Choosing an on-line poker site?

by ~ April 13th, 2008. Filed under: Basics of poker.

* Modified June 15th, 2010 *

Are you thinking about starting an on-line poker account?

I write this blog primarily for myself, but when I look at the hit stats I see a lot of beginners searching for fairly basic information. In this post I want to offer some information and opinions that might be useful for beginners or anyone else who is considering starting an on-line poker account.


In general I’d avoid small sites. Bigger sites have more traffic which means that there are always tables with players at all levels for you to play. Plus, a small probability but important concern with small sites is that they may go belly up taking your money with them. Big sites have more experience running the business and are less likely to disappear, and the poker community is large so that if one of the big sites are in trouble there’s a good chance that that information will spread quickly whereas a small site may come and go without much notice. (Edit: see this later post about one of my small sites going down Prophetic timing.)

That’s not to say you won’t find good games or possibly easy money there. I have $100 on one small site and $40 on another but this is low risk money to me. This is money that I’ve earned from freerolls and I’ve built it into the balances that I currently have.

If you are going to put your money into a small site because of a good deposit bonus or because your friend plays there, make sure you check the available games, buy in levels, activity levels, deposit and withdrawal options and the site’s software before you deposit.


Some people claim that on-line poker is rigged or fixed so they would never play for money on-line. This doesn’t make much sense. Poker sites make money from the rake that they take from each hand, the same as real life casios do. Why would they risk having the games be anything but totally legit?

The problems for the people making these claims is that

  1. They don’t play as well as they think they do, especially in terms of considering pot odds, implied odds and bet sizing.
  2. They don’t track their live game results accurately so they think that they are winning more or losing less than is actually the case. The results of online play are more obvious because of the on-line account balances.
  3. People playing $1/$2 tables at casinos are generally not as good as people playing $1/$2 on-line because on-line sites have smaller stakes for beginners and because on-line players will multitable smaller stakes rather than play a single higher stakes game. (Dan Harrington agrees. He believes that $1/$2 casino games are the equivalent of 0.15/0.25 on-line games. A friend who is a casino dealer in Australia and on-line player feels the $1/$2 games are about the equivalent of 0.05/0.10 on-line games in terms of skill) Good on-line players also understand bankroll management. For a $1/2 game buying in with $200 means you should have a bankroll of 20 x $200 or $4,000. At a casino this is can be the smallest stake and casual players will pull out $200 just for the night’s entertainment especially if they’re on holiday.
  4. They don’t understand variance, which states that because AA is a 80% favourite over 99, that means 99 has to win one out of every 5 times.
  5. They remember the times that their hand was outdrawn much better than the times that their opponent folded to the river bet.


It is possible to cheat on-line. It’s also possible to cheat in casinos. One story from someone I know is about a off-duty dealer playing a tournament at his casino who was caught with chips in his jacket. Other stories I’ve heard from Vegas are about teams of players playing at the same table and using bet sizes as signals to indicate to each other what kind of hand they held.

On-line players will also collude, talking on the telephone while playing at the same table. Poker sites do whatever they can, including auditing hand histories and checking IP addresses to catch as many colluders as possible.

The biggest recent on-line cheating story took place at Absolute Poker in a big tournament where some players looked over the hand history and determined that one player’s play obviously indicated that he saw the cards of the other players. After confronting Absolute Poker it was determined that this person accessed an old testing account that indeed allowed him to see his opponent’s cards. The software was audited and debugged and all the players in the tournament were moved up one spot and paid accordingly.

It would be pretty silly for someone to use this kind of ability to play the low stakes.


It is possible, though difficult, to build a bankroll entirely from freerolls. The difficulty is multifold. First, most sites offer freerolls with money prizes for non-money players infrequently (this is different than the freerolls available to players to use up their frequent player points; the points that they earn from playing raked hands). You have to know when they are being run and sign up fast, in some cases within seconds, before it fills up. Second, the field is usually huge; anywhere from 1,000 to 2,500 in the ones I know, with tiny bits of cash awarded to just the top few finishers. Third, the tiny bit of money won is hard to work with. On some sites the amount that you get for a good finish is not even the mininum to sit down at a cash table.

Freerolls can be fun though, because the cost is only your time. Keep in mind that a good freeroll strategy (which I seem to have developed as recently I’ve been cashing in many of the private ones that I play, including one out of two last weekend and the one today) is not the same as proper tournament or cash game strategy. Maybe I’ll write an entry on freeroll strategy.


Finally, due to poker sites’ concerns about US legislation, not all sites accept players from the US. If you’re in the US, that means you can’t join. If you’re not in the US, that means the number of players at a non-US site will be somewhat lower. Party Poker went dropped from number one in traffic when they dropped the US players. Most of the biggest traffic sites still do accept players from the US.

For a current list of my individual poker site reviews, see here. Any questions, feel free to post a comment.


Compendium of instructional posts:

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