Online Poker Site FAQ - Questions & Answers

Poker enthusiasts who are used to playing the game primarily in the homes of their friends and family - or even in their local land-based casino - generally have a litany of questions when making the transition to playing poker online.

While answering every question a new player could possibly have is an impossible task, this article collects the questions that, in our decade of experience with online poker, have proven to be the most commonly asked by (and the most important to) prospective online poker players.

Use the links below to guide you to the answers to some of the most popular online poker questions.

What's the difference between online poker and live poker?

Online poker and live poker share the same general set of rules, the same 52 cards in the deck and much of the same jargon.  Neither is inherently superior to the other, so a discussion of differences comes down mostly to things that individual players might prefer.

The pace of play is one core difference between online poker and live poker.  While playing online it's literally possible to see thirty, forty, or even fifty times the amount of hands per hour that you would expect to see playing live.  For some players, this is appealing - they like the constant action.  For others, however, the speed of play online takes some of the fun (not to mention the social aspect) out of poker and is therefore a drawback.

Another difference worth considering is the sheer size of online poker rooms compared to live rooms.  Tournaments with thousands of entrants are daily affairs at multiple online poker rooms, while a live tournament with over a thousand entrants is a somewhat uncommon affair.  A mid-sized casino poker room might boast somewhere around 30-40 cash game tables during busy hours; large online poker rooms play host to hundreds of tables  - thousands at the top rooms - around the clock.  Here preference again comes into play; one class of player is going to like the smaller room where he or she is familiar with most of the regular players, while another will enjoy the steady stream of new opponents and options.

While the subject of the differences between online and live poker could itself fill up an entire website, we'll consider just one final point of departure: Stakes.  In poker jargon, stakes refer to the size of the game in terms of the money involved.  Because online poker rooms are not constrained by physical space, they can offer as many "tables" as they like, including real money games involving very small amounts - down to pennies.  These games, called micro-stakes, simply cannot be run profitably at live casinos and are therefore unavailable outside of online poker rooms.  Those aspiring poker players with limited bankrolls may unable to play within their means at a live casino, but an online poker room offers them a buffet of budget-friendly options. Back to Top

How do online poker sites make money?

Online poker rooms make money by charging players to participate in their games.  This charge can take a number of forms, the dominant one being the rake.  The rake seems a little mysterious to players at first, but there's really nothing to it.  When you're playing cash games, the rake is a small charge, based on the size of the pot, that is removed from qualifying pots before the pot is awarded to the winning player.  A qualifying pot is generally one where players see the flop (sometimes the pot must also reach some minimum amount).  The charge is usually somewhere between 3%-10% of the pot and is capped at a maximum amount that varies by game size and type (caps are usually somewhere under $5 at online poker rooms).

When you're playing a poker tournament, the room doesn't take rake from each pot.  Instead, they just charge every player a small fee upfront to take place in the tournament - basically, you just pay your rake upfront.  There is a fairly standard way that the cost of a tournament is expressed at online poker rooms: One number (the amount that goes to the prize pool) followed by a plus sign and a second number (the rake, or fee for entering the tournament).  Example:  A tournament that is listed as $50+$5 costs $55 to enter.  Of that $55, the first number - $50 - is the amount that goes to the overall pot that can be won in the tournament.  The second is the rake, and does not count toward the prize pool.

A few online poker rooms offer an alternative to the rake model.  Generally referred to as subscription-based poker, these rooms charge players a membership fee to play at the room but then charge no additional rake for cash games or tournaments.  The room also funds prize pools completely from subscriptions in this model; players cannot deposit or risk their own money).  Subscription-based poker is largely focused on the US market, as the model avoids some of the legal issues that a rake-based online poker room faces when operating in the United States. Back to Top

What type of software do I need? Am I required to download the software?

Two separate, but related, questions with simple answers.  You don't need any special software to play online poker.  Each poker room has their own software, and the software is always available free of charge.  Modern online poker rooms are light applications that should cause little stress even on older or outdated systems, and most major online poker rooms often software versions for both Mac and PC.

