With so many online poker sites available to choose from, it can be difficult to find the one that is best for you. Making this process even more challenging is the abundance of affiliate sites that publish misleading or false information to promote the sites that offer them the highest commissions.
However, if you consider these seven factors, you can find an online poker site that is right for you!
Many poker sites are either restricted from operating within certain countries, or simply choose not to. This is an especially big issue for Americans and many Europeans. For Americans, all online poker is currently illegal with the exception of a handful of sites operating in New Jersey, Nevada, and Delaware (which are only available to players who reside in those states); Pennsylvania is on deck as the fourth state and is expected to have legal, regulated online poker at some point this year. However, a handful of poker sites offer online poker to US players anyway. Players in many European countries are in the same situation. Countries like Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Spain, and others have outlawed online poker unless you play on a site based in those countries, with shared player pooling only very recently coming into play. This allows these countries to both regulate and tax the online poker industry.
If you live in the US or in one of the European countries that restrict gambling on sites not based in that country, then you should probably start by narrowing down your options to sites you can actually play on!
Even players who live outside of these countries will often run into restrictions. We have even found a site that does not accept players from Canada! However, if you reside in a country that typically permits playing online poker, then you should look at this criterion last. That is, find a site that satisfies the other six criteria, and verify that you can play there.
Unless you play poker exclusively on a PC, you also need to look at the various platforms each site supports. Although most sites have software specific to Mac (or at the very least allow you to play within a browser), some do not. There are also a surprising number of sites that do not yet have mobile apps, or only have an app for iOS or Android, but not both. For example, to play poker with Americas Cardroom on a mobile device, your only option is to play within your browser, and they currently only offer Jackpot cash games.
Another major consideration when choosing an online poker site is the site’s traffic. PokerStars is by far the biggest online poker site, with more active players than their next five biggest competitors combined! However, before you run off to start your PokerStars download, there are other factors to consider, both with regards to poker site traffic and to your overall selection.
What Time Do You Play Poker Online?
Even the world’s largest poker site has lulls in traffic at different hours of the day. Granted, even when PokerStars has its fewest players online, it still has more active players than their next biggest competitor has during peak hours! However, for all other poker sites (and for specific games on PokerStars), the time of day that you play will have significant impact on your ability to find enough tables with games running. In some cases, normally active online poker sites with thousands of players during peak hours become ghost towns at other times of day. Sites based in the Americas tend to appeal to players in the Americas. European-based poker sites typically target the European market. There is also a big surge in Asian poker sites, which of course appeal to the Asian poker markets.
That said, a site that is targeting your time zone might not be the best fit for you. Most poker sites get their peak traffic in the evenings, from roughly 6pm to midnight, and experience their lowest traffic from 3am to noon. If you typically play in the evenings, then a locally-based site is probably your best option (traffic-wise). However, if you are a night owl or a morning person, then you may find that a site based elsewhere is a better fit for your schedule.
What Games & Stakes Do You Play?
You might decide to join PokerStars because they have the highest number of active players. However, this does not mean they have the most active players in every game. For instance, PokerStars usually has a single full-table game of 1¢/2¢ PLO8 and that’s it. You might assume that if PokerStars can’t get this game going at higher stakes, then surely nobody can, but that assumption would be wrong. 888poker regularly has games of PLO8 running for stakes ranging from 1¢/2¢ to 25¢/50¢. Likewise, you’re unlikely to see any tables with more than three players for 6-handed No Limit Hold’em above $5/$10 on PokerStars, but you can regularly find active 6-max NLH tables up to $25/$50 on 888poker and €25/€50 on the Microgaming Poker Network (MPN).
Let’s say you play a much more popular game, like 6-max 5¢/¢10 No Limit Hold’em. Of course, PokerStars has the most traffic (at the time of writing this article, they had 64 active tables). However, are you planning to play 64 tables at once? If so, then I would suggest you check out these poker multi-tabling tips! Obviously it’s nice to have more active tables than you plan to play simultaneously so that you can be guaranteed any empty seats will fill, and you have the opportunity to leave a tough table to join a softer one. However, beyond a certain amount there is no additional benefit. For more popular games and stakes, there are plenty of other sites with enough traffic to fill more tables than you’re planning to play (and most of whom crush PokerStars in the other criteria in this article)!
