It may be tough, but there are still ways to play poker
Online poker is in a state of flux. You can play legally in Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware, and there are sites of questionable legality that are based offshore where anyone can play. So what is the future of online poker and where should you play right now?
These are questions I get frequently, but that doesn’t mean I have good answers for them. Take everything in this article as my own semi-informed opinion. If you have legal questions, consult a lawyer. That lawyer will tell you not to play on any site that is remotely questionable, because it’s a lawyer’s job to cover their butt and tell you not to take any risks. Don’t actually waste money on a lawyer, just don’t do anything stupid.
As I see it, there are currently four options for players in the United States to play online poker.
1. Play on a legal site within the United States.
This means that you have to live in New Jersey, Nevada, or Delaware. It is not worth it to try to fake your way on to these sites from another state because it is very hard to do, they aren’t worth that much trouble, and it may very well be illegal. If you live in one of these states, this is by far your best option and doing anything else would be crazy unless you are a serious online pro. If you don’t live in these states, you can still play on the regulated sites when you go to visit and the sign up and deposit process on most of them is very simple so it’s worth checking them out.
2. Play on an unregulated offshore site
The consensus seems to be that it is not illegal to play online poker from within the United States. See my lawyer comments above for my disclaimer, but it would shock me if someone was prosecuted by the federal government for playing online poker. Some states, notably Washington, have decided to make it a crime to play online poker, and shame on them for trying to tell their residents what they can do with their own money in their own homes, so make sure you aren’t running afoul of your state laws if you decide to play on an unregulated site.
The bigger offshore sites are fairly solid businesses, but remember that there have been at least 10 sites over the years that have run off with their player’s money or shut down and declared bankruptcy. There is really no way to know for sure if these sites are legitimate, secure, and safe. Their assets could be seized by the Department of Justice at any time and it takes years to get that money back if it ever happens at all. Expecting money from the Department of Justice is a good way to be disappointed.
Bodog/Bovada is the site with most traffic, though their policy of every player at their tables being completely anonymous opens up their games to rampant collusion and they don’t seem to do much to prevent it. I know players who play on the site and win and get regular payouts, so they may be the safest and best of the offshore sites. Sites like America’s Cardroom and Black Chip on the Winning Network also appear to be better than most in terms of traffic as well as payouts, and the Merge network sites like Carbon Poker also have reasonable traffic.
There are a number of online poker sites popping up that use bitcoins to deposit and withdraw, with Seals with Clubs leading the pack. Withdrawals and deposits are fast and simple, but player pools are much smaller. These sites are not breaking the banking laws that the other sites are, and they may even be legal, but it’s tough to be certain.
My advice for playing on the unregulated sites is to keep your bankroll on them to a minimum, not risking any money that you aren’t willing to lose. With the bitcoin sites you can deposit and withdraw so quickly that it’s very easy to play without leaving money on the site, but the game selection can be limited.
3. Play on the major sites from somewhere else.
Many serious players have been traveling to other countries to play since Black Friday took the major sites away from American players. I know a few players who fly to Vancouver for a week or two each month and either stay with a friend or rent a place long term. There is also an entire community of “poker refugees” living at least part time in Rosarito, Mexico, just 10 miles south of the border on the pacific coast.
I also know players living in other parts of Canada, Costa Rica, Panama, and tournament players who travel to other countries when there are big tournament events like the WCOOP on PokerStars but spend the rest of their time in the United States. Traveling can be a significant expense, but if you really want to play online poker with a large player pool and make real money, traveling can be a good option.
4. Play online using a virtual private network or other workaround.
It is possible to play poker from within the United States on PokerStars, Full Tilt, Party Poker, and other sites. It’s not necessarily a good idea, but it is possible. Those people who are able to pull this off have a business arrangement with someone in another country with some tech skills, an extra computer or two, a good Internet connection, and hopefully a great deal of integrity.
Most people who are running VPN networks so that players can get on to the major sites from prohibited countries are in third world countries themselves. It’s tough to make enough money running a proxy service for poker players to make it worthwhile in places where it is more expensive to live, and this can cause a problem.
If you use a proxy, you are using an account that they create on the poker site and you are trusting them with all of your deposits and all of your winnings. You may be able to trust this person, who you have probably never met, with a thousand dollars when you deposit because they are making money from you, but can you trust them with $200,000 when you hit a big score in the Sunday Million? Are you sure?
These services are typically expensive, costing at least $500 a month and often double that or more. Can you really pay rake, pay for the proxy service, and put in enough hours to make a profit on top of all that? If you can, are you going to make enough to pay for the potential risk?
Let’s do a little cost benefit analysis on this. Keep in mind that you are breaking the rules of the poker site where you are playing, and have no recourse if they catch you or if the person running the service runs off with your money.
Paying that extra money every month to play on a bigger site would only be worthwhile to very serious players, and those players would almost certainly be better off traveling to Rosarito or Vancouver to play part of the time and finding local cardrooms or offshore sites to play on rather than bothering with a proxy service to get on a major site all the time.
For many of us there is another option, though the quality of that option varies depending on where you live. Get out of the house and go to a cardroom. There are some amazing cardrooms in the United States! Have you been to Aria in Vegas? Or Borgata in Atlantic City? Both incredible places to play poker. There may even be a small cardroom near you, or you could find a home game on meetup.com. While I got my start online, I’m much happier now that I have been playing live poker for a few years and the live poker economy is doing very well. Get out there and socialize with some real live human beings!