For players who either don't want to download or are unable to download, many rooms offer a version of their software that doesn't require you to download and install anything at all.  Sometimes called Flash or Instant Play versions, these variants generally require only access to an Internet browser like Chrome, IE or Firefox. 

In addition to downloadable clients and no download versions of online poker rooms, an increasing number of operators are offering mobile access to their games.  The mobile version rarely requires a download to your computer; players usually need only to install an application on their mobile device or (simpler yet) to visit a specific website using their mobile browser. Back to Top

How do cash games work?

Players in an online poker cash game are putting their money at risk for the chance to directly win the money of their opponents.  In cash games, the bets that all participating players make in an individual hand go into a single pot, and the player who is either the last to fold or who shows the best hand when betting is concluded wins the entire pot (hands of equivalent strength split the pot). 

While cash games are almost always played with chips, the chips have a direct relationship to the money they represent and can be exchanged for that money at any point before or following an individual hand.  Players cannot, however, remove money from their stack and continue to play in the game.  The only way to remove chips from your stack and convert them to money is to exit the game entirely.

Cash games are table stakes, meaning players can never be forced to risk more money than they have in play.  This prevents players with deep pockets from betting players out of hands altogether.

Blind size is static in cash games, meaning the size of the blinds does not change during the course of the games.  The size of the blinds (or the amount of the maximum buy in) is generally used to describe the game - so a no limit holdem game with a small blind of $5 and a big blind of $10 and a maximum buy in of $1000 would be referred to as either $5/$10 NL or $1000 NL.

Players can join or exit cash games at any time and generally have some choice regarding how much money they would like to put in play.  Most cash game tables have a minimum amount and a maximum amount that a player can buy in for.  While these thresholds vary by room, the standard maximum buy in is usually 100 times the size of the big blind in the game, and the minimum buy in is usually around 20 times the size of the blind. 

Cash games rarely have any limit on rebuying - after losing all of their chips, a player can continue to buy chips and participate in the game as long as they have the money to buy chips with.  To put it another way, a player can only go "bust" when they're personally out of funds.  Back to Top

How do poker tournaments work?

Poker tournaments operate in a much different fashion than cash games.  In tournament play, participants pay a flat amount upfront, along with a charge the room takes for hosting the tournament.  That flat amount goes into the overall prize pool, which is distributed to the top finishers in the tournament.  The amount of finishers that receive money and the value they receive varies by individual room and tournament, but generally speaking tournaments award prizes to the top 10% of finishers, with an overwhelming share reserved for the top two or three finishers.

For example: A typical online poker tournament might have a buy in of $30+$3.  The $30 is the flat amount that goes to the prize pool, and the $3 is what the room takes.  If 100 players enter, the total prize pool will be $30*100, or $3000.  Of the 100 players, only 10 will share in the prize pool, with the first place finisher receiving something like 25% of the total prize pool.

In most poker tournaments, all players start with the same amount of chips.  When an individual player loses all of his or her chips, they are eliminated from play and cannot return to the tournament.  A poker tournament ends when one player has all of the chips (or when all remaining players agree to a deal to end the tournament). 

Another unique aspect of tournaments: Blinds and antes (the forced bets players must put in the pot before seeing their cards) steadily increase in size as the tournament progresses.  This aspect of tournaments is primarily intended to bring tournaments to relatively swift conclusions. 

While chips in a cash game are directly related to money, the chips in a tournament do not have a direct relationship to the money in the prize pool and do not have any cash value.  With the exception of so-called "cashout" tournaments, players cannot exchange their tournament chips for money at any point in the tournament.

Poker tournaments come in an ever-increasing variety of formats.  In addition to the "cashout" variant mentioned above, players can also try their hand at rebuy tournaments, where players can purchase additional chips for their stack, re-entry tournaments where players can buy back into the tournament after losing their original stack, and turbo and super-turbo tournaments where the blinds are increased far more rapidly than those in a standard tournament - just to name a small percentage of the different tournament types available to online poker players. Back to Top

Can I play real money poker online?

