Things are changing fast for online poker.
There are nearly four states that have regulated games — Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware, and soon-to-come Pennsylvania – plus legal, sweepstakes poker games in other areas. While the boom of 10 years ago is over, online poker for real money in the US is on the rise again.
This is a detailed guide to legal poker sites in the United States. We’ll provide you with information on the current legislative landscape, the best sites to play online poker and the different types of poker bonuses.
Top Online Poker Sites in 2019
Free poker vs. real money poker
As soon as real money is at stake, the game of poker transforms.
Play money poker involves seeing a flop, hitting hands and never folding when there is even a shot at winning the pot. With no incentive to fold or think strategically, it provides light entertainment at best.
Once real cash is involved, poker changes into a mental battle. Playing every hand and trying to hit, will quickly become a losing strategy.
Conversely, playing too few hands becomes predictable and easy to exploit. You’ll need to play a position, work out what your opponents’ bets mean and understand math concepts like odds and equity.
You can play online poker games for real money or for free. I can assure you that once you try for real money, free games will quickly lose its appeal. The beauty of real money poker is that you’ll never stop learning.
Even the biggest stars of the game are working on their strategy; poker takes five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master.
Is online poker legal in the US?
Poker has a long tradition in the US, from boom to bust. There is a new era in real money USA poker games as individual states license and regulate the games.
So far, there are four legal states for online poker: Nevada, Delaware, Pennsylvania (where sites are about to launch) and New Jersey. These states require that a brick-and-mortar casino licenses the poker sites.
Three states share players – Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey — at 888 and WSOP online poker rooms. Players from all three states will meet at the tables, which allows for bigger tournaments (many with large, guaranteed prizepools) and a more extensive selection of cash games.
Pennsylvania is about to come online, and with the same brands opening, may join these pools soon.
Outside of the regulated states, sweepstakes gambling laws allow for “real money” poker action.
Global Poker works by giving free virtual currency called “Sweeps Cash” to players that purchase play money coins.
With more states considering licensing poker, casino and sports betting online, the range of legal US poker sites will only grow in the future.
How do sweepstakes poker sites work?
Global Poker uses state gambling laws that cover sweepstakes contests. It brings real money poker action to states that have yet to regulate. While this is a workaround, it is perfectly legal and is becoming popular.
Since this poker room can’t take real money deposits for gambling, it gives you free Sweeps Cash alongside the purchase of play money coins. You can use Sweeps Cash to play poker. Each hand (or tournament) is considered to be an individual sweepstakes contest.
Once you have accumulated enough Sweeps Cash, you can swap it for dollars in the cashier and withdraw them to your bank account.
Taking advantage of poker bonuses
With the poker rooms competing to grow in the most prominent player pools, there are plenty of poker bonuses. These options range from free cash deals to matched bonuses and loyalty schemes.
Keep in mind, you should always read the terms and conditions before accepting a poker bonus. You will find some significant variations in playthrough requirements and time available to complete the wagering.
You’ll see the most common types of poker bonuses to take advantage of in this list:
- No deposit bonuses: Some poker sites offer you a small amount of free cash to try out their real money games. This bonus is only for new accounts and gives you up to $30 for play. You’ll need to wager this several times before you can withdraw it. If you are good enough, you might be able to build a bankroll without needing to deposit at all.
- Matched welcome bonus: This is the industry standard bonus offer. Most sites give you a 100% matched bonus on your first deposit of up to $500. You’ll need to earn points from playing real money games and tournaments, which will incrementally clear your bonus.
- Free tournament entries: New depositors often get entries into free tournaments with guaranteed prizepools. Some poker rooms run these freerolls regularly.
- Loyalty bonus schemes: With loyalty schemes, you collect points while playing. These can move you up tiers or it can be a flat rate. You can cash in points for bonuses or tournament entries.
- Reload bonuses: If you ever deplete your poker bankroll, reload bonuses can help. These work in the same way as the welcome bonus offer, though sometimes have lower percentage matches.
