How to Choose an Online Casino
Published on May 12, 2016
You’ll find plenty of so-called guides to Internet gambling, but how many of them actually explain how to choose an online casino?
If you look at most of these guides with a discerning eye, you’ll realize quickly that they’re often little more than lengthy advertisements. That should surprise no one. Everyone knows that there’s a lot of money to be made in the online gambling business.
In fact, it’s estimated that the online casino industry achieve annual revenues in excess of $35 billion. I don’t judge whether or not that’s a good thing or bad things for society in general. My purpose here is more practical than that.
What factors should you consider if and when you’re deciding where to play?
This post offers a detailed analysis of the most important aspects of making that decision.
If you’ve never played at an online casino before, your question might be whether or not the games are rigged. That’s not a bad question, since you’re dealing with companies which might at first seem nameless and faceless.
The short answer is that most online casino games are not rigged—at least not in the way you probably mean.
Online casinos use random number generator software which emulates the same odds and probabilities you would encounter in a live casino. Here’s an example:
You’re playing blackjack at an Internet casino. You’ve been dealt two aces, and you split them into two separate hands. You can expect that your odds of getting a natural on each of those hands are almost 1 in 3. There are 50 cards left in the deck, and 16 of those cards are valued at 10. That’s 32%.
Of course, that example assumes a single deck, but even if the casino software is emulating a blackjack game with 8 decks, you can calculate the odds of getting a 10 on the next card. Now you have 414 cards left, and 128 of them are valued at 10. 128/414 = 30.9%. As you can see, the odds are better in the single deck game, but both of them reflect the odds of that card being dealt from a deck of cards.
This line of thinking applies to games like video poker, too, which also emulates a deck of cards. And craps also has odds that are relatively easy to calculate—after all, you have a limited number of outcomes when rolling 2 dice with 6 sides each. A roulette wheel has slightly fewer than half of its outcomes red or black. And so on.
Casinos, land-based or otherwise, make their money from offering lower odds on the payouts for their bets than the odds of winning. In a sense, all casino games are “rigged” in this way. Here’s an example of how that works:
You’re playing roulette, and you bet on black. That bet pays out at even odds, so if you bet $100 and win, you win $100. If you lose, you lose $100. If half the numbers on the wheel were black and half red, then you’d have a mathematically fair bet.
But on an American roulette wheel, there are 38 numbers. Only 18 of them are black. The other 18 are red. And 2 of them are green.
Those 2 green numbers represent the house edge. Over 38 spins of the roulette wheel, the casino expects to win 20 of those bets. You’re only expected to win 18 of them. The casino makes its profits from winning those extra 2 bets.
Of course, that’s a mathematically perfect scenario, so in the short run, players can (and often do) finish ahead. But one of the interesting aspects of the math is that the longer you play, the more likely it is that your results will resemble the mathematical expected results.
But when most prospective online casino gamblers wonder if these sites are rigged, they want to know if the software somehow makes it impossible to win. Some of these theories are outlandish in the extreme.
Think about it. Why would a casino need to cheat?
They’re already guaranteed (mathematically) of winning in the long run. They don’t have any reason to cheat.
Sure, some Internet casinos might be greedy. In fact, it’s not impossible for them to rig their software to offer even worse odds.
But you’re a lot more likely to run into customer service issues or have trouble cashing out than you are of running into rigged games.
Here’s another fun fact about online casino portals:
They just make up those payback percentages that they post.
Here’s what I mean:
You’ll often run into online casino information sites which offer a table with a list of casinos to choose from. The columns will include information about the signup bonus, the software, and whether or not the casino accepts U.S. players.
Some sites will include a column for “payback percentage”.
That number is almost always completely fictional.
Here’s how I know:
A few years ago I had a conversation with an affiliate manager. (That’s the person at the casino who manages the performance based advertising deals with people who run gambling information sites.) He told me that the best way to increase conversions was to include a table of casinos at the top of the page. He also told me to include a column with payback percentages for the casinos.
When I asked him where I could find that information, he laughed. Then he told me to make the numbers up. That’s what all the other webmasters do, he said.
It didn’t take me long to look at some of the other sites on the Internet and compare what numbers they had listed as their payout percentages. And sure enough, the numbers for a particular casino varied from portal to portal.
You see, online casinos aren’t required to post their payout percentages. That’s not unusual. Land-based casinos don’t make this information available either.
