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Which online poker sites are safe bets? Almost 2 million people played online poker last month, translating to big money for the sites that host the virtual tables. Here's how to make sure the game is fair.
When Chris Moneymaker won the televised 2003 World Series of Poker after first wagering $39 in an online tournament, wannabe pro gamblers across the country turned to their own computers in hopes of repeating history. Greg "Fossilman" Raymer did just that in the 2004 championship game. Like Moneymaker, Raymer earned his ticket to the big time -- and millions in winnings -- by entering an online tournament. In fact, four of the top 10 finishers in the 2004 series were players from PokerStars.com.
If you play online, you could be going up against the likes of Moneymaker. Despite turning pro and writing a book about his experience, he says he still plays at least once a week at Poker Stars. "I generally look for the games with the highest average pots and choose those," he says.
Luckily for you, more typical competitors are Darren and Hilary, online poker players who favor low-stakes games and have yet to score major winnings despite playing for a couple years: Hilary says she's about broken even, while Darren says he's lost all of the money he's wagered so far. But he considers it money well spent.
"I've probably logged a couple hundred hours and spent a couple hundred bucks," Darren says. "A buck an hour is pretty good entertainment for the money in my book."
The poker Web sites are run from offshore locations such as Gibraltar or Costa Rica. Any regulation that does occur is mostly industry-driven, says Glenn McDonald, author of "Deal Me In! Online Cardrooms, Big Time Tournaments, and The New Poker." The trade organization Interactive Gaming Council (IGC), for example, has a code of conduct for member sites such as PartyPoker but it can do little more than yank a site's membership.
"For the new player, there's nothing much in the way of traditional guarantees," says McDonald. "When you (play) online, you're putting your trust in the capital markets system. But it's in (the poker sites') best interest to treat you right and they generally do, in my experience."
Should something go wrong, your best bet is to try to work it out with the poker site, McDonald says. If that doesn't work, you can contact the IGC for help, provided the site you're on is a member (you can search for members, here). ECogra is another industry organization that claims to help resolve disputes between players and sites. Neither organization has any real enforcement muscle, such as the ability to impose fines, but they do provide an alternative to kissing your losses goodbye should the poker site prove unresponsive to your complaints. Go to the well-established sites Even if you're not wary of the lack of regulation and you've decided to try your luck online, it can be difficult figuring out where to play. There are more than 250 poker sites to choose from. What's more, Web sites purporting to rank online poker rooms are often affiliated with those on their list, McDonald says.
Playing at well-known, established Web sites can be a good strategy, then. Moneymaker says he generally looks for the most populated sites, which tend to be PartyPoker and PokerStars. PokerPulse.com's home page shows where people are playing on an almost real-time basis. The big five at the time of this writing were: PartyPoker (2500 real money, or "ring" games), PokerStars (750 ring games), TitanPoker (500) and PokerRoom (1500).