- One-off promotions: What separates the good from the great poker rooms is the promos. Look for sites that look after their players with plenty of offers. These can include satellite qualifiers to the biggest live events.
Remember, you are not restricted to a single poker room. To get the best offers, it can pay to be selective, shifting your money around to take advantage of the best deals.
Which US poker sites offer mobile apps?
Several of the state-regulated poker sites offer mobile poker apps alongside their desktop-software client. These apps allow for limited access, as it is hard to multi-table on a small screen.
If you do want to enjoy poker on the move, here are the New Jersey and Nevada sites that currently offer apps:
- 888 Poker, WSOP-branded sites in Nevada and New Jersey
- PokerStars NJ
- Partypoker, Borgata Poker NJ
- Pala Poker NJ
How to deposit at a real money US poker site?
To enjoy real money poker, you’ll need to get that initial bankroll on board.
When you choose legal, regulated poker rooms, a lot of options open up for you. By sticking to the best-known brands, you can be sure your funds are secure.
The easiest option is merely to use your regular debit or credit card. Making a poker deposit works precisely the same as making any purchase online. Inside the regulated states, nearly all banks will approve these transactions.
If you prefer it, you can buy prepaid debit cards, or for some sites, you can apply for a branded debit card for their license-holding casino that guarantees fast deposits and withdrawals from then on.
Another set of deposit options using your bank account includes e-checks, bill pay or wire transfers. The combination that is accepted will depend on which state-regulated online poker site you are playing.
With e-checks, a third party (usually a company called VIP Preferred) will verify you, allowing for instant transfers.
Bill pay works with a list of banks provided by each site. You follow the same process as for paying a utility bill. Wires are slower, though still have a place for large deposits.
Third-party-wallet services are perfect for poker fans that prefer to keep their banking separate from their gambling.
The best-known service is PayPal, though you will find Skrill and Neteller welcomed by poker rooms, too. While there is a small downside in terms of fees, the additional security these wallets provide makes them popular choices.
If the electronic options are not for you, you’ll be able to deposit with cash. Again, this does depend on which poker site you choose. Options include taking cash to the casino cage or using PayNearMe, which is available at 7-Eleven stores.
Software options at real money poker sites
Most poker rooms provide a few ways to access their games:
A full download: This is the ideal method if you are playing from a desktop computer or laptop. Once you download the software package, you get full functionality and smooth gaming (there is no need to initialize the games from scratch each time). Downloads are generally available for Windows and Apple computers.
Poker apps: The biggest brands, like 888 and PokerStars, have online poker apps. These offer a limited number of games you can enjoy on the go. It is hard to multi-table using an app, so expect a single-game format. Android poker apps are not available via the Google Play store; you’ll need to get those direct from the poker site.
Instant play: This is the least popular way of accessing the software. Sites allow form-limited gaming action in your web browser. These games will respond to your screen size, though they are not suitable for the smallest (smartphone) screens.
While the branding of each site is unique, there are some commonalities when it comes to getting around.
Sites split the major poker variations with cash games, tournaments and Sit ‘n Gos (SNG) at the top level of their navigation.
Once you access each area, you’ll find tabs or checkboxes that will help you narrow your search. This can be by buy-in level, table size or speed. Tournaments have further navigation to separate qualifiers and major events.
What separates the good from the great is the small software features. Smooth gaming, resizable tables and easy options to top up your stack make for a far better experience. PokerStars is considered by poker players to have the best software client. I also like the interface at the 888 Poker/WSOP brands.
Poker variations available
Traditionally, there are four types of poker you can play online with cash. Note that these are broad categories, each of which contains multiple poker game variants, speeds and small table size/rules/betting format changes.
No Limit Texas Hold ’em dominates the real cash poker scene. At least 80% of the action is in this format. Omaha follows, with the popularity of Pot Limit Omaha, Pot Limit Omaha 8 and Omaha 8 variants growing. Other forms, including stud and draw poker, are tiny by comparison.
The 4 main poker variations you can play online:
- Cash games: This is the traditional poker format, where the chips you play with have a direct monetary value. You’ll find full-ring and six-max games to be the most popular, though you can find other table sizes. You can find most of the cash game action at the micro stakes ($25 buy-in and under).