But maybe I should back up for a minute and explain what a payback percentage is. Some newer readers might not be familiar with the term.
The payback percentage is the long-term expected return for each bet you make at a casino. It’s usually used to describe how much of each bet you expect to win back on a slot machine game, but it can be used for any casino game.
Here’s an example:
You’re playing a slot machine with a 75% payback percentage. Every time you wager a dollar, the casino expects to keep 25 cents. You can expect to win 75 cents.
But that happens over a large number of spins.
No one would play a slot machine game which literally paid out 75 cents every time you made a $1 wager. You’d have to be crazy to do that.
Instead, what happens is you’ll win $3 on a spin every now and then. You’ll lose your entire dollar on a spin every now and then.
And since the average slots player makes 600 wagers per hour, the casino and the software desire have a surprisingly large amount of leeway in terms of how those percentages work.
Here’s a simple example:
You could program a dollar slot machine game to provide losing spins 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time, it could be programmed to pay out a win of $3.
Over 100 spins, you’d lose $80 and win $60. So you’d lose $20, on average, every 100 spins. This particular machine would have a payback percentage of 80%.
Most online casinos rely heavily on slot machine play, and the average payback percentage for those games is roughly 75%.
If you want to improve your odds, stick with casino games where you can calculate the actual payback percentage. These include games like blackjack, craps, roulette, and video poker. Since those games emulate cards, dice, and roulette wheels, you can do the math to see what kind of house edge you’re facing. In every one of those instances, you’ll be facing a house edge of far less than 25%.
Another question potential Internet gamblers ask constantly is whether or not online casinos are legal. The answer isn’t as simple as yes or no.
In the United States, it’s illegal in most situations for a casino on the Internet to take bets from U.S. citizens. But in some states (Nevada and Delaware), online casinos are legal and regulated.
But that doesn’t necessarily make it illegal for a player to place a bet with an Internet casino. In fact, from an enforcement standpoint, the government has made it clear that they’re only interested in acting against the companies running the casinos. They have no interest in prosecuting actual gamblers.
But in many states, the legality of online gambling isn’t a clear cut issue anyway, because the laws haven’t caught up with technology. Sure, in Washington state, it’s a felony to play online poker for real money. But most states haven’t even addressed the issue.
Here’s one aspect of online casino gambling that’s clearly illegal, though—facilitating the transfer of funds for purposes of illegal Internet gambling. The federal law in place regarding that activity is called UIGEA, an acronym for “Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act”.
But this law doesn’t really apply to players, either. It applies to banks and other financial institutions.
Here’s what that means:
When a player inputs a credit card number at an online casino site, a bank somewhere handles the transfer of funds from that player’s credit card to the online casino. That bank is supposed to deny that transaction if it’s for the purposes of illegal gambling.
How do they do that?
When someone charges a credit card, the company on the other end uses a code to denote what that charge is for. If it’s flagged accurately by the business on the other end, it’s clear what it’s being used for. In the case of an Internet casino, it would be flagged as a transaction for the purpose of wagers.
Online casinos get around this by setting up dummy corporations and mis-coding their transactions. The credit card company might think you’re paying for cell phone minutes or shoes or something.
Setting up these dummy corporations is a clear violation of UIGEA.
Luckily, most people who are planning to gamble on the Internet are never going to be in a position to do such a thing. They’re just trying to deposit $200 so that they can play a few hands of blackjack.
The United States government hasn’t yet gotten to the point where it’s intolerant of that behavior from its citizens. In fact, its attitude is more of a paternal, I want to protect you from these evil companies, mindset.
I have my own opinion of this kind of thinking from our lawmakers, and I’m guessing that many of my readers have a similar opinion. I don’t need to be protected from myself. If I want a beer, then I should be allowed to drink it. If I want to place a few blackjack bets on the Internet, then I should be allowed to place those bets.
Keep in mind, too, that the legal situation in the United States is different from state to state. It’s also different in other countries, too. In more enlightened parts of the world, like the United Kingdom, online casinos have been legal and regulated for years. In less enlightened parts of the world, like Iraq, online gambling is considered a great crime and a sin.
So here’s the answer to the question about whether or not online casinos are legal:
It depends mostly on where you live.
Of more concern to most players is whether or not you can trust one of these companies with your money. You’ll find plenty of information sites which claim to be watchdogs. Some of these information sites are better than others, but you should keep in mind that almost all of them have a conflict of interest. They might only advertise casinos they trust, but they’re still taking money from the companies they’re supposed to be watchdogs for. In almost any other business, that would be considered a large conflict of interest.
