The origins and history of Poker are discussed on our Poker History page. Poker has been played in various forms since the early 19th century, and has long been established as the national card game of the USA. However its popularity increased immensely in the early years of the 21st century as a result of its suitability for online play. Today, millions of people all over the world regularly play poker on the Internet, and hundreds of millions of dollars are exchanged on a daily basis. There are several reasons for this growth. Poker hit mainstream television in the US in 2003 when the World Poker Tour (WPT) started airing on the Travel Channel, and the 2003 World Series of Poker (WSOP) got a lot of coverage on the sports network ESPN. In that year, online qualifier Chris Moneymaker became world champion of poker winning $2,500,000.
The notion that any player could get lucky and win life changing amounts of money in major poker tournaments, like the WSOP, made a lot of people aware of online poker. Its spread was made possible by the wide availability of cheap Internet access and improved technology for secure online money transactions. Since 2006 online poker has suffered some setbacks as certain countries, notably the USA, imposed tougher restrictions on online gambling. As a result many poker rooms ceased to accept players from those countries.
The success of Online Poker depends greatly on the availability of secure online payment systems which became available only in the last years of the 20th century. However, even in the early 1990s people had begun to play poker online using the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) protocol, which predated the Worldwide Web. Since it was not integrated with any payment system, you either played for imaginary "etherbucks" or made your own arrangements for settling up wins and losses with the other players.
In online poker, the function of the dealer is performed by a computer server. As a player you need to connect to the server from your own computer over the Internet, and you can then play with others who are connected to the same server. On your computer screen you see what you would see in a live game. For example in a Texas Hold'em game you see your own cards, the community cards and all the bets. On the basis of this you make your decisions.
Compared to a live poker game, some of the atmosphere is lost since the other players are not physically present. In compensation there is the convenience of being able to play at any time, day or night, without having to travel. Also games progress quickly and smoothly with the server managing the cards and chips and to some extent ensuring that the game is played fairly.
In order to take part, you need to join an online poker room. Most provide the facility to play for real money or play money. If you want to play for real money you will first need to buy some chips using your credit card or some other online payment system. Nearly all poker rooms provide some sort of introductory bonus to attract new players. As in a live poker game, the poker room will charge the players for the service they provide by taking a proportion of the money staked or won: this is known as the rake.
All experienced players agree that poker is a game of skill. You may sometimes experience a series of lucky wins or unlucky losses, but for long term success you need a sound understanding of the game. As well as knowing the rules you need to be able to evaluate your cards and estimate the odds of winning. You also need to know when it might be profitable to bet, which may depend greatly on your assessment of the style of the other players. Fortunately plenty of help is available, and on other pages you can find reviews of poker books and sources of advice on poker strategy.
Different poker rooms will suit different players. This section looks in detail at some of the criteria.
If you are new to online poker it is wise to begin by playing with other inexperienced players for low stakes. As you gain experience and confidence you may wish to try playing for higher stakes, where you will probably meet stronger and more experienced opponents. The potential rewards are greater but it is generally harder to win and the risks are also greater.
The standard of play also varies from one poker room to another. Often the quality of the play depends on the game selected or the limits, with weaker players at the lower stakes tables and stronger players playing for higher stakes. When a poker room has a mixture of players of various standards it is important to select the right table to play at. Some rooms help by providing statistics which can give an indication of the quality of play. For example at a Texas Hold’em table, a large average number of players staying in for the flop indicates a loose style of play. It can also be very useful to keep notes on the habits of particular players one has met before, so as to seek out or avoid tables where particular people are playing.
You may also be influenced by how busy a poker room is. There are some advantages to playing in a large room, where whatever game and limits you prefer you can always find a suitable table to play at. On the other hand smaller and lesser known rooms sometimes provide interesting opportunities for enjoyable and profitable play.
The social aspect of a poker room may be important to you. Most of them give you the facility to 'chat' with other players at the table during the game. Some rooms provide additional facilities such as 'buddy networks' where you can meet and socialise online, and the facility to set up private tables where you can invite your friends to play.
Players with some experience may be tempted to look for weak opponents in order to make a profit. However, weak players tend to play for low stakes, and the rake paid at such tables may be proportionately higher, resulting in very small gains even if you are the best player at the table. Also, you should be careful not to be overconfident against weak opposition. It is always possible to lose as a result of unsound tactics or simply bad luck. It is therefore important to play a steady and patient game, and to stay within the limits of your bankroll, not risking more than you are prepared to lose.
The first requirement is of course that the software works smoothly and reliably, and clearly shows you the state of the game and the actions available. All the major poker rooms meet this basic standard. It is also important that the software is available for the platform you want to use. Pretty well all poker room software will work with Windows, but support for Mac, Linux and the various touch screen and mobile operating systems is less widespread. Generally the best performance is obtained if you can download and install the software on your own machine. If this is not possible, some rooms offer the option of playing without download in a web browser window.
There have been many improvements in poker software over the past ten years, as poker rooms compete with each other to provide a more realistic playing experience, to add useful functions to help the player, or simply to decorate their software with features they hope will be attractive or fun to use. Some useful functions which are often available are:
Nearly all poker rooms offer some sort of incentive to try to attract new players. These come in various forms.
On the net it is easy to find numerous poker portals that list poker rooms and their current promotions.
Like any business, a poker room needs to cover its costs and aims to make a profit for its shareholders. Poker rooms generally get their income from ring games by taking a small percentage of some or all pots, known as the rake. The exact amount varies according to the type of game and the betting limits, but typically the rake amounts to 5% or less of the pot, and is subject subject to a maximum amount per pot known as the cap. Also, rake is only taken if the betting reaches a certain stage. For example in Texas Hold’em, the most popular online game, nearly all poker rooms have a policy of ‘no flop no drop’, meaning that no rake is taken if the hand ends before the flop is dealt.
For tournaments the price of entry normally includes a fee, again typically 5% or less, which is not contributed to the prize fund.
Probably you play poker online mainly because you enjoy it. However, if you also want to make a profit you should take into account that the rake you pay may significantly diminish or even cancel out your winnings. This is particularly common at low stake tables, where the rake may be proportionately higher, making it hard to do better than break even even if you appear to be winning significantly more than your opponents.
It is comforting to know that any problems you may have can be resolved quickly and efficiently. Most will answer questions by email, some also offer telephone support, and many now also offer support through a ‘live chat’ function with which allows you type your question online and get an immediate response from the poker room.
Several countries have introduced legal restrictions on online gambling, and as a result of this your choice of available poker rooms may be limited. For example, players in the USA have a very restricted choice of online poker rooms at present.
You need to be able to deposit money, and also, importantly, to withdraw your winnings when you wish to. This may be done using credit or debit cards, or directly to or from a bank, or using online payment systems such as Neteller or Skrill (Moneybookers). Some poker rooms now allow you to gamble with Bitcoin, so that your deposits and withdrawals may be free of local restrictions that apply to bank and credit card transactions in some countries. Different poker rooms support different methods, and some may be more convenient for you than others.
Any reputable poker room needs to provide a secure system for depositing and withdrawing money, and should keep watch over its poker tables to ensure fair play.