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Poker is one of the most strategic games players can wager on online, and it involves a game of skill against other players instead of playing against the house.
The game of poker, in one variation or another with its precursors, goes back for centuries, and it’s one of the most popular card games today as well. People from all over the world play several variations of this game at stakes ranging from pennies to millions of dollars. The strategic nature of this game and the fact that you are up against other players instead of the house has made it one of the most in-demand games online, but the industry has seen ups and downs.
What we want to do here is walk you through a complete introduction to online poker, how it works, what its history is like and where it is today. The promotions and ways of getting value are a bit different than most any other type of betting out there today, and there are special things that surround the culture of this game as well that do not apply to other ways to gamble online. Overall, this is a complicated game with a lot of different styles and variations along with a lot of room for creative play.
There are several different styles of poker. We could rattle off dozens of names of different games, as you’ll see down below, but they all follow the same fundamental rules in one way or another. The basic premise of the game is that each player has some cards, and those cards are used to form different types of poker hands. All of these hands fall into a simple ranking system so that it’s easy to tell if one hand beats another.
One player makes a bet, and all other players must either match that bet (calling) or fold their hand and give up any chance of winning. Alternatively, they can also increase the size of the bet that must be matched (raising), and then it’s back on all of the other players to either match the bet or fall out. This is the basic idea behind poker, and it’s what gives players the ability to win without having the best hand since you can get better hands to fold to your wagers in a move called bluffing.
The actual hand rankings and how this betting is allowed to happen depends on the rules of the particular game you are playing.
When you are playing a poker game to try to form the best hand, you’ll need to know the poker hand rankings. These are always sets of five cards, and in games where you have seven cards available, you’ll pick the five that will give you the best poker hand from this list. Starting from the best hands and working our way down to the worst:
If you have two hands that go against each other of the same type, the winner is first determined by who has the highest cards that make up the hand. For example, a straight of KQJT9 will beat a straight of JT987. Likewise, three of a kind in Aces will beat three of a kind in Jacks. This is pretty intuitive and easy to understand.
However, if two players have two hands of the same rank with the same cards that make up the hand, then it comes down to the kickers, or the other cards not used in the hand, if applicable. For example, a player with QQQQ9 will beat a player with QQQQ5 though they both have four of a kind in Queens. The reason for this is that the first player has a Nine kicker while the second player has a Five kicker.
In situations where the kickers are exactly the same, or in the case where two or more players have the exact same five-card hand, then the pot is split evenly between those players.
The most popular styles of poker today are no-limit hold’em and pot-limit Omaha. With that having been said, there are a half dozen or so other types of games that are also played pretty regularly like seven-card stud, five-card draw, Omaha eight-or-better, seven-card stud eight or better, five-card stud, deuce-to-seven lowball, razz and badugi. Each of these names refer to how the cards are dealt, what the betting limits are like and how the hand ranking system works.
In terms of the way the cards are dealt, there are three main types: draw games, stud games and community card (or hold’em) games. In both Omaha hold’em and Texas hold’em, players are given some cards face-down to themselves while face-up cards are spread across the middle of the table that all players use. In stud games, players are given their own cards, some of which are face-up and most of which are face-down. In draw poker games, players get their own cards, none of which can be seen by other players, and then they have options for switching out some of their cards for new ones.
Next, we have the betting limits and overall betting structure. What this mostly comes down to is how the initial money is put into the pot and what the limits are on how much someone can bet or raise at a time. Blind bets are used in hold’em games to get some money in the pot to begin with, and these are forced bets that players put in on a rotating basis before they see their cards. Blinds usually affect just two (sometimes three) players at the able on any given hand, and they rotate to keep things fair. Another system is using antes, which are small bets that everyone pays before seeing their cards on every single hand. Some combination of both of these approaches can be used as well.
Finally, we have the hand rankings. Many games use a “high” ranking system of trying to get the best hand. However, some are called lowball games, and the idea is that the actual worst poker hand in the rankings wins the pot. On top of that, there are “eight-or-better” or “hi/lo split” games that award half the pot to the person with the best “high” hand and the other half to the player with the best “low” hand. The complications in these rules and the combinations they can create is why you have to look deep into the specific games that you want to focus on.
