For nearly two centuries, gamblers have competed against one another in versions of poker, making it perhaps the most popular type of “player vs. player” gambling in the world. From the early games played on riverboats in the American south to the massive Texas Hold’em tournaments that receive full television coverage today, the game has gone through many stages of evolution and change that have made it the phenomenon it is today.
One of the biggest drivers of recent growth has been the introduction of online poker. These sites have brought the global community together like never before, improving both the quality of play and the number of players dramatically. It has provided a way for fans outside of the major gambling hubs to develop their skills and compete against the best professionals in the world, and boosted prize pools in tournaments at live and Internet rooms alike. And while the industry has seen its fair share of highs and lows, the online boom appears to be here to stay. So the only real question now is how to find a reliable poker site to play at.
Luckily, our expert team have played at, reviewed and ranked the best online poker rooms based on the following criteria:
Choose one of the sites listed in the table below and start playing poker today.
Online poker sites offer a wide variety of game types, both in terms of the variations they offer and the styles of competitions available to players. That makes it possible to play almost any version you want at any time, especially at larger sites where there are always plenty of tables running even during off-peak hours. In recent years, there have also been additional innovations specifically designed to take advantage of the unique nature of poker played over the web, creating game types that could never work in a live room.
It would be difficult for any page, even one that attempted to be comprehensive, to cover every single variation you’ll find online. However, we can try to cover all of the major game types you might run into. First, let’s take a look at a few of the most common games you could encounter:
Texas Hold’em: Known as the Cadillac of poker, Texas Hold’em has clearly become the most popular version of the game in the world. It exploded in popularity after the World Series of Poker (WSOP) began attracting huge ratings on television, as this game is the variant played in the WSOP Main Event. In this game, players receive two hole cards that they keep secret, and then are gradually presented with five community cards that every player can use to make a five-card hand. The best hand wins the pot. This game can be played in almost endless variations, but no limit – and, to a lesser extent, limit – are by far the most popular.
Omaha: If you like hold’em, but want even more options to work with, then Omaha is the game for you. While the rules are largely the same, there are two big differences: each player receives four face-down hole cards, and must use exactly two of them in order to make the best hand possible. Omaha is most popularly played in a pot limit format.
Seven Card Stud: An old school game that still retains plenty of fans, it doesn’t use community cards. Instead, players start with two cards down and one up, and then receive further cards (some up, the final one down) on future betting rounds. As usual, the goal is to make the best five-card hand possible. Unlike the above games, you’ll need to put up an ante in order to play each and every hand, and the action almost always uses a limit betting structure. Both this and Omaha can also be played in a Hi/Lo format, in which a qualifying low hand (one with five unpaired cards, all eight or lower) can take half of the pot.
Razz: An unusual version of Seven Card Stud, Razz requires players to make the worst hand instead of the best. Strangely enough, this creates a very different style of play, making it an entirely different game that is particularly popular amongst pros.
Lowball Draw Games: In these games – examples include No Limit Single Draw and Triple Draw – the goal is to make the lowest hand possible, with drawing rounds giving players chances to “improve” their hands. The rules can vary: Ace-to-Five lowball doesn’t worry about straights, while in Deuce-to-Seven, a straight counts as a high (and therefore bad) hand.
Badugi: This lowball variant only uses four cards, but has found a niche in the community over the past decade. Players draw in an effort to get the best hand, with the most important goal being to get four cards of different suits: a hand known, appropriately, as a badugi. Among hands with the same number of different suits, the lowest hand wins, with pairs (but not straights) counting against players.
Mixed Games: Mixed games are made up of a combination of any of the above variants (or others), with the game changing every round. There are numerous types of mixed play, including popular mixes such as HORSE and Eight-Game.
All of the above games can be played at online poker sites in a number of different formats. The general divide puts contests into two camps: tournaments and cash games.
Cash games are exactly what they sound like: games in which players are putting real money on the line on every hand. Chips in cash games represent dollars, pounds, or euros, which can be won or lost on every hand. This means there are no considerations for whether or not you’ll “bust out” – while losing the money hurts, you can always buy in again for the next hand.
