There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of poker websites and mobile apps available across the globe offering all sorts of wonderful games for players of every shape and size and background. You’re spoiled for choice, with variants running in most formats at all hours of the day and night.
In online poker, there’s always a game going.
But how many of these poker platforms are legitimate, reputable options for discerning players? For that matter, what does being a legitimate poker site even entail? And why does it matter?
We’re going to talk about some of the qualities that differentiate trustworthy poker sites from the ones that might be exposing you to more risk than you realize.
Licensed and regulated poker sites
Of all the poker sites that exist around the world, only a fraction of them are licensed and regulated in the jurisdictions they serve. Local laws often work to thwart the remote operations of foreign gambling websites, forcibly limiting legal options available to players.
The frustration of not having legal access to poker has created an adversarial relationship between policymakers and the poker community as a whole. Everyone knows that prohibition doesn’t work, and it’s disappointing to watch elected officials sit on their hands.
But regulation does provide some necessary guardrails that protect players from both each other and from the operators themselves. Most notably, it provides proof that the games are being run with integrity. We’re talking about the very fundamentals – ensuring the randomness of the shuffling algorithm, authenticating the encryption of hole cards, verifying the segregation of funds – things that are of the utmost importance in creating a safe and fair experience at the virtual tables.
For these reasons alone, a local license should be seen as a major selling point for a gambling website. The barrier to entry for legal online gambling operators, frustrating though it may be to customers, helps ensure that reputable sites are the only ones that can operate under the local regulatory conditions.
This should be a particular consideration in poker, where a lack of proper oversight has exposed billions of dollars of customer bankrolls to operator misconduct, insolvency, and sudden changes in the legal landscape. It’s almost like the community has forgotten about Black Friday.
Protecting poker players from gambling-related harm
Another key thing that regulation does for an operator is to require them to protect their customers from themselves and the perpetual risk of gambling-related harm.
This includes, at the most basic level, implementing things like age verification and identity checks. Online poker players should feel confident that they’re not playing against minors on the other side of their computer screen, much like they rely on physical casinos to prevent underage gambling on property. Players should feel confident that the screenname they’re battling heads-up isn’t the burner account of some top-level pro in digital disguise.
Beyond that, there’s also the direct issue of financial harm.
Unregulated (or poorly regulated) poker sites are under no obligation to implement the types of checks on customers that can help identify risky behavior. They’re not required to intervene when a customer causes themselves financial harm. They’re not required to segregate funds, potentially adding some external harm into the equation too. They don’t pay taxes, some of which would be used to fund responsible-gambling resources and treatment programs.
The reality is that there are no penalties for bad behavior outside of the regulated realm. And without consequences, history would suggest that operators aren’t very good at policing their own integrity.
Regulated poker markets meanwhile require operators to protect their customers and their bankrolls as a condition of licensure. They codify integrity into real words and actions. If an operator can’t demonstrate good conduct, it doesn’t get to participate in the regulated game.
It’s important to say, though, that regulation doesn’t automatically equal good behavior. Some unregulated sites can qualify as reputable. But in broad strokes, weeding out sites that break the rules in favor of sites that follow them is both rational and critical to the long-term viability of this industry.
Which poker sites go above and beyond for safety?
This website doesn’t endorse any specific gambling sites, and we’re not in a position to tell you where you can and cannot play poker. We’re not lawyers either, but it’s worth noting that the legal risk from playing on unregulated poker sites is low in most jurisdictions.
That said, here are some bits of advice that should lead you toward a safer, fairer poker experience.
- Understand that not all poker licenses are created equal
While local licenses tend to be an indicator of an operator’s good repute in a given jurisdiction, global licenses from countries like Curacao and Antigua are not necessarily indicative of diligent regulation and compliance. Look for operators that have earned the approval of reputable governing bodies which oversee operations in well-regulated jurisdictions. If you live in a territory with legal online poker but the site you play on isn’t licensed there, it’s worth wondering why. What’s holding them back?
- Seek out operators that demonstrate good intentions
It’s unreasonable to expect every poker player to keep track of all the laws and regulations that relate to online gambling, but there are some obvious signals of an operator’s underlying intentions. Does your poker site require you to verify your identity when you create an account? Does it transact directly with your bank or your primary e-wallet? Does it offer tools to help you control your spending or limit your play? If the answer to these questions is no, the site you’re playing on is almost certainly not being regulated appropriately.
- Beware of sites that favor cryptocurrency transactions
While there are some regulated poker sites that transact in cryptocurrency, it’s far more common among unregulated sites these days. Some of this very simply ties into the fact that funds are relatively hard for government agencies to trace, and avoiding fiat instruments may provide a perceived legal loophole for operators seeking to skirt along the edges of outdated laws like the UIGEA. Without getting too deep in the weeds, there are also some practical risks associated with funding your play with a form of currency that is itself under threat from some global regulators.
Again, this piece is written with the tacit understanding that the patchwork of laws and regulations does create real frustration for players who just want to engage in one of the world’s oldest forms of gambling from the comfort of their own couch. It’s not fair. But popularity doesn’t equal protection when it comes to poker sites, and it’s at least worth being aware of the risks you’re taking when you play the digital equivalent of an underground poker game. Regulation is that protection, whether we prefer it or not.
Being more discerning about the sites you patronize is part of being a responsible poker player, and it’s part of being an ambassador for the continued growth of the game we all love.