Beware of Massive Tournaments
Most poker players want to play the biggest possible tournaments they can find. This is because far too many poker players are chasing the impossible dream. For every Chris Moneymaker (who turned a $86 satellite into a win in the 2003 WSOP Main Event for $2.5 million), there are literally tens of thousands of players each year who lose hundreds of dollars trying to replicate this feat!
As I write this article, PokerStars is running its Winter Series tournaments. The first event in this series cost just $109 to enter, and the winner received a whopping $148,542.72. That’s a nice 13,646% return on investment! However, there were 11,392 players in this tournament, which means that if you are an average player, your chances of winning were 1 in 11,392 (0.009%). Massive tournaments like this are brutal for your bankroll. A winning poker player could potentially play the Sunday Million every week for 20 years and not show profit! That’s not an exaggeration either, I mathematically proved it! You couldn’t even call it unlucky either – we ran 200 simulations using 20% in the money and an expected 24% ROI. 91 of the 200 simulations resulted in an overall loss! The worst-case simulation lost over $115,000 (an ROI of -44%). The bigger the tournament, the bigger your variance. In other words, you are far more likely to get results far removed from your expected rate of return (such as -44% ROI after 1,000 tournaments when your expected ROI is +24%).
This is one reason I prefer to play tournaments on medium-sized poker sites. One of the best online poker tournament players I know went five months without showing profit at the start of 2012, playing tournaments with 500 – 5,000 players. This is a player who was rated in the top 0.03% on PokerStars for tournaments for four straight years, but was in the hole for the first five months of 2012! The reason is variance – he wasn’t playing poorly, and wasn’t even being unlucky. Runs like this are a part of the game, and the bigger the field, the worse these losing streaks will be. Luckily for him, he has phenomenal bankroll management, so he was able to survive this dreadful stretch and hit two of this three biggest wins ever on back-to-back days in May. It should be noted that those two big wins came in tournaments with just 277 and 307 players!
Do you have both the bankroll management skills and temperament to survive through five months of losing? Are you aware of just how much money you need in your bankroll to avoid going broke if you’re going to regularly play tournaments with thousands of entries? If you’re regularly playing tournaments with 10,000 players, you should only be risking 0.1-0.2% of your bankroll. That means, to play $11 tournaments, you should have a bankroll of $5,500 to $11,000! However, if you’re instead playing tournaments with 100-150 players, you can risk 0.5-1% of your bankroll ($1,100 to $2,200 bankroll to play $11 tournaments). If you want to risk even more of your bankroll, then you should play even smaller tournaments still! This is why SNGs are so popular amongst the pros – they understand the importance of minimizing variance!
When looking for a new poker site, players often overlook rake and tournament/SNG fees in favor of the more glamorous “rakeback” or VIP rewards. However, the number players should be interested in is “net cost”, of which rakeback is only part of the equation:
Net cost = Rake + Fees – Rewards
Imagine choosing between two sites:
- Site A: Charges $10 in rake, but offers an amazing 40% rakeback
- Site B: Charges $6 in rake, but only offers 17% rakeback
Although Site A clearly has the more enticing offer (especially since most poker players don’t have a clue how much they’re paying rake), I hope that it’s obvious that Site B is the better option (since the net cost is just $5, compared with a net cost of $6 for Site A). Most sites don’t advertise their rake (not even those which rake the least) because it’s not as glamorous as rakeback. Even sites like Site B in the example above will advertise their meager 17% rakeback rather than promoting that they charge far less rake!
Our poker site reviews at TopPokerValue seem to be the only ones that compare online poker sites by net cost. Some sites do compare poker sites by rake, but that’s still only half the equation! Most poker affiliates use the more glamorous high rakeback or big sign-up bonuses to promote their preferred sites (i.e., those that pay them higher commissions).
These days, very few sites offer traditional rakeback. Instead, most have a complicated VIP or loyalty rewards program. The most typical poker site rewards program involves earning points, which then earn you status levels. You can then spend your points to buy cash bonuses, tournament tickets, etc., and typically get better points conversion rates the higher your status level. In addition to (and sometimes instead of) these loyalty points systems, many sites often offer additional promotions, which may either be temporary or permanent. This can make it very complicated to determine which site offers the best overall value.
