Online Poker Thoughts and Observations

Laptop With Poker Graphic and a Tech Background

Online poker has changed a lot since I started playing in the mid-2000s. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by this; after all, it has been close to 20 years.

I thought it would be fun to reflect on some of the changes in online poker, though, so here’s this post with some observations and thoughts about the state of online poker today.

Recreational Poker Online Is Still Alive

On April 15, 2011, the Department of Justice indighted Absolute Poker, Full Tilt Poker, and PokerStars. These were far and away the biggest three companies offering recreational poker online to United States players.

It didn’t take long for these sites to respond by pulling access to US players to their real money poker games. Online poker had been booming until that point, but it came crashing to a near-halt at that point.

After all, you didn’t have many places left to play.

Absolute Poker, which also owned Ultimate Bet, went out of business soon afterward. PokerStars acquired what was left of Full Tilt Poker, but they still don’t offer real money games to United States players.

Bovada Online Poker Game

This doesn’t mean you can’t play recreational poker online if you’re from the United States. Many – if not most – online poker sites will let anyone play their “free money” or “play money” games regardless of where they live. Global Poker is one of the biggest outfits specializing in play money poker, and they have a unique sweepstakes-based poker model that enables them to offer games that are almost just like real money poker games.

But you can also find a handful of sites still offering real money poker for recreational players in almost any jurisdiction. These are usually attached to a sportsbook of some kind, like Bovada.

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If you live in specific states where online gambling has been legalized and regulated, you can play poker for real money with other people in that state from your computer. As I write this, these states include Delaware, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

In some of these states, recreational poker online for real money is still new. I expect more states to follow suit, which will expand the availability of online poker for actual cash.

The Offshore Poker Sites Accepting United States Players

Presumably, the United States government was acting to protect gamblers from shady offshore gambling sites that were going to take their money. Their legal action had the opposite of the intended effect, though.

When you outlaw the operation of an online poker site, only outlaws offer online poker.

Of course, there’s honor among thieves, but it’s hard to beat the kind of reliability and trustworthiness you saw from operators like PokerStars.

Of course, the newly legalized and regulated poker sites in the states I mentioned in the last section are trustworthy and reliable.

But as I write this, only five states have legalized and regulated online poker.

Poker players in the other 45 states only have a couple of options when it comes to online poker.

WSOP Online Poker Game

They can skip it entirely and just play in person. This is increasingly unrealistic as I write this in the middle of a pandemic.

Or they can roll the dice and play at one of the offshore sites that have so far managed to evade US law enforcement.

Some of these sites are reliable and pay out in a timely manner. They offer excellent customer service, too. Bovada is a good example of this.

But it behooves you to proceed cautiously.

When Black Friday rolled around before, many poker players had tens of thousands of dollars tied up in online poker accounts and had to wait months before getting their cash. I know one player who had over $100,000 in his PokerStars account.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed that you should be cautious with online poker from the United States these days. In fact, you’ll see a noticeable shortage of high stakes poker games happening online that are available to United States players.

It’s Not as Bad as It Might Seem

You might think that player pools are really small since the state gambling laws with legal poker restrict play to people playing from a computer in their state.

But this year they created an interstate agreement — a “compact” – which allows them to share player pools between the following states:

  • Delaware
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey

The other states that have legalized online poker are mostly still setting things up. I’m assuming they’ll enter into the compact with the other states. After all, that’s good for everyone participating. Larger player pools mean more action.

And that means more tax revenue for everyone involved.

Also, and just because I’ve characterized many of these poker companies as “outlaws,” who do you think are running the poker sites in the states that have recently legalized online poker?

Many of them are sites that used to offer poker “illegally” from offshore. Yes, that includes Party Poker and PokerStars, among others.

The Poker Bot Scare

I’ve only recently started dipping my toe back into the online poker waters, and I’ve stuck with the play money games for a couple of months. One reason I have trepidations is the rise of online poker bots.

An online poker bot is just software that makes poker decisions on behalf of a player. They’re not actually robots like C-3PO. They’re just programs that run on someone’s computer next to the game they’re playing, and they tell the player what the mathematically best move is. Sometimes they actually make the moves, too.

Poker bots are the next evolution of the HUD – “heads-up display.” For years now, various companies have kept databases of how various poker players have played various hands. Computer programs that label and categorize opponents according to their tendency based on that data are considered HUDs.

You can imagine how helpful a HUD might be. How you handle a bet from someone who’s categorized loose-aggressive by your HUD and how you handle a bet from someone who’s categorized as tight-passive by your HUD might be entirely different.

The idea that someone is using a HUD to beat me scares me.

The idea that someone is using an artificial intelligence to actually play against me scares me even more.

What Do I Do if I Want to Play Online Poker for Real Money?

My suggestion for what to do if you want to play online poker for real money is simple and straightforward:

Stick with low stakes games and only play with money you can afford to lose.

That way you can have fun without trying to earn a living from gambling online.

I don’t have much respect for anyone trying to make their living by running a poker bot on their behalf, by the way. It’s cheating, and nothing angers me more than a cheat.

Online Twister Poker Table

I even frown on using a HUD during play. I prefer my contests to be a fair test of my abilities versus the abilities of my opponents. If you’re using a computer to help you make decisions, well… I’m not really competing with you anymore, am I.

How much pride can you take in winning a contest against another person when you’re not actually calling the shots yourself?

You might have an entirely different opinion about all these issues, and that’s okay with me, too. I can only advise you based on my own life experience and opinions.

Live Poker Really Is More Fun

I’m a big fan of live poker. You’re less likely to face cheaters. You don’t have to worry about the online cardroom being unable to process your withdrawal because they faced legal action from the US government.

For me, half the fun is interacting with the other characters at the poker table. I’ve never played poker without encountering at least one unusual character that I could tell stories about later.

And I’ve played live poker in casinos and in home poker games alike.

If you decide to go the live poker route during the pandemic, I encourage you to take appropriate steps to protect your own safety. Most casinos have strict procedures in place, but home games might be trickier.

Find out beforehand if masks are allowed and/or required. I won’t be playing in any games without masks, personally.

Also, if I do play in a home poker game, I’m going to bring a big bottle of hand sanitizer with me.

If the host is willing to open the windows and limit the number of players – even better.

Conclusion

The world of online poker in the United States keeps limping along. It might never reach the dizzying heights that it saw during the early 2000s during the poker boom, though.

This doesn’t mean the game is dying out. At least five states have legalized internet poker, and I expect more to follow.

And even if you live in a state that hasn’t legalized online poker, you have options.