One of the defining characteristics of the pandemic poker boom has been the migration of home games from the live to the online setting, more specifically from kitchen tables, bars and games rooms to online poker apps. When lockdowns began in March and people found themselves starved of opportunities to play poker in person against their friends, the number one question on everyone’s lips was ‘where can me and my friends play together online?’

What you may not know, however, is that there has been a much longer-lived trend away from publicly tracked games, like those you might play on PokerStars or partypoker, towards private online games, like you might play in one of several mobile poker club apps, such as PPPoker or PokerBros. What initially began as a way for people to play with their friends, or people from their local area, has become a booming industry which is quickly gaining ground on the mainstream online poker business in terms of scale.

In this article, I’ll answer some of the most pressing questions about online poker apps, and how you can use them to play poker for real money against friends or strangers.

online poker app
Image used for illustrative purposes only

How have these poker apps grown so quickly?

One possible reason for the incredible growth of poker apps is their universal availability. Since the games are ostensibly played for play money, the software can be distributed in mobile app stores globally. This gives poker club apps a huge advantage over real money gambling apps which, even in 2020, are prohibited in most countries outside Europe. Some are even available on Facebook, growing their reach still further.

Another possible reason is that the software is often feature-rich and fun. Since the poker club apps don’t need to worry about regulation or developing downloadable software, they can achieve a lot with relatively little development resource.

Finally, for many people, playing in a poker club with friends or with people that you know is a lot more fun than playing against strangers online, and can be a much more social experience.

How do poker apps make money?

The specifics vary from one poker app to another, but generally they are monetised with virtual currencies (which can be played with or spent to unlock features in the app) or via subscriptions. Features allowing you to create and manage a poker club are often the most lucrative sources of virtual currency sales.

If it’s play money, how do you play for real money?

If it’s a game with friends, then you simply settle up afterwards, much as you would with any in-person home poker game.

If it’s a game with people you don’t know, then typically there is a club owner or host who organises games, maintains the club and admits new players. This is where things can get complicated.

Some club owners run clubs with as few as five or 10 people – all people they know in real life, and often organised around a brick and mortar poker club. For these owners, it’s feasible to manage money transfers between players. Other owners, however, run clubs with hundreds or even thousands of members. Sometimes, multiple hosts come together to form unions, encompassing tens of thousands of players. Things can get very big very quickly, and this is where agents come in.

An agent’s role is to take your money and funnel it to the club owner, and vice versa. You might meet the agent in person and hand them some cash, after which they will credit your ‘play money’ balance on the poker app. Or, you might send the agent a transfer using PayPal, cryptocurrency, Venmo or some other digital money transfer service. If you win in the poker games, an agent should also pay out your winnings via the same methods.

Agents are nothing new. The agent model is how illegal sports gambling worked in the USA for years (i.e., think “bookies”), and still does in many states. Moreover, the agent model is very common in Asia, Africa and Latin America for online gambling and other payments and money transfer purposes.

How do I find a poker agent?

There probably isn’t an agent on your street corner (although in some neighbourhoods of some countries, perhaps there is). However, you can probably find a local online poker club in your area by browsing Facebook or Twitter, and if you have connections in your local poker scene then almost certainly one of them will know how to find a club to join.

Is playing for real money on poker apps legal?

The short version is – probably not. In most countries, it is either illegal to operate an online gambling business or it is illegal to operate one without the requisite licence. Thus, operating an unregulated online gambling operation using the agent model is almost definitely illegal and violates not only gambling laws, but also laws around money laundering and payment processing. All businesses in Europe, for example, must follow Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (AML-CFT) rules, and it is simply impossible that agents follow these somewhat cumbersome rules. It’s also very unlikely that agents carry out some of the ethical practices that are expected in regulated markets, such as ensuring that all users are of legal age, can afford to lose what they are playing with and so on.

Depending on where you live, it might also be illegal for you to play. For example, if you live in China, then gambling is illegal, plain and simple. In most countries though, private games among friends, where you settle up afterwards, are much more likely to be legal, and unlikely to attract the attention of law enforcement in any case unless there is a major dispute between the participants.

When gambling on any unregulated operator’s platform, you should take the fact that they are unregulated into account when making your decisions and should bear in mind that the risk of legal intervention is significant. If the unregulated operator or your agent disappears overnight, most of the time your money will also vanish.

Is it safe to play in online poker clubs?

As with so many questions in poker, ‘it depends’. When playing on a public poker site like Unibet or 888poker, you place your trust in the company to do the right thing. You also know that the site is regulated, and that some of these regulations might help to protect you. Generally, your money is safe unless the company goes bankrupt.

If you are playing for real money against strangers in private club apps, you have to trust not only the company that makes the app, but also the club owner and all the agents in the chain between them and you. There have already been plenty of examples where agents or club owners simply disappeared with players’ money – popular poker forums are littered with examples.

Public poker sites play an important role by being the impartial arbiter in a game of poker, and taking responsibility for all the liabilities that players incur to each other. When dealing with a club owner, you don’t necessarily have that same protection. Public poker sites like PokerStars spend literal fortunes on ensuring the integrity of the games. You are not necessarily guaranteed the same level of game integrity when playing on a private club app, although there are notable exceptions, such as Pokio (which is regulated by the same Malta Gaming Authority as many other online gaming sites, and eschews the agent model entirely) and PokerBros (which recently hired the former MPN Poker Integrity Team to beef up its collusion and bot protection).

Conclusion

Private poker club apps can be a great place to play for fun against your friends. If you use them for playing real money against strangers, you must make a judgement call. How much do you trust the app’s provider? How much do you trust your agent and those in the chain above them? How much do you trust the other participants in your game? Be aware of the risks you are taking, and you’ll make a well-informed decision.

*Disclaimers, for regulatory compliance:

  • PokerBROS is an online social media platform and does not provide any real money service. 
  • PokerBROS is not a sponsor of or in any way involved with this promotional activity, nor does PokerBROS endorse it.

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