Playing Online Poker for Real Money
There have been significant shifts in the world of online poker since it started almost 20 years ago. Most significant has been the shift in game preferences. Poker started with fixed limit betting, with no-limit hold’em now dominating. There have been booms and busts, with the big poker brandsleaving the US, some after the legal changes in 2006, others after 2011. Some sites have recently returned to regulated states providing US players with the opportunity to play real money poker in USA. Globally, real money online poker remains as popular as ever.
Real money poker sites offer four distinct formats online.
- Cash Games: This is the traditional poker format where the chips in front of you have a real monetary value.
- Tournaments: This format gives each player a stack of chips for a fixed buy-in. Prizes are awarded for the player that last longest (with most for the winner). To ensure the action is fast enough, betting levels increase as the tournament progresses.
- Sit N Goes: Small tournaments, often just a single table, with 2 or 3 places paid. Sit N Goes with random prize pools and 3 players (known as lottery Sit N Goes) are a popular sub-format.
- Fast Fold Poker: This system takes you to a new hand the moment you fold. It works by placing players into pools. Fast Fold poker can be used for either tournaments or cash games.
These broad categories only scratch the surface of the diversity of online poker games. The game formats (Pot Limit Omaha and PLO8 are popular), table sizes, bet sizes and buy-ins have wide-ranges. Interesting variants like rebuys, turbo games, knockout tournaments and satellites to live eventsmake things more diverse still.
If you are new to real money internet poker, you can deposit a small amount and play at the micro-stakes. With cash game buy-ins starting at $2 for a full stack and tournaments starting at less than this, there is plenty of opportunity to get familiar with the games without a big outlay. At the other end of the spectrum, you can sit with many thousands of dollars in high-stakes poker games.
Not all Online Poker Sites are Created Equal
You’ll find a lot of differences between the sites when playing online poker real money. Some of these will become obvious as you gain experience, while others are apparent right away.
Here are some of the key things to look out for:
How Tough are the Games?
Some poker sites attract a lot of small stakes pros. This type of player sits at 8 or more tables at once, making a small profit at each table. This can be as little as a few dollars per table per hour. The effect on the games overall depends on the ratio of pros (known as ‘grinders’) to recreational players. Look for sites that discourage multi-tabling, with a better mix of amateur and pro players, and you’ll have a better chance of building your bankroll.
How Big is the Player Pool?
Giants like PokerStars and 888Poker have a big advantage over other international brands. Their size allows them to offer a wider game selection (both variants and buy-in levels). They also get to offer bigger tournament guarantees, which in turn attract more players. Smaller poker sites might only have 1 or 2 tables at your preferred mix of buy-in and game style. In poker, bigger usually means better!
What Bonuses are Available for New Players?
This is a big difference between poker rooms. Most poker bonuses require a deposit. They can be matched to this deposit, or in the form of tokens / tournament entries. You’ll ‘clear’ your bonus by collecting points in real money games based on the buy-in and duration of your play. Look out for poker sites which offer regular incentives and promos for existing players. This will have a larger effect on your bankroll over the long-term than a simple deposit offer.
Other factors which make poker rooms different is the quality of their software, device compatibility and the variety of payment options. All of these are covered in depth below.
Poker Site Software
The software clients used by the major poker sites need to be downloaded onto your PC or Mac. While there are instant-play (browser-based) rooms, they are limited in terms of the game selection and your ability to play multiple games. Only the biggest brands have apps.
There are huge differences between the best and worst online poker software. Some sites look like they are stuck in the early 2000’s – with blocky graphics and game-lobbies which are slow to refresh. Compare these to the best, with resizable tables, avatars and 3D effects, and you’ll never go back!
It is not only the visual aspects of poker rooms which separate their software. You want quick action, the ability to play multiple games at once and advanced features like access to hand-histories and one-click payments too.
Is Online Poker Legal?
In the United States, real money USA poker has a long and tangled history! Prior to 2006, poker was booming. The Federal ‘UIGEA’ bill then made it illegal for the big international brands to offer real money USA games – though it did not criminalize individuals who played them. Different brands, stating that poker was a skill game (and so not ‘gambling’) took over. In 2011 these brands were shut out in an event known as ‘Black Friday’ in the poker community.
While there are offshore sites, lack of oversight makes playing at those sites incredibly risky. These days, there are 3 states with legal online poker sites located within their borders. These are Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey. While the states individually license these rooms (in partnership with brick and mortar casinos), they share game with each other. For example, you could sit in a cash game at a NJ site and play hands with opponents from all 3 states.
The process of regulation at the state level is continuing. Pennsylvania has licensed poker rooms which are coming online shortly, with other states expected to follow.
Outside of these states, the options for US real money poker players legally enjoying poker is limited. Sweepstakes poker sites such as Global Pokerallow you to play for ‘Sweeps Cash’. You get this for free when you purchase ‘gold coins’ – and can cash it out if you win.
Outside of the US, the legal online poker is controlled at a country level. Many countries now license and regulate internet poker rooms. Others take a hands-off approach, relying on international licensing jurisdictions such as Malta or Gibraltar to handle oversight of the rooms.
There is also a ‘grey area’ of low-oversight licensing jurisdictions in the Caribbean and Central America.
