rifle fire, this is a tell as big as Texas. They ain’t got nuthin’.

Another common situation… the first player takes a moment, then finally checks. You have the “bet/raise in turn” button checked, so your bet appears, but instantly the player next to you raises. Uh-oh, he had the bet/raise button checked too, and didn’t care what you or the first player did. That tells a lot more than a just normal raise would — an awful lot more.

Besides the speed of action resulting from using the buttons, other online tells can be discerned from how slow a player commonly acts on their hand. Players who are consistently super-slow (rude human speedbumps) are likely not paying attention to the game, either because they are playing two games and are not competent at it, or because they are doing other work at home. Either way, if all of a sudden this person plays a hand crisply and promptly and aggressively… well, they got somethin’.

“The Stall” is a common tell among average or slightly below average players. When the last card in Holdem or Omaha makes a coordinated board (making a nut hand like a flush), the mediocre player pauses as if thinking, and then finally bets. This pause usually means “powerhouse” or at least that the bettor thinks he has a powerhouse. It’s a comically inept tell in its obviousness. (Some people also use The Stall as a reverse tell.)

The largest group of online poker tells can be found in opponent’s betting patterns. People who think there are no tells online simply can’t be paying attention (and often they aren’t because they are playing multiple games and thus are genuinely “missing” much of the game). Betting patterns also reveal a lot in casinos, but online they are more critical to observe for a simple reason: people bet more often. In particular, people playing multiple games make an awful lot of bets in an hour, or a career. Such a volume of anything leads to repetition, as any assembly line worker can attest. Watch an opponent long enough and you should have solid clues to their holdings, and especially their interest level in the current pot.

Player Notes: The Good, the Bad, and the Idiots

When playing casino poker, we see our opponents. I seldom forget a truly good or a truly horrible player. Online, all we see are little icons, many with similar or extremely non-descript names. Plus, we play against thousands of players from literally all over the world, playing at all different hours of the day or night – all at the same time! Player notes offer a way to remember notable players. For me “notable” means the best players – and the worst goofballs. For the most part, the vast majority of players are interchangeable weak-tight lemmings. You don’t really need to keep track of them. But strong players and terrible players come in much smaller numbers. Also, since I play mostly Omaha8, I keep track of super-tight players. These players aren’t “strong” players, and may not even win, but when one bets an 876 flop, I know to put my A3 in the muck. Depending on the game you play, you might also want to keep track of other player categories, but I definitely suggest you track the best and the worst. Most cardrooms now make this easy by including a “Notes” feature where just by clicking on a player’s icon you are able to then make notes about that player that are permanently stored on your computer.

Hand Histories

By clicking the dealer tray, you can have your “hand histories” sent you, the records for the individual hands of the games you played in. Novice players can find these valuable learning tools, and even experienced players can use them to study the play of specific opponents. Commercial programs are even available that can analyze tens of thousands of hand histories in a flash and spit out a wide variety of statistics on you and your opponents.

Net Stats and All-Ins

The Network Status page is your friend that you should regularly check when you play. The NetStats tell you how the cardroom server is performing. Beware of playing whenever the status is below “Good.” Not only do you risk being disconnected in critical situations, your game will be painfully slow and naughty players will use the server problems to illegitimately go “all-in” in situations where they merely don’t want to call any more bets.

When legitimate, an all-in occurs (besides the obvious when a player has no more chips) when a player loses his or her connection to the game, either because of being bumped offline by a flaky Internet connection or because the cardroom is having server problems. Sometimes you’ll lose pots due to legitimate disconnects, and other times you’ll win, so you shouldn’t worry about them that way. But if you suspect someone illegitimately times out because they don’t want to call a bet (or two or three), contact Support. Such a person may get away with it once or twice, but eventually they will be stopped.

How To Deal With Support

Online Support is generally good — prompt, knowledgeable, helpful. However, you must understand that they are not floor supervisors. They don’t directly see problems; they don’t have a chance to ask multiple players or dealers about problems; and, they have literally hundreds of hands swirling around them. Some problem that is plain as day to you, might not be clear to a Support person who didn’t see what happened. Before contacting Support about a hand or situation, be sure to request your hand history. You will almost certainly get a better resolution (and make more sense) if Support has the number of the hand history to refer to.

Don’t be shy to bring matters to Support’s attention. If you actually are “right” about some problem, very often they will correct it how they can, including returning a courtesy bet. But don’t be an annoying pest. Support has records of everything. If you are constantly whining and trying to weasel a few bucks out of them for compensation for mistakes you made, you will wear out your welcome quickly.

Support is the closest equivalent to a floorman. If some player is being belligerent, if you think some collusion might be going on, if you think some player is playing consistently slow just to be annoying… tell Support. It is their job to make our online poker experience pleasant and fair. They can’t do their job without our help.