Individuals looking to play at a real money poker site have literally hundreds of options to choose from.  In most regions, playing poker online for real money is a relatively simple process that takes just a few minutes to get underway.  After choosing a poker room, players have only to download the software, provide a few basic details to create an account and finally make their first deposit (most poker rooms accept major credit cards or ewallets like PayPal) before they'll be playing against others for real money.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of players compete over millions of hands, with millions more in real money wagered at online poker rooms.  Major rooms like PokerStars have dealt billions of hands since opening their doors, and processed nearly as much in deposits from and withdrawals to individual players.  With track records like that, players should feel more than comfortable depositing and playing for real money at reputable, properly licensed online poker rooms.

Is playing poker online safe?

Any time you engage in a financial transaction online, you're taking some amount of risk.  Online poker is no exception to that rule. 

The good news is that almost all security risks associated with online can be significantly mitigated - or eliminated altogether - with some simple actions and habits that all online poker players should integrate into their routine.

You face two primary risks when playing online poker.  The first is that you'll encounter an unscrupulous operator.  While relatively rare when compared to the industry as a whole, there have been examples of poker rooms that - for various reasons - were unable to honor the balances of their players.  This risk can be mitigated by simply sticking with the very largest poker rooms that are regulated by first-tier jurisdictions like the UK and Malta and by keeping no more money in an online poker room than necessary.

The second risk is that an individual will attempt to compromise your account.  The good news is that poker room accounts are vulnerable to hacking only when owners of those accounts fail to take proper precautions.  Never access a poker room for a public or insecure internet connection.  Use a completely separate email for online poker, as email hacks are the most popular route to gaining control of someone's poker account.  A few rooms offer two-step authentication procedures (like a PIN or RSA token) for logging in, and if your room is one you should absolutely take advantage of the service.  Finally,  common-sense steps like keeping your anti-virus and anti-malware protection current and running scans regularly can help you avoid the unfortunate fate of having your online poker accounts compromised.

As you can see, online poker can easily be enjoyed safely by the vast majority of players, especially if players remain aware, alert and are vigilant about reducing their exposure. Back to Top

Are online poker sites rigged?

No.  This is a persistent myth that is rooted in two common misconceptions.  The first is that a poker room makes more money if the deck is "juiced" - if players are regularly playing very large pots with very strong hands.  This is false; as discussed above, rooms cap rake at a small amount per pot and - generally speaking - make the same amount of money from a $30 pot as they would from a $200 pot.  Rooms have no incentive to fix or rig hands to create action - if anything, rigging hands in such a way would only guarantee them a steady stream of players heading for the exits.  After all, no one likes bad beats, and delivering more of them than average seems an especially poor business plan for an online poker room.

The second common misconception is that small sample sizes should mirror large sample sizes in terms of hand outcomes.  Example:  While you will on average flop a set about one out of every 7.5 times you take a pocket pair to the flop, that is no guarantee that you'll hit the set the seventh time if you've missed the first six.  While you will be dealt pocket aces about once in every 220 hands, missing them for 219 doesn't mean the next hand will be aces.  This is a very difficult concept for some people to grasp, and as a result they start to feel like the game is rigged against them as the outcomes they expected clash with the unpredictable and arbitrary outcomes that can occur when you're dealing with a small sample size.

Finally, to be brutally honest about it, many players who claim the game is rigged simply find that explanation for their loss (it's rarely winning players who you'll find shouting about rigged games) to be far more palatable than competing explanations such as their lack of skill or talent.

Is it legal to play poker online?

For more people than not, the answer to this question is yes.  Even jurisdictions that outlaw the operation of online poker rooms generally do not have laws that target individual players.

Furthermore, poker is treated less harshly than other forms of gambling by many governments.  Part of the reason for this unique treatment is because some countries view poker as a game of skill, distinct from pure games of chance like slots or roulette; part of it is due to the esteemed and long-established position poker holds in many cultures. 