A common mistake that players make between Texas hold’em (often just called hold’em) and Omaha hold’em (frequently just called Omaha) is not understanding how they truly differ. Many assume that they are the exact same game except the Texas variation gives playes two hole cards while the Omaha version gives players four. This is close, but it’s not the whole story.
Texas hold’em gives players access to seven cards total between the two cards in their hand and the five cards on the board. From these seven cards, players can use any combination to create a five-card hand. This means the player can use both of their hole cards, just one of them or none of them at all.
However, in Omaha hold’em, you have to use exactly two of your four hole cards: no more and no less. This means being dealt AAAA can never mean you have three of a kind or four of a kind in Aces becauase you can only use two of those cards in total.
Online poker first started being played in the late 1990s, and the only games that most players focused on were fixed-limit hold’em and seven-card stud. That’s because these were the two most popular games at the time. By 2003, however, the most popular game started to become no-limit hold’em because of an interesting scene that happened in the Main Event of the World Series of Poker that year.
There are two main types of poker, aside from all of the examples of different rule sets listed in the section above. One type is a cash game where people play for money each hand. The second type is a tournament, and this allows players to buy a set of “tournament chips” for a set fee, and they play for these tournament chips. When someone runs out of chips, they are out of the tournament, and play continues until just one person is left.
While the most popular cash games were fixed-limit hold’em and seven-card stud, the most popular tournament game was no-limit hold’em, and it was the game played in the Main Event of the WSOP. A “regular guy” won the tournament that year after winning a seat to the $10,000 buy-in event online, and that kicked off a huge amount of publicity that helped to start the first “poker boom” once tons of “regular people” realized that they could have the same chance to get in, mix it up with the pros and have a chance to come out on top.
This factor, among others, led to no-limit hold’em becoming the most popular cash game as well, and it kicked off a major boom where tons of players from around the world started getting in on the online poker action. By 2006, however, legislation like the UIGEA and later Black Friday in 2011 caused a decline in the industry, and it has been slowly rebuilding itself ever since.
At this point, we want to point out that one of the many factors that contributed to the decline of online poker is that several well-known sites went rogue. While none of these were the most popular sites out there, they had enough name recognition that it made for a big, scary news story, which in turn helped to scare away a number of players. It’s easy to see how this hurt the industry since you need an abundance of players to start tables and keep the games going if you want to be able to play at any time around the clock on the Internet.
There are two basic ways that a site can go rogue. The first is that they simply stop paying cash outs when they are supposed to and keep the money instead. This is pretty much the same across any type of online gambling, and it’s not specific to online poker. The second way, and something that’s particularly problematic, is that some users who had worked on the software for some of the sites had created “backdoors” for themselves with accounts that could see the cards that other players held. These accounts became known as “superusers,” and these superuser accounts were responsible for essentially fleecing players for millions of dollars in some cases.
Instead of spurring for a call for increased regulation to protect players, politicians in a lot of parts of the world (including the United States) have used these incidents to push an agenda of banning online poker along with other types of gambling on and off of the Internet. It’s a complicated political scenario, but the bottom line is that the best way for players to be protected from this type of shady behavior would be to regulate the industry. We’ve seen this in areas like the United Kingdom and Europe, but most of the United States wants to ban the industry, with a few exceptions. We’ll detail how all of this has went below to give you an idea of your playing options.
The end result of all of this is that there are a handful of sites left that are known to be trustworthy because of their history and because of how well-regulated they are. Unfortunately, the damage has been done to the industry as a whole due to these incidents, and it’s still trying to recover from that damage today.
Since players are facing off against each other, some people might wonder how the house makes any money off of online poker games. There are two ways depending on whether it’s a cash game or a tournament. In a cash game scenario, a small percentage is taken from the pot in most hands that goes to the house, and this is called the rake. In tournaments, it’s taken as a small percentage of each player’s entry fee. The rest of the entries are paid out to the top players in the event in the form of cash prizes.
The rake is much smaller online than in land-based games, often to the point of being half or less. The standard rake for most online poker games is in the neighborhood of 3 to 5 percent, which means 3 to 5 percent of most pots are removed before they’re awarded to the winner. Because the edges in poker can be fairly small, this can represent a significant sum of money for winning players. For players who break even or are slight losers in the long run, it could be the difference between winning or not coming out on top at all.
