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Where can I play online poker against real people for real money? Is it legal? Is it safe?

Author: Michael Maurer
Last updated: May 2004
Copyright © 2004 Michael Maurer
The official and up-to-date version of this answer is here.

NEW The basics. There are about a dozen well-established online poker rooms that offer live games against real people for real money. Thanks to TV shows such as the World Poker Tour, online poker is no longer just for brave pioneers and has gone mainstream. It has become the main topic of conversation on Over a hundred thousand people from around the world play online every week!

Real money? Yep. You can choose betting stakes of play-money, microscopic real-money (for example, $0.01 - $0.02 limit), or all the way up to $100 - $200 or more. NETeller is the most popular way of transferring money to and from the sites.

Which site is best? It's mostly a matter of taste. The largest sites have the best selection of games and have earned the trust of many players. For more details, see this comparison of online poker sites. If you are thinking about opening an online poker account, be sure to learn about sign-up bonus codes first or you may miss out on some lucrative cash bonuses.

Is it legal? As of this writing, the issue is ambiguous in most U.S. states and at the U.S. federal level. Most of the cardroom sites are operated from the Caribbean, Central America or the Mohawk Territory of Kahnawake in Canada. Existing laws tend to target illegal gambling operators rather than the players, but since the online operators are out of reach there is political pressure to modify this approach. In the U.S., several federal bills have been proposed that regulate or forbid online wagers. The latest tactic is an attempt to outlaw financial transactions that are related to online gambling. On the other hand, in the U.K. the government has been moving in the direction of legalization and regulation. You're on your own until legal systems catch up with this new technology.

NEW For more information about online poker and the law, see the Legal section of the Beginners' Guide to Online Poker.

Is it safe? The jury is also still out on this one. There are a number of risks:

  1. The ease of collusion among players. The magnitude of this risk is a matter of ongoing debate, but it is possible for your opponents to communicate secretly or even be the same person.
  2. The possibility that the cardroom will not honor a redemption request, that is, will stiff you when you ask for your money. (A few of the early sites folded holding player deposits.)
  3. The chance that your personal financial details, such as credit card number or NETeller ID, are stored insecurely, allowing either a dishonest cardroom insider or external hacker to obtain them.
  4. The possibility that the game technology is not secure, allowing others to compromise the game's or site's integrity. This could take any number of forms, from others knowing your cards, knowing what cards will be dealt next, changing what cards will be dealt next, or even impersonating you and withdrawing your money. (In the early days of online poker, a security consultant cracked the poor shuffling algorithm of one of the poker dealing software packages.)
  5. The possibility that the underlying game technology is programmed to deal an unfair game, for example, by failing to shuffle randomly. This is a popular topic among losing players; see the discussion on the cash-out curse.
  6. The possibility that an insider at the cardroom will take advantage of existing security flaws or secretly create new ones to favor their accomplices during play.
  7. The chance that a cardroom insider will compile records of your play and reveal them to your opponents for strategic or tactical analysis.
  8. The chance that you will be found guilty of a crime in some jurisdiction, perhaps not even your own, simply for playing. For example, if your internet traffic is routed through Virginia, as much of it is, are your internet activities subject to Virginia law?
  9. The chance that authorities -- somewhere -- seize your money, either while deposited or in transit, and then place the burden on you of demonstrating why they should return your funds.
  10. The chance that opening an offshore account will bring other aspects of your life under the scrutiny of authorities, for example, by increasing the chances of an IRS tax audit.

You might notice that many of these risks exist in real cardrooms. It is likely that some risks will be greater in the online world and that some will be lesser. For example, several of the online cardrooms claim to apply collusion detection algorithms to the database of hand histories. And a popular form of online poker is the heads-up game, where collusion is impossible. It may turn out that the cost of collusion is lower in the online world. In the area of game software integrity, most of the top online cardrooms have engaged auditing firms to provide independent validation of the fairness of their dealing algorithms. That's reassuring. But still, the legal questions are fuzzy and you have to judge for yourself whether you can accept the risks.

NEW For some suggestions on minimizing these risks, see the Dangers section of the Beginners' Guide to Online Poker.