It's obviously important to confirm the legality of any action - especially actions involving financial transactions - with the law of your jurisdiction.  With that said, we are not aware of any prosecution of an individual player based solely on a charge of playing online poker so most players should have little reason to worry. Back to Top

Is it legal for Americans to play poker online?

This is a question that lacks a definitive answer, because there is no Federal law regarding online poker.  That means the final legal word on online poker lies with each individual state. 

For the majority of players from the United States, the answer is somewhere between "probably" and "yes."  For players from the state of Washington, the answer is "no" - that US state has a law that specifically criminalizes the playing of online poker.  For players in states where land-based gambling is legal (usually in the form of casino or racetrack), there are usually laws on the books that, while not mentioning online poker specifically, could be interpreted to prohibit playing poker online.

Law is always going to be a matter of subjective interpretation to some degree, so players from the United States are encouraged to review the laws of their state and determine for themselves the relative risk (or lack thereof) of playing online poker.  The one critical fact on the ground:  There is zero history of prosecution of online poker players in the United States outside of the state of Washington.

What is the UIGEA and how does it affect me?

The UIGEA is shorthand for the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.  Passed in October of 2006, the UIGEA is a federal law in the United States that concerns payment processing related to illegal online gambling.

There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding the UIGEA, so before talking about what the law does it might be helpful to briefly note what the UIGEA does not do:

  1. The UIGEA does not outlaw online poker
  2. The UIGEA does not make it a crime for individuals to play online poker
  3. The UIGEA does not make it a crime to operate an online poker room
  4. The UIGEA is not a ban on online poker

What the UIGEA specifically does is assign penalties for processing payments related to illegal gambling.  The law does not define what constitutes illegal online gambling; rather, the UIGEA requires a US state law to be violated before any penalties from the UIGEA can apply. 

Many people believe that the UIGEA was some sort of online poker ban largely due to the industry upheaval created by the passage of the law.  Several publicly-traded companies such as Party Poker and 888 Poker decided that continuing to operate in the United States risked too much shareholder wrath and exited the market after the UIGEA was passed, but online poker as a whole continued to flourish in the United States for several years following the passage of the UIGEA. Back to Top

Do I need to pay taxes on my winnings?

Another question that defies a universal answer.  In the United States, the general consensus is that gambling winnings (less losses) must be claimed as income on your tax return.  This is the standard for several countries, but in some jurisdictions gambling winnings are not subject to tax or are subject to a special tax.

The best course of action for players is to assume that you must pay taxes on winnings unless you learn otherwise from a qualified tax professional.  Acting as such - and stashing away some amount of your winnings for the potential tax bill - will save you an immeasurable amount of time, frustration and financial cost later.

Again, it cannot be overstressed that issues involving taxes should not be left to advice found on web pages and poker forums.  This is especially true as the amount of winnings you're discussing increases or if your poker playing has moved beyond a simple hobby and into a full-time profession - a designation that, in many jurisdictions, will result in entirely different treatment by the tax authority.

Can people collude playing online poker?

Collusion is two or more players sharing information or otherwise acting in concert to the disadvantage of another player.  Simple examples of collusion include things like sharing the contents of your hand with another player in the game, which provides each of you with a small edge over the players who lack that information.

While unfortunate, the fact of the matter is that the potential for collusion exists in all forms of poker.  The top rooms in the online poker industry do offer players significant protection against collusion, including:

  1. Dedicated fraud teams trained to investigate and identify collusion.
  2. Advanced algorithms designed to monitor overall play and detect suspicious patterns between players.
  3. Innovative formats like Zoom Poker that create tables on the fly and rearrange seats for every hand, making it difficult for players to act as a team.
  4. A massive amount of hand data that can be reviewed and analyzed by the room or by players themselves.