That’s not the case in tournaments, where once you’re out, you’re out. In a tournament setting, players put up a buy-in (along with an entry fee that goes to the operator) and in exchange receive a set number of chips. Players can compete until they run out of chips, at which point they are eliminated. In order to facilitate this process, the blinds and/or antes will be raised at regular intervals, forcing the stakes to rise and players to bust. At the end, only the last players – usually between 10 and 20 percent of the field – will win money, with the final survivor being declared the winner and taking the lion’s share of the pot.
Not all tournaments work in precisely this way. Satellites are small events that qualify a certain number of players into a larger tournament, with one or more players being awarded those seats. Online sites also regularly run “sit and go” tournaments, a special class of events that run when a specific number of players – usually nine or ten – sign up for the contest, then award prizes to the top finishers.
As in other parts of the gaming industry, the Internet has also pushed innovation in the world of online poker. There are simply things that are possible online that cannot be replicated in a real world environment, allowing developers to explore new design space – sometimes with exciting results.
One of the more notable innovations has been the proliferation of “fast fold” games. In these games – such as Rush Poker at Full Tilt, or Speed Hold’em on the iPoker Network – players join a pool of competitors who are playing the same variant for the same stakes. Tables are formed as quickly as possible, and whenever players decide to fold, they are instantly thrown back into the pool, allowing them to join a new table instantaneously. At sites with large pools, players can get several times as many hands in per hour, making this a high-action, high-adrenaline version of normal cash games.
Another major innovation has been the introduction of lottery style sit-and-go tournaments. The most famous of these are PokerStars’ Spin and Go games, which pit three players against each other in a fast-paced tournament that typically only lasts a few minutes. Only the winner earns a prize, which can vary: once the event fills, players will find out what they’re playing for, which can be as little as twice their buy-in amount or as much as thousands of times what they paid to play.
Once upon a time, there was serious competition over which site could consider itself the leader of the global online poker industry, with several contenders exchanging that mantle over the years. However, those days are now long gone, and it is clear who stands atop the pack: PokerStars.
It’s hard to overstate just how dominant a position PokerStars has achieved in the global market. Not only does the site boast more players than any of its competitors, it does so by such a wide margin that even the next dozen combined cannot boast the same numbers. That gap grows even wider when you realize that several of the world’s largest sites are actually regulated, national PokerStars sites themselves.
This means that if you’re looking for the biggest tournaments, the most diverse cash games, or the most regularly-running high stakes games, it’s clear the PokerStars has the most options. However, there are other sites that are also worth your attention, especially if you’re looking for softer player pools or PokerStars isn’t an option for you.
While the race for second in the global market was a tight one for some time, a clear runner-up has now emerged as well in the form of 888poker the sister site of 888 Casino. This site has quietly become a major force, with more than 2,000 cash game players taking part in games at any given time. Former giants PartyPoker and Full Tilt (which is now owned by Amaya, the company that also controls PokerStars) are also still in the game with large player pools, as are networks like iPoker and MPN. While none of these sites offer play in the United States at large, both Ignition Casino and the Winning Poker Network offer great options for Americans looking for a place to enjoy some real money competition.
Regulation has become a major buzzword in online gambling, and poker is no exception to this trend. Many governments have decided that the best way to deal with Internet gambling sites is through licensing and oversight, leading to the spread of sites that are specifically licensed in states, regions, or nations – while others exist in more of a grey area, working in unregulated jurisdictions.
While there are many positives to regulation – the increased security for players being the most obvious – poker in particular has suffered some negative impacts from this added attention. The most notable is the fact that some jurisdictions license sites specifically to operate within their borders, and do not allow for cross-border play with international sites. This has had the effect of fracturing the global player pool: a serious problem for a game that relies on liquidity and constantly running games to remain attractive to gamblers. Nations such as France, Italy and Spain have the populations to support such sites, but even in these cases, the games are not as good as they were when players from these countries could compete against people from around the world. The situation is even worse in places like the states of New Jersey, Nevada, and Delaware, where a lack of population has made it very difficult for regulated operators to build any momentum at all.
