There is a bewildering number of choices when it comes to online poker. I hope this article helps a beginner poker fan to get a smooth start in the world of online multiplayer poker. Each of our Top 3, in addition to being a leader, offers something unique. I will make sure to point those unique features through the article. As in any young industry situation is very fluid and relative standings change often. That is why I specifically review poker sites as they are in 2011. Next year I must revisit and update my conclusions.
What It Takes to Get On The List
What criteria should we use to select our Top 3? Here are factors that largely separate leaders from the rest of the field:
Game Selection: Availability of cash poker games as well free multiplayer poker games. Free games are critical for training and getting comfortable with the software. Texas Holdem is king of poker. However other, less popular poker games, like Omaha, Razz can add appeal and variety to any poker site.
Table Selection: Full Multiplayer - 9 handed tables as well as short-handed and heads-up tables
Availability: Solid Client software for both Windows and Mac with frequent updates. Bonus points if site also offers good browser based, no download online poker game. You might not think of it much at first but no download poker client really shines when you are on vacation, accessing site from a mobile device or otherwise are "on the move".
Playability: This is important if you play online poker a lot. Here we rate factors like responsiveness of the software. Whether it hangs a lot or runs smoothly day in day out. Visual layout and how cluttered screen is. Whether controls are located conveniently. Do not underestimate these "soft" factors. All together playability is the best proxy for software quality. It can either turn your poker session into a struggle or make computer almost disappear by letting you immerse yourself into poker action.
Social features: Capability to chat we other players and invite others to play a specific game or table. Remember that people who play poker online are often in it for fun as much as for thrill of winning money. If you play a lot, you will get to know people and even make some friends.
Tournaments: Offering Tournaments in a variety of formats such as single table (Sit-n-Go) and multi table (MTT).
For the record, I do not think that beginners should play tournaments. Poker tournaments, especially online poker tournaments, require different poker strategy from regular ring games because tournaments are often played short-stacked and use antes. To an untrained eye a tournament often looks like extremely loose even reckless game.
Traffic: Sufficient player numbers. We are talking about players who are currently logged into the site. High traffic sites are great if you like to sample different games or just get bored easily. On the other hand, if you prefer playing poker online with the same people as you played yesterday, then traffic just does not matter. Note that high traffic sites are usually those with large promotional budgets. To recoup marketing expense their rake structure can be less favorable.
Run by a European company, Rational Entertainment Enterprises Ltd., this is by far the largest poker site today. It has grown enormously over the last 5 years and pulls as much traffic as 3 of its largest competitors combined. Due to lots of players hanging around the site, game and table selection are very good.
I have no first hand experience with their Customer Service. That said, I have never heard persistent or widely spread complaints about PokerStars. Unlike some other sites which generate constant outcry from abused and disgruntled players.
They recently revamped their software client to improve online multiplayer poker game experience. In its last software update they clearly modeled themselves after FullTilt poker client. Their lobby provides a streamlined navigation, helping to find desired games in just 2-3 mouse clicks. They also significantly reduced screen clutter. Current version of software is stable and runs smoothly. Unfortunately they do not offer a no download poker client. PokerStars is home to the largest pool of players seated in free multiplayer poker tables at any hour of the day.
PokerStar prides themselves on running largest online poker tournaments. They cleverly use offline poker events like WSOP to entice online players to enter by offering them to "qualify" for WSOP and other high-profile live poker events. Being one of the most sophisticated promoters, PokerStar turned even free online multiplayer poker tournaments (called freerolls) into marketing gold.
One of the oldest online poker sites on the Internet. Behind PartyPoker web site is Party Gaming, a world's largest online gambling company publicly traded on London stock exchange. It used to be the largest online poker site before 2006. However due to lack of focus and anti-gambling regulatory actions in US it has fallen behind few of its more nimble competitors. Party Gaming operates a network of gambling websites and aggressively cross promotes them. Its flagship online multiplayer poker room draws traffic from its other properties, which are mostly Europe based.
Software client is playable, though not to the level of other sites in this review. A word about PartyPoker's color theme. There used to be a time when every casino or gambling related site on the Net had to be green. Since then most sites moved on to develop their own color palettes. PartyPoker is one of the holdovers still presenting you with a sea of green on its site as well as on its software client. Every year they revamp site's main page to tone down the green but to this day it is a major color.
They recently announced full support for Mac and indeed their Mac poker client is fairly good. The graphics are a bit cartoonish to my taste but that just stylistic preference. They have a browser based, no download poker client as well. Ironically first thing you see after launching that no download poker client is a download progress bar.
There are plenty of free multiplayer poker games, including Limit Holdem, No Limit Holdem and Omaha. Cash games and tournaments are also present in sufficient numbers.
A defining feature of PartyPoker is its soft and loose poker games. I mean softer and more loose than most other sites. This is probably due to constant influx of gamblers from their other properties. As always, where there is fish there are sharks as well. Still the site is beginner friendly, providing good poker educational material both written and video.
2011 is very likely the last year when FullTiltPoker can be considered a major force in online poker. Pocket Kings, the company behind the site, has run into serious legal and financial difficulties. Our mention of FullTilt is in a way honorary yet well deserved. FullTilt was a solid number two in traffic before they lost their gambling license.
Their software client is best in the business. Striking a balance between feature rich yet playable and uncluttered User experience. Site and client design inspired many other online multiplayer poker sites, including others among out Top 3. Over the years FullTilt came up with quite a few innovations, such as aptly named Rush Poker. That is a system that immediately transfers you to another table once you are out of a hand minimizing your down time and allowing you to play a lot more hands per hour. Regardless of what you might think of actual Rush Poker experience, that was very creative move. They offer the widest selection of poker including such rare games as HORSE, usually played mostly by professionals.
Marketing angle chosen by FullTilt was to assemble the best team of sponsored professional players, then convert their personal celebrity into a powerful marketing weapon promoting the site. In fact, FullTilt is partially owned by some of the biggest names in poker today. Among all other promo tricks they included possibility to find and play with those professionals live on the site. Due to their good software and smart promotions FullTilt attracted many good online multiplayer poker players. Thus level of competition on FullTilt is probably the highest among our Top 3. The choice is your, now go a play some poker.
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