You’ll find plenty of these sites offering “casino blacklists”, though.
What are “blacklisted casinos”?
They’re casinos where the information site owner recommends that you avoid playing for one reason or another.
Here’s an example:
On Michael Shackleford’s site, the Wizard of Odds, he shares an anecdote about AmigoTechs, which is an online casino software. A player there had played 922 hands of Jacks or Better video poker. In that number of hands, he never hit a draw to get a winning hand.
According to Shackleford, who is an actuary by training, the odds of that happening in a random game are 1 in 434,095,228,338,431,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
And no, that’s not a typo.
In fact, that’s clear example of an online casino using “rigged” software.
Winaday and Slotland are also included on his blacklist for a similar reason. They offer games that look like card games but don’t emulate the odds of being dealt winning hands from a deck of cards. In other worse, their card games are actually slot machine games. That’s misleading.
Another site which offers an interesting casino blacklist is Bryan Bailey’s Casinomeister. This is your classic example of a watchdog site, because the entire theme of the site relates to whether or not you can or should trust particular casinos. The complaints about most of the casinos listed there relate to their willingness to actually pay out winnings when they’re supposed to.
As I write this, the most recent casino to earn a place in his “rogue pit” is Fenix Casino. The reason listed is that the casino is arbitrarily canceling players’ cashouts. Vic’s Bingo had a similar issue with a player who had won $30,000. They just flat refused to pay the player.
These kinds of complaints are a lot more common than complaints about the software not allowing players to win.
But you should keep in mind that not every information site with a blacklist has your best interests at heart. Yeah, they might include a list of places to avoid, but that doesn’t mean the casinos who ARE advertising on their sites are trustworthy. It’s entirely possible for an information site to offer a list of casinos to avoid and a list of casinos to trust and still recommend casinos which are less than safe.
How can you tell which information portals are trustworthy?
Some common sense can help out a lot with this one. Read the reviews on the site. Do they seem balanced? Do they include pros and cons for each casino? Or is every review a glowing assessment?
Real reviews provide information to help users make educated decisions. The presence of a lot of marketing speak in a review indicates that the site is less useful (and possibly less honest). For example, if every review on the site talks about state of the art games and thousands of satisfied players, well… those aren’t reviews at all, are they?
They’re just ads.
You’ll also find lots of casino and gambling information sites which offer little or no information about the people who operate the site. If you can’t find an about page or a contact page on an information site, then be cautious about believing what you read there.
One of the aspects of the Wizard’s sites and Casinomeister’s sites are that the owners and authors of each site make it clear who’s running the show. Those are the kinds of sites you want to do business with—the ones with little or nothing to hide.
Be skeptical of most recommendations on most sites, even those that offer what look like extensive lists of “blacklisted casinos”. Just because a site recommends avoiding certain casinos doesn’t mean that such sites are automatically in your corner.
You should also consider what kind of playing experience you’re looking to have. A few years ago, most gamblers played from their laptop or desktop computers. In fact, a lot of gambling sites didn’t even have an option for players who didn’t want to download their software.
But the use of mobile devices to access online gambling sites has increased dramatically. In fact, more than 50% of all the Web traffic to most of my own websites now access those sites via a mobile device rather than a laptop or desktop. That’s a huge percentage.
As a result, many online casinos now offer no download versions of their games. These are games which can be played in an Internet browser without a download. Some Internet casinos aimed at mobile users also offer apps on which you can play.
The gameplay experience differs slightly between a download and a no download casino, but the odds remain the same. The differences mostly have to do with how robust the graphics and the sound effects are. If you’re looking for an immersive online casino experience, consider limiting your play to your desktop or laptop computer, and download the software. Frankly, you’ll probably be amazed at how well such software simulates the experience of being in a live casino.
On the other hand, if you travel a lot, or if you just prefer using your mobile device, look for casinos which offer a good quality no download experience. You can find lists of recommendations for that kind of casino on this page of our site.
And some players like to play with live dealers via Webcam. Sometimes these casinos require a download, sometimes not. This is a less popular way of gambling on the Internet, but it’s becoming more popular over time. Some players feel more comfortable with the randomness of the games if they can see an actual person on the other end of a Webcam turning over real cards from real decks. Such sites offer a limited number of games, but they can be a lot of fun for the right kind of player.