With some analysis, you can figure out the true value to you for each promotion a site offers. Sometimes it’s easy and straightforward. For example, if Site A gives you 1 loyalty point for every $10 paid in rake or fees, and you can exchange 10 loyalty points for $20, then that’s 20% rakeback ($20 / [$10 x 10]). Other promotions require you to know your average monthly rake. For example, if a promotion rewards you with $50 each month as long as you generate $200 in rake, then that’s 25% rakeback… but only if you generate exactly $200 in rake. If you pay $500 in rake/month, this promotion is equal to just 10% equivalent rakeback, and so on. For freerolls, you can determine their equivalent value by dividing the prize pool by average the number of entrants. For example, a freeroll pays out $100 with an average of 1,000 entrants, has an average value per entrant of just 10¢. If you play this freeroll 10 times a month, then it’s $1 in value each month. If you generate just $1 in rake each month, then that’s equivalent to 100% rakeback! But if you generate $100/month in rake, then it’s just 1% (and if you generate $100/month in rake, why would you waste your time playing tournaments worth just 10¢?).
As noted above, equivalent rakeback is only one part of the equation. Your ultimate goal is to determine your net cost on each site so that you can pick a site that charges you less. Rake has a VERY significant impact on your win rate, so trying to minimize it is key. We work with some of the best poker coaches available online, and we often tell them that one of the easiest ways to improve a client’s win rate is to get them onto a better poker site! Players can easily improve their win rates by 5-25% just by switching to a site with a lower net cost!
Ease of competition should really be one of your top considerations when choosing an online poker site. While low rake and high rakeback will have a significant impact on your win-rate, there’s a great poker quote from Lou Krieger:
Most of the money you’ll win from poker comes not from the brilliance of your own play, but from the ineptitude of your opponents.
The problem is, there currently aren’t any good resources for determining which sites have the softest games. I have always wanted to create one, but it’s a HUGE undertaking. It’s also not as simple as stating that Site A has softer games than Site B, because it will be game and stake specific. That is, Site A might attract weaker players for NLH up to 5¢/10¢ and for PLO from 50¢/$1 and up, while Site B attracts weaker players for NLH above 5¢/10¢ and PLO below 50¢/$1. To complicate matters even further, “soft” is a subjective term. Every poker player has different skills. Perhaps your greatest strength is your ability to bluff fearlessly. You might then find that Site A, which is loaded with calling stations, is a less profitable site for you. Sure, you can adjust your play, but since you cannot leverage your greatest strength, you’re giving up significant value when you play there. Meanwhile, an ABC nit is crushing it on Site A (by his standards), but struggles on Site B, which has many bluffers, who constantly push him off hands. A third player, who is a master bluff catcher, is crushing it on Site B, but struggles on Site C, which is loaded with nits (making it ideal for you, the great bluffer). If we asked all three players to rank each site from softest to most difficult, we’d get three different answers!
It is not uncommon to see a poker affiliate proclaim a site to have soft games, but you need to consider the source. Have they presented any data to back up these claims? Unless they are basing these claims on date, it is far more likely they are making an unverifiable (but also difficult to dispute) claim to push you towards a site that is good for THEM, not you!
Unfortunately, the only way to determine if a poker site’s games are easy to beat is to play them yourself. This creates an additional problem, as there is always a period of adjustment when playing in a new environment. You might struggle for a month on a site that you will eventually crush once you get familiar with the style of play. This leaves you with two options:
- Pick a site based on the above criteria. Try it out for several months, and if you’re finding it too tough, consider trying another site.
- Become a bonus whore for a year or two (i.e., just play on a site long enough to clear its sign-up bonus). While taking advantage of all the sign-up bonus offers, you’re also testing out the style of play on each site. Keep records and then go back to the site you found easiest to beat.
Of course, if you’re looking for soft games, then you should really learn to play Omaha! As an action game, it attracts the biggest gamblers. Learn some basic pot limit omaha strategy first, and then start playing low stakes and move up as you start winning.