Along these lines, one of the most popular types of promotional deals in online poker is called rakeback, and this essentially means getting back portion of the rake that you have paid in. This can turn out to be a pretty substantial amount for plenty of players, and typically the most your play, the better of a percentage you’ll get on your rakeback deal. If you’re going to play anywhere online, you absolutely, 100 percent should make certain that you have a rakeback or equivalent deal in place because it’s just wasting money if you do not, and in today’s games, it could very easily be the difference between being a winning player and a losing one over the long run.
When you play online, you’ll find that most poker rooms give you access to something called hand histories. These are text-based descriptions of what happened in the hands you’ve played, and they serve two purposes. First, they allow you to go back and review your play. Second, they will normally show the cards of yourself and any player who made it to showdown, even if they didn’t choose to show their cards to the table. This second point is especially important for players to investigate whether they are being colluded against by other players, which can be disasterous in any setting.
Database programs have been used for most of the history of online poker itself to catalog these hands and record certain statistics about your play so that you can go back and review hands later in an easy-to-use hand replayer. Moreover, they can be used to track your wins or losses, and they can also be used to look over the play of opponents with all of the hands you have played with them to take notes on their play style or the way they handled particular situations.
For players who like to really get into the numbers, there are plenty of other statisics available as well that analyze various aspects of your own play and that of your opponents. The VP$IP stat, for example, tells how often you put money into a hand that wasn’t a blind or ante, and it can give a general idea of how many hands you play. The PFR stat tells how often you put in a raise before the flop. Plenty of other stats break down your play in a variety of ways along these lines.
Along with poker database programs come heads-up displays. What these programs do is overlay certain numbers and statistics over the actual tables that you’re playing at. They pair up statistics from your database with the players you’re facing, so you can see a variety of numbers from the hands you have gathered regarding the play of your opponents. Once you have played a few hundred hands with an individual, there are some important things that these stats can tell you about his or her play.
For example, it may be useful to know that this player really prefers to just fold when facing a blind steal instead of mixing it up and defending the blinds, and that could lead you to attacking their blinds every chance you get. Another player may only raise before the flop a very small percentage of the time, so you can know that player really has a good hand as soon as they put in a raise.
While some people do not consider this type of thing to be “real poker,” the fact of the matter is that it’s the standard for playing online. You can safely assume that the majority of your opponents, if they play on any serious level, will have these programs running, and they will be seeing similar numbers on yourself. You’re taking a significant disadvantage if you do not have one of these programs running at the $0.10/0.25 or $0.25/0.50 stakes or higher in most games, but the good news is that the price isn’t that expensive compared to the stakes you’re playing, and it will effectively pay for itself in short order with better results.
In the United States, a bill was passed in the last hours of a Congressional session in October 2006 called the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. It was put through and passed in a very shady way, and while it did not make online gambling illegal as many mistakenly believe, it did hurt the online poker market in a number of major ways.
In the opening paragraphs of the bill, it notes specifically that it does not change the legality of any type of online gambling. However, what it did do was make it illegal for banks to process payments for anything that would be considered deposits for illegal online gambling, and it set up a structure for huge fines for those banks if they were caught doing so. The effect was that the banks were put in a bind since it was unclear which online gambling was legal or illegal, largely because of the mix of local, state and federal laws that created a murky legal situation, so they just stopped processing them as a policy decision and a safety measure to avoid any potential fines.
As a result, players from the United States were effectively cut off from online poker. Since the United States was the primary market for the game in terms of absolute numbers of players, this completely crippled the industry because of how difficult it became to make deposits. Without deposits, you can’t have players getting in on the action, and it didn’t help that the UIGEA was mistakenly called an “online gambling ban” in many news outlets. As a result, many people thought that it made playing online poker illegal in the United States, which further compounded the damage that the bill did to the industry on a global level.
Another key event that focused on the United States but that hurt the online poker industry on an international level was an event called Black Friday. It happened on April 15, 2011, and it led to most of the major remaining options for players from the United States being removed from the American market. This event focused primarily on PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker, the two sites that were the number one and number two in the world in popularity at the time. Each of the two sites had their own problems that were addressed separately, but the events started to unfold on the same day, which is why they are collectively called Black Friday (since April 15, 2011 was a Friday).