Most online casinos use one of a limited number of software packages to power their games. So even if a casino’s website has a different name and looks completely different from another’s, it might offer the exact same games as that other casino. That’s because they’re both leasing the same software.
Players develop preferences for one software program over another. I used to enjoy the slots at Microgaming casinos, but I hated the slots at Playtech casinos. I had friends who had diametrically opposite preferences, too.
Which software is in use not only affects which games are available, but also what they look and sound like. More importantly, the payback percentages for certain games vary from software package to software package, too.
Here are some of the more important names in online casino software along with a brief appraisal of each:
Betsoft – They’re best known for offering robust 3D slot machine games. In fact, their slot machine games are far better designed than the games from any other provider on the Web. If you’re looking for the best table games, they might not be the right choice, but slot machine players love casinos powered by Betsoft.
Microgaming – They’re best known for offering a large number of progressive jackpot games—in fact, they’re the industry leader when it comes to huge jackpots. They don’t allow players from the United States, though. Some players complain that the games are “cartoony”. Still, they’re one of the largest and most popular software providers, and they offer a huge number of games.
Net Entertainment – They specialize in no download games and live dealer games. They also offer lower betting limits than some other game providers.
Playtech – Like Microgaming, they don’t allow real money players from the United States. They offer a large number of games, although not quite as many as Microgaming. They’re probably the #2 largest provider of casino games on the Internet.
Realtime Gaming – RTG is known as one of the most affordable options for the fledgling Internet casino provider. As such, the look and feel of their games is what you might expect from the low-cost provider (ahem). But they’re well-known for being United States friendly, which is a big plus in today’s environment. The games don’t look great, but they look good, and they run fast.
Rival – At one time, Rival was the big up and comer in the industry, but they didn’t make as much of a splash as the industry had hoped. They haven’t fizzled out completely, though, either. Like RTG, their biggest selling point seems to be how friendly they are toward real money players from the United States.
WagerWorks – This is the online arm of IGT, which is the largest designer of slot machines in the world. If you’re looking to play the exact same games online that you’ve seen in a casino, like Wheel of Fortune slots, this is the software which provides those games. Unfortunately, they don’t allow real money players from the United States.
One aspect of playing at casinos on the Internet is the free money available in the form of bonuses and promotions. At one time, a smart advantage player could take advantage of such offers to get an edge over the casinos, but as you’ll soon see, that window of opportunity is now closed. I have a friend who made enough money taking advantage of these bonus offers that he was able to buy himself a jukebox, but that was ten years ago.
Here’s who a signup bonus works:
The casino matches a certain percentage of your first deposit with free chips.
Here’s an example:
You might deposit $3000 at a property that offers a 100% matching bonus of up to $3000.
Instead of having a $3000 bankroll at that casino, you have a $6000 bankroll.
But there’s a catch.
You have to wager that bonus amount and your deposit amount a certain number of times before cashing out. The casinos do this because otherwise players would take advantage of this free money to guarantee themselves a profit.
The number of times you have to wager the bonus plus your deposit is called the casino’s wagering requirement or playthrough requirement.
The number is usually larger than you think, too. It might be as much as 30X or 40X.
And usually the casino doesn’t allow play from low house edge games to count toward those wagering requirements. In fact, most casinos want you to restrict your use of their signup bonus to their slot machine games.
Here’s a look at how the math works:
You have your $6000 bankroll from the example earlier, and you want to wager that 30 times in order to achieve your playthrough requirements. That’s $180,000 in wagers, which seems impossible until you consider that a certain percentage of the time (maybe 40%) your wagers will result in wins for you.
Assume you’re playing for $3 per spin and making 600 spins per hour, you’re putting $1800 per hour into action. It will take you 100 hours to fulfill your wagering requirements.
You don’t know what the house edge is on these slot machine games, but let’s assume that you’re playing at a casino with a generous 80% payback percentage. That means you can expect to lose 20% of the amount you’re wagering.
20% of $180,000 is $3600, which leaves you with $2400 after you’ve completed your wagering requirements.
Of course, you probably won’t see actual numbers that mirror the expected numbers that closely. You might be ahead by a few hundred dollars. You might even be down by a few hundred dollars.
But mathematically, you can see how the casino has made it so that it’s almost impossible to guarantee yourself a profit by taking advantage of their signup bonus.
And that’s okay. Casinos don’t stay in business by giving away money to smart players.