Sign-up bonuses are another marketing tool that many online poker sites use to attract players. However, you really need to read the fine print! When a site offers a $1,000 sign-up bonus matched at 200%, they don’t actually give you $1,000 as soon as you deposit $500. Instead, you need to clear your bonus by generating rake or paying tournaments and/or sit-and-go fees. Unless you’re at least a semi-professional poker player who generates at least $25,000/year in rake and fees, then the maximum bonus amount is typically irrelevant! The most important numbers for most online poker players are:
- rate of release
- time to clear
- bonus increment
Poker Bonus Release Rate
|Bonus After 60 Days|
Essentially, online poker sign-up bonuses are earned just like rakeback. For every Y dollars you pay in rake (and/or fees), you earn X dollars of your bonus. Divide X by Y to figure out your equivalent rakeback. Compare these two sites, for example:
- 888poker offer a 100% match bonus up to $400
- Bwin Poker offer a 100% match bonus up to $100
At first glance, the 888poker bonus appears far superior: clearly getting $400 is better than getting $100! However, once you delve into the Terms and Conditions, you learn that the 888poker bonus pays out $10 for every $50 you pay in rake and fees, for 20% equivalent rakeback. The Bwin Poker bonus also pays in $10 increments, but you earn them for every $33.80 paid in rake and fees (30% equivalent rakeback). In addition, 888poker have some freerolls for new players, while Bwin Poker offer up to $57.11 in additional one-time achievement bonuses and freerolls.
As you can see from the table, players who generate less than $5/month in rake would earn more with 888poker (thanks to their higher value freerolls for new players). However, players who generate between $5 and $400 per month within 60 days would be better off with Bwin Poker, thanks to their better bonus clearance rate (30% versus 20%), and additional one-time achievement bonuses. Players with 888poker need to generate at least $550 ($225/month) within 60 days before they earn more than the $100 bonus offered by Bwin, and would need to generate at least $800 ($400/month) within 60 days to earn more than Bwin’s $100 bonus offer, plus additional bonuses!
Poker Bonus Expiration
The amount of time to clear a poker bonus is another often-overlooked number hidden in the fine print that is just as important as the rate of release. Assuming you play the same amount of poker each month, which of these two bonus offers will result in a bigger overall reward:
- Bonus A: $10 increment paid for every $40 generated in rake (25%) with 120 days to clear
- Bonus B: $10 increment paid for every $20 generated in rake (50%) with 60 days to clear
The answer is that they will both pay the same amount!
|Bonus After 90 Days|
In the above example comparing Bwin’s sign-up bonus to 888poker’s, we used 60 days because that is Bwin Poker’s sing-up bonus time to clear. However, 888poker gives players 90 days to clear their bonus. Clearly, it’s unfair to compare both bonuses over a 60-day period, so the table to the left uses 90 days.
As you can see, the 888poker sign-up bonus is significantly more attractive now thanks to the the longer time to clear. In fact, players who generate at least $280/month in rake and fees will now earn more money from the 888poker sign-up bonus than the Bwin Poker sign-up bonus (as opposed to needing to generate at least $400/month if the time to clear was just 60 days).
Most online poker site bonus offers expire after 60 or 90 days. However, we have seen them as low as 30 days, and as long as 180 days, and in the past there was even a site whose bonus offer never expired!
A Final Word on Poker Sign-Up Bonuses
In case it hasn’t been made exceptionally clear by now, it’s very important that you read the Terms & Conditions of each bonus offer and not just be tempted by big numbers like “250% match” or “$5,000 sign-up bonus”. In fact, the absolute worst sign-up bonus I’ve ever analyzed was a 200% bonus up to $5,000! It even gave you 120 days to clear it. However, the payout increment was just $5 and it required you to generate $75 in rake and fees. That’s a miserable 6.7% rakeback; even if you generate $100,000/year in rake and fees, you wouldn’t even clear half of this bonus! Granted, you would still be getting more than $2,000, making this a great bonus for hardcore online poker professionals.
However, that brings up a very important point regarding sign-up bonuses: even though they are one of the most widely used marketing tools by online poker sites, they have far less impact on your win rate than either the rake & fees, or the rakeback rewards. Consider Bwin’s sign-up bonus. It pays out at 30% equivalent rakeback, but only for 60 days. We have reviewed three different sites that reward 27%-32.5% rakeback FOREVER. They also offer lower rake and fees for most stakes and buy-ins. Granted, the Bwin sign-ip bonus is in addition to their regular rewards, but even if their regular rewards were as high as 25% equivalent rakeback, you’d still be better off with the lower rake and higher rakeback in the long run. While it is possible to earn more than 25% equivalent rakeback with Bwin Poker, doing so requires that you pay so much in rake and fees that the $157.11 sign-up bonus becomes an insignificant amount, meaning that once again you are picking the site based on rake and rakeback.