Speaking of those three states, some readers may be wondering why those are the only areas in the United States where regulated online poker exists today. The answer lies in the fact that while this is a truly American game, the government of the USA has never been the biggest fan of it being played over the Internet for real money.
The story dates back to the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) in 2006. The bill didn’t make online gambling expressly illegal for players – in fact, to this day, there’s no legal reason why most Americans can’t seek out sites and play for real money – but it sought to force out businesses that ran these sites by making it illegal for financial institutions to process payments to and from such sites, or for those sites to accept bets in the USA.
While the passage of UIGEA scared some publically-owned companies out of the country – including PartyPoker – others continued to let Americans play, working around the new regulations. For several years, it appeared as though the status quo would be maintained for players and operators alike.
But that illusion was shattered on April 15, 2011 – a date that would become known in the industry as Black Friday. On that day, the United States government issued 11 indictments against the founders of the three largest sites still operating in the USA and some of the banking officials who were illegally processing payments for them. All three sites immediately suspended play in the US.
Of the effected sites, the Cereus Network (Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet) already had a spotty reputation, and few players were stunned when the site was unable to pay players what they were owed. The network soon shut down permanently, unable to recover from the loss of its American player base.
More surprising was the inability of Full Tilt to reach an agreement that would let Americans withdraw the money from their suspended accounts. It slowly became apparent that the financial situation behind the scenes at this site were not what they seemed, and before long, Full Tilt’s operations would too shut down worldwide, much to the shock and dismay of the community.
However, one site emerged as a hero in the ensuing chaos: PokerStars. Not only was the site able to immediately reach an agreement that let Americans have all of their funds back within weeks, but they eventually settled with the US Department of Justice, paying a large fine while also obtaining the assets of their former rival, Full Tilt. While it took years to fully resolve, PokerStars and the US government were eventually able to get virtually all of the money that had been tied up in Full Tilt accounts back to players, and the Full Tilt brand was eventually relaunched under new management.
While this may seem like a happy ending, Black Friday has had some lingering effects on the global poker community. The loss of the American player base has shrunk the size of international sites, with the worldwide player pool never recovering to where it was before Black Friday.
Despite these challenges, however, online poker has still been a great development for the sport at large. Ever since 2003, when amateur player Chris Moneymaker rode a $40 satellite win on PokerStars to a $2.5 million first place prize in the World Series of Poker Main Event, the Internet has served as the main venue for the growth of the game throughout the world.
Not only has Internet poker brought millions of new players into the game, it has also greatly increased the quality of play. Theory and strategy have advanced more since the “Moneymaker Boom” than in the centuries of play before then, thanks in part to a new class of players with an analytical view of the game and the ability for players of all stripes to play hands at an incredibly fast pace when compared to brick-and-mortar play – and to keep perfect records of what happened on each and every hand.
The end result has been excellent advancements for players at all levels. The game is more accessible than ever for beginners, while more experienced amateurs can ride online tournaments to seats in the WSOP, World Poker Tour, and other top flight events. Meanwhile, professional players are pushing the level of play to unprecedented levels, while sharing their new theories of proper play to the masses through books, videos, and streaming play on Twitch.
One thing is for certain: the game has changed forever, and it is all due to the influence of the Internet. Even as the poker boom has seemingly subsided, the remaining level of play is light years beyond where it was before the boom began, proving that the game’s popularity has increased dramatically in the long term even if there have been some short-term stumbles. There are now dozens of healthy online poker sites for players to choose from, and it is possible for players to make a living simply by playing over the Internet – in fact, it’s probably easier than becoming a professional at live venues thanks to the much faster pace of play and wider pool of players.
Thanks to online poker sites, we’ve entered a new golden age for the game, one that isn’t likely to fade any time soon. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or you’ve never played a hand in your life, the Internet offers endless opportunities to play one of the world’s greatest gambling games for pennies, fortunes, or anywhere in between.