On the PokerStars side, they were being charged by the United States Department of Justice with a variety of things from bank fraud to UIGEA violations. It had to do with how they were handling deposits and withdrawals to players, and while many of the details of the case were kept confidential, it’s clear that they did some very illegal things in the name of keeping fast and reliable deposits and withdrawals going for the site.
With Full Tilt Poker, their entire operation came to a screeching halt when it was found that they were no longer able to pay withdrawals. A number of issues helped to cause this, including millions in deposits players made that were never actually taken from their bank accounts along with millions that were simply given to the owners and sponsored professional players on the site with no accurate records kept.
The end result of this whole debacle was actually pretty interesting. PokerStars agreed to buy Full Tilt Poker as a part of a deal with the US Department of Justice. In turn, they would pay out cash payments to every player who was owed money by the site, they would pay the US DOJ some fine, and they would pull out of the United States. This created a powerhouse company in the Rational Group, which owned both PokerStars and Full Tilt, the two largest poker sites in the world, which was eventually purchased by the Amaya Gaming Group, who shut down Full Tilt Poker after some time so that they weren’t competing with themselves.
The other major result of Black Friday was that both of the major, reliable options for US online poker fans were removed from the market.
An interesting part of the UIGEA was that it made it illegal for companies to run online gambling games inside of the United States without a license. There are two things that made this so interesting. First, there was absolutely no way to enforce this law for foreign sites because they aren’t subject to US law in most cases. Second, there was no licensing regime set up anywhere in the United States at the time it was drafted.
However, this second point changed years later when the state of Nevada issued a license for online poker inside of the state. They were later followed by Delaware and New Jersey. While Nevada only licenses online poker, the other two states have licenses for virtually every type of gambling allowed under federal law (which means no sports betting). On top of that, some of the states have agreed to share player pools for poker players, which has made the sites even more attractive. Unfortunately, you have to be located inside one of these states to actually play, and the numbers of players on the sites aren’t that impressive.
With that having been said, it’s still a start towards regulated online poker on a national level, and there are several states each year that are looking to regulate the industry and award licenses to operate within their borders. It’s just a matter of time before more states get onboard.
France was the first market in Europe to create their own segregated market for online gambling, and this included online poker. Players can only get in on the action against other French players, and while it gives them more tax funds than they were getting before, it also completely killed the market for online poker in the region for a while because it was implemented in a way that serverely hurt the health of the games and of the poker ecosystem.
The same has happened with a number of segregated markets in Europe, but thankfully, they are figuring out that it doesn’t work as well as they would have liked, and more countries are allowing pooled lobbies with players from other countries.
Just as the United States is finding out with their segregated player pools on the state level, Europe has figured out that when you break the player pool up into a lot of smaller portions, you end up killing the games. The reason for this is that there is an “ecosystem” of poker players that has to be maintained in order for the games to run on their own. The more players you have in one place, the more this ecosystem thrives. When you split them up into different pools, fewer games run in proportion to the number of players available, and it hurts everyone involved.
Most European markets have been regulated in one way or another. Some of them are still segregated, but others have allowed players to be pooled with this from other countries because they’ve realized this helps the players by giving them more available games. In turn, the players put in more time at the tables, which means more tax revenues from their percentage of the rake. The poker rooms thrive more from this arrangement as well, so there’s no one who loses out from this approach.
Online poker is the only major way to gamble on a game of skill against other players on the Internet where you can actually expect to get consistent action, and it’s a game that is played all over the world. It’s also one of the only ways to gamble online that can turn into an actual part-time or full-time income since you are up against other players instead of the house. If you can get enough of an advantage to beat the rake, then you will make money over the long run.
That requires a good use of rakeback and a lot of practice and study, but it can be done. It helps if you know the history of the industry, and it helps if you know what’s likely to come up next in terms of regulatory changes. With all of that having been said, however, there’s still plenty to come in the poker world, and while it has had its ups and downs over the years, it’s a game that will never go away completely because of how popular it is in land-based casinos and poker rooms as well.Menu