Overall, there is no reason for players in most countries (including the USA) to risk playing at an illegal poker site. With the regulated and legal real money sites, you have some recourse in the event of a dispute and are less likely to wake up and find your bankroll gone, should the site close up shop.
US Online Poker Sites
With the legal information above in mind, the choices for USA real money online poker players is limited to regulated sites in NJ, DE and NV – plus Sweepstakes poker rooms elsewhere. Here are the key sites, starting with the 3 regulated states:
#1 New Jersey
Online poker is legal in New Jersey. NJ residents have the biggest choice of poker rooms. As you will see, each site is a partnership between a brick and mortar casino and a respected international online poker brand.
- PokerStars NJ: This site partners with Resorts Atlantic City and is the single biggest US online poker room.
- WSOP.com: A partnership between 888 Poker and Caesars Resorts
- 888 Poker NJ: A separate room which is also a partnership of 888 and Caesars.
- Party Poker NJ: This is a tie-in with the Borgata casino.
There are other casinos which host poker games – though the traffic to these is so small as to make them irrelevant as serious choices.
Delaware Online Poker Rooms
Online poker is legal in Delaware. DE was the first state to license poker rooms, they share software (provided by 888) with one for each of the 3 Racetracks. Here are the options:
- Delaware Park
- Dover Downs
- Harrington Raceway
While the traffic to these sites alone is not enough to provide much action. They do make up for it by sharing traffic with the WSOP.com brands in both Nevada and New Jersey.
Nevada Online Poker Rooms
Like the other two states, online poker is legal in Nevada. NV took a different route. They regulated online poker, but not casinos. There were two sites to start with, though one (Ultimate Poker) has since closed.
This leaves WSOP.com poker – a partnership between Caesars Entertainment and 888 Poker as the remaining room. This site is now part of the World Series of Poker. You can qualify online for the live events, and even win a bracelet in a special online tournament event as part of the series.
US Online Poker States Without Sites
Two states other than the three above have legalized online poker. However, neither state has any active online poker rooms right now.
Pennsylvania is the fourth state to legalize online poker. Online poker was part of the Mountain State’s massive gambling expansion in October 2017.
However, a steep licensing fee and proposed tax rate have delayed the arrival of Pennsylvania’s first app. The launch of these first sites should come in mid-2019.
The 13 casinos interests in the state (12 land-based casinos and one under construction) had the right of first refusal to apply for a license. Of those 13, seven are pursuing online poker sites. They are:
- Harrah’s Philadelphia
- Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course
- Mount Airy Casino
- Parx Casino
- Sands Bethlehem (soon to be Wind Creek Casino and Resort)
- SugarHouse Casino
- Valley Forge Casino
Two other companies outside Pennsylvania has been designated as qualified gaming entities by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. As such, the two, MGM and Golden Nugget, are able to pursue online poker should they choose. However, only MGM has indicated an interest in bringing its own brand of online poker to the Keystone State.
Ideally, Pennsylvania will join the multi-state compact in order to pool its players with those in Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware. However, shared liquidity is in doubt at this moment due to the Department of Justice‘s recent opinion about the Wire Act.
West Virginia is the fifth state in the US to legalize online poker. The West Virginia Lottery Interactive Wagering Act became law on March 27, 2019.
The law will allow the five casinos in the state to apply for and operate online casino and online poker sites. So, the following casinos will be able to pursue online poker in West Virginia are:
- The Casino Club at Greenbrier Resort
- Hollywood Casino Charles Town
- Mardi Gras Casino
- The Mountaineer Hotel, Casino & Resort
- Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack
The bill specifies that state officials must promulgate regulations sometime in 2020. So, 2020 is the earliest time that an online poker app in West Virginia could possibly launch.
Worldwide Online Poker Rooms
When you look outside of the United States, the size of the rooms quickly escalates. Here, some huge brands like Bet365, PokerStars and Party Poker compete across multiple countries.
With so many excellent brands with solid reputations and licenses in multiple jurisdictions, there is little need to play at smaller / unknown sites. That is not to say all smaller poker rooms are bad – some have soft games and innovative software. If you do step outside of the better-known sites, some extra due-diligence on ownership, licensing and game fairness should be performed.
Here are some examples of the biggest and best international poker rooms:
- PokerStars.com: This is the biggest site worldwide by a huge margin, getting 10x the traffic of many of their closest rivals. This allows for huge tournament events, high stakes cash games and many poker formats that you won’t find elsewhere.
- Bet365 Poker: This site is part of the iPoker Network – sharing a common poker back and (and pooling players) with many other sports book brands. Games have a recreational feel, and some tables are exclusive to Bet365 players.
- Party Poker: One of the original poker sites is still going strong, offering a lot of poker events and live tournament qualifiers.
Sweeps Cash Poker Sites
For US players outside of the regulated states, Global Poker has become a legal option. This site uses laws for sweepstakes contests – which are legal in most states (except Washington) – to provide online poker games. The idea is that every cash game hand or tournament is treated as a mini sweepstakes contest.
You get ‘Sweeps Cash’ to play with, which is given ‘free’ when you purchase gold chips using your credit card. You can also get Sweeps Cash by sending in a letter, or by taking part in social media promos. If you win, you can cash out your Sweeps Cash, changing this back into dollars.
There are low stakes cash games in NL Hold’em and PLO format, and plenty of lower buy-in tournaments available. Global Poker claim they are fully legal in the majority of states.