Just as with general security, players do bear some responsibility when it comes to protecting themselves from colluders.  Regularly reviewing your hands, noting suspicious patterns and reporting anything untoward to security at the room is a solid process for limiting the impact that collusion can have not only on your experience with online poker, but also the experience of other honest players who are just looking for a fair game. Back to Top

What is a poker bonus?

When people say "poker bonus" it usually refers to the opening bonus poker rooms offer to players when they make their first real-money deposit at the room.  In broad strokes, it works like this:  You sign up at Generic Poker at deposit $100.  The room gives you a bonus on your deposit, usually expressed as a match percentage with a maximum bonus amount.  So, let's say Generic Poker offers a bonus of 200% up to $300.  Your $100 deposit would result in a bonus of $200.

Bonus money is almost never the same as real money - not at first, anyhow.  Let's return to our example for a quick second.  Generic Poker credits your account with a $200 bonus for your $100 deposit.  You now have $100 in real money (from your deposit) and $200 in bonus money in your account.  The bonus money cannot be withdrawn or used for play; instead, it must first be "earned" before the room will convert it into real money.  Once it is converted from bonus money to real money by the room, you're free to do whatever you like with it - the money is now no different than money of your own that you deposited. 

How do you earn a bonus?  Just by playing poker and paying rake.  Generic Poker might convert $5 of your bonus money to real money for every $10 you pay in rake.  The structure varies by room, but the basic formula is the same: Rooms move money from your bonus account to your real money account as you pay them rake.  In this way, bonuses are actually more of a rebate than a bonus; thinking of bonuses as such will help you to better evaluate their actual value to your bankroll, which is not always the dollar amount the bonus advertises.

A poker bonus can also refer more broadly to any promotion a room is running where players have a chance to earn value through prizes, cash or bonuses that need to be earned as described above.

How do I deposit to a poker room?

Depositing at modern online poker rooms is a hassle-free process for players from most of the world.  Players usually have three primary options for making deposits:

  1. Direct from bank account:  With this method, players provide their banking details directly to the room and either wire or directly transfer funds from their bank account into their account at the poker room.
  2. Credit card:  Many online poker rooms accept credit card deposits, although acceptance rates do vary by country and by card.  You will not always be able to cash out to a credit card, and rooms may have limits on the amount you can deposit a day with credit cards.
  3. eWallet:  Services such as Neteller, Skrill (Moneybookers) and PayPal allow you to fund a virtual wallet with your bank account (or credit card in some cases) and then use those funds to send money to a variety of online merchants, including poker rooms.  This method allows you to keep your personal banking details shielded from the poker room.

Depending on the policies of the individual room, players may also need to provide some identifying information like state-issued ID or proof of address before depositing or withdrawing.  These requirements are quite standard and are a result of strict regulation on the part of governments who wish to keep a close eye on the money flowing in and out of online poker sites.

Any credible online poker room will readily offer personal support to players with questions or concerns about the deposit process, often via live chat or telephone.

Players from countries like the United States may have fewer options for making a deposit, and the options might involve a bit more complexity.  Money transfers through person-to-person services are a common method of depositing money at online poker rooms for these players.  Such players may also be exposed to additional fees for deposits, so it's a good idea to closely review the terms of a room and to confirm them with customer support before depositing. Back to Top

What are the most popular poker games online?

The most popular form of online poker is No Limit Texas Holdem.  No limit dominates the cash game lobbies and the tournament lobbies of every online poker room in the world.  Many mid-tier and small rooms do not have the liquidity to support games other than no limit holdem poker, as there simply isn't sufficient demand for tables of other games to run with any consistency.

Running a distant second to no limit holdem is Pot Limit Omaha, or PLO.  PLO has been gaining ground in recent years, especially in online poker circles, as players looking for a more complex, higher-variance game have transitioned from no limit holdem to the omaha tables.

Once the king of poker, Stud Poker (and its many variants) can be considered the third most popular poker game online.  While mixed games - a format that involves changing the game being played with ever dealing orbit - have reinvigorated interest in stud to some degree, it still remains a fringe game that may only generate a few tables of action even at the busiest online poker rooms.