The only times that the sign-up bonus should be a deciding factor are:
- If two sites have very similar overall net costs, in which case the higher value sign-up bonus may be the deciding factor
- If you plan to be a “bonus whore”, bouncing around between poker sites to take advantage of their sign-up bonus offers
Although we have listed this criteria last, a site’s trustworthiness is probably it’s most important attribute. It doesn’t matter how soft the games are, how low the rake is, or how high the rakeback if you aren’t able to withdraw your funds! If an offer seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Unfortunately, the online poker industry isn’t regulated, and there are plenty of scumbags taking advantage of this fact. There are over 500 online poker sites, and I wouldn’t trust the majority of them! Do some research before joining a new online poker site! Unfortunately, even some of the biggest sites were caught defrauding their customers, so understand that there are no guarantees – the best you can do is minimize your risk.
The reason that we have listed trustworthiness last is that this is the last thing you should look at, even though it’s the most important. That is, don’t rank sites by trustworthiness and pick the most trustworthy. Not only is this a massive undertaking, but it’s also not a good way to pick a site (there are plenty of trustworthy sites to choose from, but only a few that will be great options for you based on the above six criteria). Instead, pick a site based on the above six criteria, and then do some research to determine your risk with that site. If the site seems dodgy, then move to the next site in your list and repeat until you find a site that best satisfies all seven criteria.
Evaluating the trustworthiness of poker sites is a major undertaking, and one that won’t be tackled in this article. However, there are plenty of websites and forums dedicated to exposing scam poker sites, so spend some time researching a site before you deposit funds. Of course, you also need to consider the source of the information. A search for “<insert any poker site name> scam” will always return plenty of results. However, the vast majority of them will be opinions without any supporting evidence, so only heed trusted sources.
Another consideration is the ease of withdrawing funds. Even legitimate sites are often run by incompetent owners and, as a result, may struggle to pay their players in a timely manner. Poker sites are like banks – they don’t put your money in a vault, but instead re-invest it (often foolishly). For the most part, they only keep enough money on hand to pay out the expected amount of withdrawals. Unfortunately, some sites are worse than others at predicting withdrawals, or simply over-invest player funds out of greed or incompetence. Poker forums are littered with nightmare stories of players struggling to get their withdrawals processed (usually because the poker site does not have enough cash on hand).
You can improve your chances of receiving timely withdrawals by using high-quality online poker room payment methods and money-transfer services. One of my favorites is Skrill. Once you start relying on cheques, the time to receive your funds increases significantly. More importantly, it also takes much longer before you’re aware of a problem. If you request a withdrawal with a service like Skrill, if the funds aren’t in your Skrill account within a few minutes, then you can immediately contact the poker site’s support department. By comparison, if you request a cheque and it doesn’t arrive within the promised time (let’s say it’s a week), the typical reaction is to assume the post office screwed up, and thus you wait up to another week before reporting the problem. Even worse, the poker site can buy themselves a few more days by uttering the classic cliche, “the cheque is in the mail.”
Another reason to use a quality-money transfer service is that some poker sites will actually charge you a fee for using more labor-intensive withdrawal processes.
Finding your best online poker site can be a big task. This is why most players just join PokerStars – they’re the biggest and the safest. However, this is also the reason why the Stars Group have felt comfortable making unpopular changes to increase profits at the expense of players. First, they increased the rake, and now they’ve scrapped the Supernova rewards program and replaced it with one that saw rakeback for top players go from 69% to 6%! Can we really blame them? If players are going to play there without considering their options, then why should they bother providing good rewards? You don’t offer discounts if you’re already selling out your stock!
Luckily, there are resources that can help you with your research. Sadly, most affiliate sites can’t be trusted to present unbiased information, although there are a handful that actually have the player’s best interests in mind. Popular poker forums can be a good source of information (as long as you’re able to identify the BS and ignore it). Unbiased resources like Cardplayer Lifestyle (Ed. note: Thanks, Todd!) are another good source of information. Using these resources, plus the information presented above should help you find a great online poker site for your style, frequency, and volume of play. You don’t need to find the absolute best site. As long as you find a poker site that you can trust that charges less than average for the games you play, and gives better than average rewards, then you’ve given your win-rate a nice boost!
No matter where you decide to play, best of luck at the tables!