Paranoia Strikes Deep

Online poker has one truly fundamental thing in common with casino poker: most players lose. But the way players lose online inevitably leads to some delusional paranoia. For instance, in casino poker, most players can effectively fool themselves about how they are doing. The money they buy-in or cash out mixes in their pockets. They win some days and lose others. It’s easy to say: “I break even, or win a little.” Online the bookkeeping is in black and white. Your losses are documented; your wins are sent to you in a very deliberate way. You know if you are winning or losing.

Rather than admit the legitimacy of their losses, some of those players who delude themselves about their poker ability in a casino end up charging the online cardrooms with some truly amazing practices. Most of these charges are hopelessly illogical paranoia. The fact of the matter is, the amount of money a semi-successful online cardroom can make is staggering. The idea that a hugely profitable multi-million dollar enterprise with relatively small overhead would jeopardize its goose that laid the golden egg for a few more dollars by punishing people for cashing out… ideas like this are just ludicrous. (At least one rogue online cardroom used bots and did not declare that fact, but this was easy to discover and they are out of business as of this writing.

Online players should install firewalls on their computers. (If you have DSL or cable, you should have one anyway.) Check out this page for links and information on Firewalls, Spyware & Internet Security. If you are the type of person who worries about the grassy knoll a lot, a firewall should ease some concerns.

But firewalls end up causing some paranoia too. Sometimes your computer briefly loses its connection to the cardroom, even if your Internet connection stays up. When this happens, the cardroom’s software tries to reconnect to your computer, which alerts your firewall (unless you configure a rule to always allow a connection from that particular site.) This is not evidence of your computer being hacked by somebody who wants to see your cards! Configure your firewall sensibly and you can play without hacking worries.

Cheating

Some people cheat while playing online. Some cheating goes on in casino poker too. When money is put up for grabs, some people will behave criminally to get a piece. While the “Paranoia” category mostly dismisses the idea of the established cardrooms robbing their customers, individual and small groups of players will inevitably cheat.

In all walks of life, cheaters are drawn disproportionately from the pool of losers — people unable to win legitimately, and too lazy to do the work to become winners. To oversimplify it, most cheats aren’t very bright. Most poker cheats, online or casino, are hopelessly inept. They cheat and they still can’t win. From a purely mercenary standpoint, we should welcome most cheaters because they lose!

Joking aside, I don’t mean to diminish the dangers of cheating, but just because something is morally bad doesn’t mean it is financially bad. Besides the issue that most cheats probably lose, it’s important to consider how “bad” the most common form of cheating is – two pals talking on the phone while playing, telling each other what they folded. This is an edge, but not a particularly big one. These two pals, who are not playing together on a common bankroll, are not in the league of colluding cheats – players playing from the same bankroll. Even here, this sort of effective collusion is rare. It requires trust, and cheaters are by definition not trustable. Such arrangements have trouble lasting.

And that brings us to the cheater to really fear… a single individual playing in one game using two computers and two identities. These people only have to trust themselves.

We have two principal defenses against effective cheating – our own vigilance, and the might of the cardroom, which sees cheats as a mortal enemy. You suspect cheating, tell Support immediately. But don’t be the boy who cried “wolf.” If you accuse endless numbers of innocent people of cheating, you will be ignored, which may lead to letting a real cheat get away with it for awhile longer.

Once alerted to suspicious behavior, the cardrooms have an excellent ability to monitor potential cheaters. They can see the cards after all. So, the most sensible way to combat cheating is: if you suspect it, stop playing, and tell support exactly why you stopped playing. When you stop playing, you stop contributing to the rake. The rake is the primary motivation of a cardroom. It’s the thing they take most seriously.

Effective cheating should seldom be a problem below the $10/20 level, so the majority of players needn’t give it too much thought. Still, report anything suspicious.

The Rake

While the amount of money the house rakes from each pot is pretty small, because of the speed on online games the gross amount raked is pretty incredible. Fortunately, there is a whole world of players to contribute. Even though some of the worst players get chewed up too quickly, never to return, overall the rake is very favorable for winning players, especially since there is no tipping.

Some Conclusions

In casino poker, showing down the best hand is only one way a winning player makes money. The same holds true online, but the logistical ways a thoughtful player increases his or her win rate are mostly quite different. When playing AK against your opponent’s J9, you aren’t just sending one hand value against another. Players who only earn the value of the hand strength of the AK over the J9 will fall well behind the much more successful players who do the logistical groundwork of lobby monitoring, player notes and the rest. Hand value profit is only the tip of the iceberg.

Playing winning online poker is the science, craft and art of mastering things most players don’t even think about.