Without real money or prizes at stake, poker can feel decidedly dull. Everyone tries to flop a monster with their trashy starting hands, nobody folds and it is more a ‘who is lucky enough to make the best hand at showdown’ exercise than a game of skill and intelligence.
Add some real money into the equation and *boom* you have a fascinating strategy puzzle. The elements of risk and reward change poker into a game of working out what your opponent’s moves mean, of hand reading, of cunning and creative plays. In other words, money is what powers the huge popularity of poker worldwide.
This page covers real money poker from several different angles. First, some differences in strategy between play money poker and the real money game are outlined. After that some questions about the legality and fairness of playing for real money are discussed. Next you’ll find information on the best real money poker sites depending on your location. Finally, you’ll find some information on how to get your money into and out of online poker sites.
If you have enjoyed play money (free) poker games in the past you’ll probably be used to strategy which involves seeing a lot of flops. Players limp or call small bets with just about anything, and keep going with the hand with any hope of making a flush, straight or even holding something like bottom pair.
In real money poker that strategy will see you going broke within an hour.
You’ll need to be selective with those starting hands, be aware of position, practice good bet sizing and not ‘give away’ your monster hands to succeed at even the smallest buy-ins. If you want to move up to the mid-stakes then hand reading, math and game selection become paramount. All of these skills can be learned (see our Poker Strategy section), what I am doing here is emphasizing the gulf in skills between the two types of the game. You can be an expert at play-money, and still get completely owned in even the smallest real money games online.
The legal background to playing real money poker depends on where you are located. For most of the world, online poker is regulated and perfectly legal – for players in the US the situation is different. While there are no Federal laws explicitly preventing an individual from playing online poker, the financial transactions between the banks and the poker rooms are questionable. Some States (NV, NJ and DW) have their own legal poker sites. If you are outside of these, then there are many offshore sites who welcome US players. Remember, nobody has even been arrested for playing online poker – let alone indicted. You can find more information on poker and the law in our legal US poker article.
You will hear some people claim that online poker games do not have a fair deal. Their charge is either that there are too many ‘suspicious’ river cards or too many ‘action fops’. I have yet to see any evidence beyond conjecture and opinion to support this. What is more, monitoring services have now tracked tens of billions of hands from all of the major sites. The evidence is overwhelming that the deals are fair. I’ll believe the statistical evidence – though I’ll also acknowledge that it is impossible to convince many players that poker is fair.
You can find a lot more information on the best real money poker games in our Poker Reviews section. Here I have summarized some of the very best options.
Bovada.lv: This site is part of the huge Bodog brand, and accepts players from all states. They have a cool recreational player model which keeps the pros away – making it a safe place to enjoy the real money tables for the first time.
Ignition Poker: Great software which includes fun animations, a big choice of smaller buy-in games and the biggest welcome bonus package you will find anywhere make this a great place to begin your real money online poker career.
Bet365 Poker: This is a sports-betting brand from the UK which has huge following and is part of the famously easy iPoker Network. Jackpot games, big tournaments and lots of first-time or inexperienced opponents make this an easy recommendation for players outside of the US.
PokerStars: This is the giant of online poker, they are 3 times bigger than even their closest rivals. Smooth and fast software, a choice of games which will blow your mind, plus generous player rewards. You’ll need to watch for the sharks, so this site might be better for players who already have some experience in the real money games.
Getting your money onto and off of real money poker sites also depends on your location. Worldwide players have a ton of options. These include all of their debit and credit cards, many electronic wallet systems like PayPal and Neteller, plus local options like bank transfers and pre-paid cards too.
If you are located in the US, then your options are more limited. The good news is that with just a little effort you can make those deposits. The first thing to try is your Visa Card, these have the best success rate of all credit cards and if you are lucky yours will be accepted first time. Try those backup cards next, before you ask your site about pre-paid Visa card brands which are currently working.
If cards don’t work out, then you have another way. Money transfer services like Western Union and MoneyGram can be used. What you need to do is obtain a routing number and recipient name from your site, then head to your local branch with the cash. This works for withdrawals too, though you can also opt for paper check to receive your winnings.