- Poker tournaments: This format has the most rule, structure variations. The basis is that you buy in for a pile of chips and play until one player has them all. The bet sizes increase to ensure action. Usually, 10% of the field are paid, with the biggest prize going to the winner.
- SNGs: While poker tournaments have big fields and scheduled start times, SNGs have a fixed size and start when all the seats are full. The basic format is one (nine-seat) table. Three players get paid in this format. Lottery SNGs, which are three-handed games with randomly selected prizepools up to 10,000x your buy-in, are now popular, too.
- Fast Fold Poker: This variation crosses cash game and tournament formats. Instead of sitting at a table, players are in pools. Each hand sees six to nine players combined from each pool (which is by buy-in). When you fold, you go straight to a hand with new players from your pool. This format requires a lot of players and is not widely available at the regulated US sites just yet.
A big appeal of online poker in USA is the range of buy-ins available. You can enjoy cash games where the blinds are pennies (as little as 1c / 2c or 2c / 5c). That means you can buy-in for a full stack for just $2. Most of the action is in the 5c / 10c to $1 / $2 blinds range. There are bigger buy-in games – especially at the 888/WSOP or PokerStars NJ.
You can join tournaments for $1 or less. The biggest weekly games take place online on Sundays, with guarantees of up to $100 available. Bigger real money poker rooms have special events, for example, the New Jersey Spring Championship of Online Poker, aka NJSCOOP, which features a week or more of significant guaranteed events.
How to cash out quickly
If you win a tournament or accumulate money in the cash games, you’ll need to get your money safely out of the poker rooms.
As a rule of thumb, the sites will ask you to use the same method you initially deposited with to return your money. This will not always be possible, in which case, an alternative (for example a paper check) is an option.
You can withdraw quickly using the e-wallet services like PayPal, Skrill or Neteller. If you are verified, then an ACH transfer will also send the funds to you quickly. Alternatives include paper checks, which they can send to your home.
All poker rooms will take a day or two to verify your withdrawal request. You will also need to have completed the ID verification process before you can withdraw.
Are poker sites safe? Are the deals fair?
If you have been around online poker for long, you are sure to have come across at least one player who is convinced that “online poker is rigged.” The fact is that billions of hands have been dealt, and tracking services (including individual player databases) have uncovered zero anomalies with the deal.
Add to this the requirement for regulated, legal sites to have their Random Number Generator software audited. You can feel 100% certain that you are getting a fair deal.
Safety and security of your deposit can depend on individual sites. With some of the biggest and most reputable global brands providing the technology for US poker rooms, I have absolutely no concerns in this area.
You can take simple security measures, for example, by not playing on shared machines, and making sure that the https header is showing on the poker site’s homepage.
Understanding KYC requirements at online poker sites
Many players are happy to join a legitimate, regulated, legal USA poker room and then are surprised when it asks for backup documentation.
ID checks are part of a process of keeping online poker clean. Money laundering and fraud on any scale would mean online poker simply could not happen. Everyone has a role to play, and providing backup documents is a vital part of this process.
These legal poker websites will ask for proof of ID, proof of address and backups for your deposit method. Examples include a photo of the front of your credit card. You are welcome to black out all but the last four numbers if you prefer.
Know Your Customer, aka KYC, also helps prevent underage gambling, which is a critical component of responsible gaming. Other parts of this include links to help organizations, and the ability to self-exclude from a poker site.
Wrap up of online poker in 2019
Poker has come a long way since the dark days of 2011 when the Department of Justice chased away the remaining global giants. Four states have legal online poker (with Pennsylvania about to go live).
Also, sweepstakes poker is available in many more states under existing laws. Better still, there is a growing list of additional states considering their regulation.
You can take advantage of bonus offers which range from entirely free cash to matched offers and free tournament entries. Once you join, you’ll find a lot of action focused on Texas Hold ’em and covering many poker formats.
As the player pools grow between the states, the choice of game, size of the tournaments and number of niche variations can only get better.