Are you curious about how online poker works?
We don’t blame you. It’s not as clear as live poker.
With live poker, you walk in, choose from the games they have listed, sign up and sit down when there’s an empty chair or when the tournament is scheduled to start.
It’s clear who owns the poker room. It’s clear who gets paid, and how that process works. And if you’re playing in a legit poker room or casino, you know they’re licensed and regulated. You can quickly find by who, too, by asking the staff or doing a quick Google search.
But it’s not the same online. There are more hands in the pie, and it’s not clear who each hand belongs to. It’s all done online, behind computers, firewalls and servers.
And while knowing how this all works shouldn’t affect your experience, it’s still good (and maybe reassuring) to know who you’re giving your credit card info to, who your poker room is regulated by, and how the games work.
Don’t you think so?
Then let’s jump into it. We break this down for you into 4 sections below.
One big difference between a live and online poker room – that you’ll most likely never see – is that online poker sites have a physical location, but not for housing tables, chairs and players.
It’s to house their servers, customer support staff, and any other staff they may need to run their business instead. Which they’ll need to do according to the rules set by the gaming authorities and regulators based in the area their servers are located in.
For example, if your servers are in Canada, then chances are the rules set by Canada’s gaming authorities are the ones you’ll need to follow.
These rules can be enforced on a federal (country or nationwide), state AND/OR local (city or town) basis. Each area will be different.
It’s up to each jurisdiction to create and enforce the rules. Then it’s up to the poker room’s parent company to make sure they follow the rules. The more they follow the rules, the better you can feel about playing there.
There are many gambling jurisdictions and licensing authorities. These are the most common ones:
The rules cover things like the types of customers they can accept, the types of games they can offer, fees they can charge, software tests, and so on.
If a company ever fails to live up to these rules, the jurisdiction can remove their licensing. For many poker sites this is usually the (public) beginning of the end.
It’s less common today, but a few years ago lots of poker sites were a part of a network. Carbon Poker, who was on the Merge Network, is a good example of this.
Every network is different. But they usually offer a white label platform any company could use to quickly jump start their poker program.
White label basically means “business in a box”. This means the network would supply all or a combination of the following:
The player base was/is real important because few sites – especially new ones – have the player base necessary to sustain regular, consistent games. And without games running it’s hard for a poker site to take off.
Network sites are often referred to as ‘skins’ because the only thing different about each poker room is what they looked like. Nearly everything else – from the games to how the software worked to the promotions – was the same.
In some ways this is great because there’s consistency between poker rooms. If the software is good at Poker Room A, then no doubt Poker Room B is good, too. You can sign up to Poker Room B knowing you’ll enjoy their games.
There are problems with this model, though.
For one thing, there’s nothing unique from one room to the next. The only reason to try another room out is to get their welcome bonus.
Another thing we don’t like about skins is how easy and cheap it is to start one. For as little as ten or twenty grand you could start a skin. It’s great if you’re legit. But such a low barrier to entry attracts the scum too, and we’ve seen a lot of that. A Google search for Carbon Poker, Lock Poker or Aced Poker will keep you busy for hours.
The worst part is if the jurisdiction is so laid back that they let this happen and don’t do anything to prevent it from happening again.
So, it’s a good idea to not only review the poker site you’re joining, but to have an idea of who they’re licensed and regulated by. That will give you a good idea as to the quality of the room you’re thinking about joining.
Getting started is simple.
You’ll visit the poker site you want to join and click the ‘join now’ button.
Then you’ll fill out a form asking for details including your name, address, phone number, and so on. They’re required if you want to play for real money.
You’ll need to choose a screen name, too, unless the site doesn’t use one (like Bovada).
That’s it. Like we said, it’s simple.
Once you click submit you’ll want to check your email. Most poker sites send you a verification email with a link you’ll need to click to prove you’re you.
The next step is to make a deposit. This is simple, too.
All poker sites have a cashier section. Here they’ll have anywhere from 3 to 20+ different banking options you can use to fund your account. The options available to you will depend on where you’re playing from.
The most common options are credit/debit cards and bank wires.
From there it’s like shopping online. You’ll plug in your details and the amount you want to deposit – then click submit.
One of the neat things about playing online are the min and max deposit limits. Many sites let you deposit as little as $5 or $10.
The poker sites aren’t the ones (usually) processing your payments. Like both on and offline stores, online poker sites work with 3rd party companies to have their payments processed.
Do keep in mind some sites will charge a fee when you make your deposit. Few sites do. We’re assuming because they don’t want to discourage you from making a deposit. But keep in mind some will.