You should be treating gambling as an entertainment expense anyway.
Casinos also often offer ongoing promotions in the form of redeposit bonuses. You can almost always find the details for those promotions on their Websites. They’ll also send regular emails explaining their ongoing promotions.
The bottom line is that you shouldn’t get too excited about online casino bonuses and promotions. Yeah, it’s free money to play with, but the math is still on their side, not yours.
And that’s by design.
Players in enlightened countries where online gambling is legal and regulated usually don’t have too much of a problem making deposits at online casinos. They usually just charge their deposits to their Visa or MasterCard.
But in the United States, getting money to and from a casino can be problematic at best.
Spending some time investigating which deposit methods work well for players who live where you live is a good idea. Most Internet casinos offer customer service via chat, email, and/or text. If you’re having trouble making a deposit, they’ll be happy to help you figure out something that will work.
Credit cards aren’t the only option, either. E-Wallets like PayPal often work, too, although in the United States, PayPal are restrictive in the extreme when it comes to gambling transactions. Other e-wallets, like NETeller and Skrill, specialize in these kinds of transactions. Unfortunately, some of these companies don’t work with United States customers, either.
E-checks are another option. And cash transfer services like Moneygram and Western Union are also possibilities.
The cashier page on the casino’s site offers a lot of information about which deposit methods are best for a particular casino. And legitimate casino reviews at reputable information sites often include an overview of deposit options for the property under review.
Investigating player forums about the quality of the customer service and the speed with which cashouts are handled is a good idea, too. The #1 complaint at most online casinos relates to how long it takes to get your money out when you’re ready to make a withdrawal. In some cases, casinos delay for seemingly arbitrary reasons, and they do so repeatedly. I’ve seen players who have tried to cash out their winnings who didn’t see their money for months—in some cases, never.
If a casino doesn’t pay out its winners in a timely manner, it doesn’t matter if they offer fair games or not. In fact, a casino which is willing to avoid paying players can afford to offer games with a really low house edge. After all, they’re unlikely to ever pay their winners anyway.
One strategy that a lot of casinos like to use is to allow players to reverse their withdrawal requests. Let’s face it. Lots of players love to be in action, and if they get a chance to reverse their withdrawal request while it’s in “pending” status, the casino gets a chance to win that money back before it ever gets paid to the player.
And since the math favors the casino, there’s a good chance that this is exactly the outcome you can expect.
The 3 things you need to look for?
The reverse time is the amount of time that your funds can be reversed. A casino with a 0 reverse time doesn’t allow you to reverse your withdrawal. A casino with a 48 hour reverse time leaves your withdrawal in pending status for 2 days. At any point during those 2 days, you can reverse the withdrawal and start playing with that money again.
You should look for casinos with low reverse times.
The cashout time is how long it takes to get your money to your payment processor. The best casinos have the lowest cashout times. 72 hours or more is flat-out unacceptable. Try to play at casinos which process cashouts in 24 hours or less.
Withdrawal limits are arbitrary limits to the size of your withdrawals. Most casinos have a weekly limit for how much you can withdraw. The ideal situation is to play at a site which has no withdrawal limits, but failing that, you should look for withdrawal limits in excess of $5000.
You might think this doesn’t apply to you, especially if you’re a low roller depositing $100 or $200 at a time.
But what happens when you hit a slot machine jackpot for $10,000?
Do you really want to withdraw $2000 a week for 5 weeks?
And even if you’re okay with that, do you have enough self-control and the wherewithal to not play with that money while you’re cashing it out a little bit at a time.
That’s what I thought.
Gambling at online casinos can be a fun hobby, especially if you have the disposable income to afford it. But you have a lot to consider before getting started.
It’s important that you investigate reputations thoroughly and use discernment when reading information sites. Take casino blacklists with a grain of salt, but look at them.
Learn to distinguish between real reviews and advertorials. Most online gambling information portals offer the latter, not the former.
Don’t worry so much about the games being rigged. That’s unusual.
But do worry about the cashout policies at the property you’re considering. Not being able to get your winnings can be one of the most frustrating experiences of your life. It’s also an experience you can probably avoid with by doing a little bit of homework.
Don’t get too excited about signup bonuses. They offer you a chance to get a lot more gambling in for your money, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Your odds of walking away a winner because of a signup bonus are practically slim.
Finally, make yourself aware of the local laws and use good sense and judgment if you do gamble at an online casino. It’s fun, but there are risks.