And when you first make your deposit most poker sites will offer you a welcome bonus. The most common offers are either a free small cash bonus, or a match welcome bonus. The latter is the most popular.
The general idea behind match offers is the poker site will match a percentage of your deposit up to so many dollars.
For example, a 100% match bonus up to $600 would mean that for every dollar you deposited, the poker site will give you another dollar – up to a max of $600.
One thing you want to pay attention to are the terms. Nearly all promos come with terms that will say you need to wager so many dollars or hands before you get to keep your bonus money (if they let you keep it), let alone the money you won using it.
From there you’ll usually have several promos to take advantage of while playing. Like more bonus offers and VIP schemes.
You’ll earn those by playing real money games.
Online poker games are tough to cover, generally speaking, because there are so many games online. WAY more than you’ll ever find offered in a live poker room. And the reason for that is simple.
There’s just not enough space in a brick and mortar casino. But there’s darn near infinite space in an online casino. Which is also one of the reasons why they can offer free poker games.
Anyway, here’s a shortlist of the poker games you can play online:
Then you have variations like:
Which you can play in formats like
In stakes ranging from free to .01 to $2,000+ per hand/game.
And this is barely scratching the surface. There are way more variations and games than what’s listed here. And that makes for a TON of different combinations and choices to pick from.
The options available will depend on where you choose to play. You can learn more about a site’s games by reading reviews or checking out the poker room’s website.
You can also sign up for free and browse the lobby. The games are clearly labeled, and you’ll usually find a key so you know what each symbol means. The lobby also tells you the buy-in, the time the games start, and how many players there will be per table.
It’s also here you can (usually) see how much the poker room is making off you.
For example, say you sign up for a $15 + $1 SNG. The $1 is the poker room’s rake or fee for you to play.
In the case of cash games, they’ll either tell you on their site or on the table itself what their rake is. It’s not always as obvious as it is for tournaments, but it’s always posted somewhere.
And, like live poker, there are caps to how much the poker room can earn per tournament or per cash game hand. This is all listed (usually) on the poker room’s website.
Of course, you can usually play online for free too. You’ll just need to find that section of the poker room (labeled free or play money). Then they’ll give you so many credits to play with. Some sites, like PokerStars, even sell free money credits if you don’t have the patience to play and earn them.
As for the games themselves, they’re unlike live poker in that each hand is dealt by a random number generator. These aren’t 100% random, but thanks to the combination of the algorithm used and the values they place on each card, it’s random enough no player could ever find a pattern or hack it.
Depending on the game you’ll exit/finish differently. Cash games you can usually get up whenever you want. You can also sit out.
With tournaments you can sit out or lose your stack (bust).
In either format you can also be disconnected, either from a bad internet connection on your end or something wrong happening with the poker site.
You’ll want to read the poker site’s rule to know more about how they handle each of those cases, plus other things like cancelations, delays, cheating, and so on.
In most, if not all cases, if you have money on the table or if you’ve won any money, it’ll be added to your balance right away when you leave.
Cashing out is the opposite of depositing with a few exceptions.
For one thing, you’ll usually have fewer banking options. Especially if you’re in the US. The most common options are checks and bank wires. Money transfers are popular, too.
Cash outs usually take longer. Between processing and the time it takes for the funds to get to you, you can wait a few days to a few weeks. In some cases, you can even wait months.
It really depends on the site and where you live. if you live in the US or anywhere else online poker is a gray area (or illegal), and you play on less than stellar or reputable sites as a result, then chances are cash out times are going to be slower.
Everywhere else though? You’ll wait hours to a few days max.
Fees are more common on cash outs. We think poker sites are less likely to cover your fees since you’re pulling money OFF their site (instead of depositing to play).
Fees will vary from a few bucks to a flat $30-$60 (or more) per cash out. The more expensive options are bank wires, money transfers and checks.
Sometimes the poker site will give you the first one or two cash outs of the money for free. From there all cash outs will cost you something.
The best way to know which site charges what fee though is to read reviews and double check their banking sections on their sites.
Now you know how online poker sites work.
Pretty simple, huh?
The biggest difference between online and live poker rooms is that, online, you don’t get to see everything that goes on in running the room. You don’t see the transactions, other players, support staff, or any of the tech stuff.
And that can make a person uneasy.
But now that you have an idea of how things work, you can feel a bit better about depositing and playing online.
And if you ever need any help, or can’t find the answers on our site or in the poker site’s FAQ, you can ask the room. The most common methods of communication are email and live chat. Some rooms offer a phone or IM option, too.
They’ll be more than happy to help.