Online Poker FAQ — Beginners' Guide

Sites welcoming US players

Full Tilt Poker
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Ultimate Bet
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Poker Stars
Best tournaments and frequent player freerolls

Absolute Poker
Weekly $150,000 freeroll

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A fair and random shuffle

A random shuffle is a fair shuffle. How can you be sure the shuffle is properly random? That's a tough question. The “shuffling” is actually a carefully-designed computer algorithm performed by the central poker server. It's hard to know what's happening inside that server. In order to reassure their customers, all the top sites have taken a number of measures to demonstrate that their shuffle is fair.

Published algorithms. First, many have published the technical details of algorithms they use for the random number generator (RNG) and shuffling. (For example, Poker Stars' algorithms are here.) The reason for doing this is rather surprising. Believe it or not, it's difficult to implement an RNG that is random enough for use in shuffling a deck of cards. Once you have a good RNG, using the random numbers in a shuffle is trickier than it looks. By publishing algorithms that experts agree are good, the site shows that its engineers are not incompetent.

An amusing story from the early days of online poker shows how devastating the effect of technical incompetence can be. After Planet Poker published the source code to their shuffle – to reassure players it was secure – some grad students created a program that was able to determine the entire deck ordering by just seeing the first round of up-cards. A user of this program could see everybody's down cards and also knew what cards were coming off the deck next! The students gave the software developers time to fix the error and then published their findings. Planet Poker's reputation suffered for years.

Independent auditing. Claiming to use a fair algorithm is one thing, but how do you know that is actually what is going on inside the poker server? To answer this question, the top sites have engaged independent auditing companies to inspect their source code and deployment procedures and to make surprise inspections at later dates. For example, PriceWaterhouseCoopers reviews the card shuffling at Paradise Poker on a quarterly basis and two separate auditors stand behind the code at Poker Stars . The other major sites have passed similar audits.

Regulatory oversight. Third, most poker sites have obtained licenses from the Kahnawake Gaming Commission, a regulatory agency operating in the Mohawk Territory of Kahnawake in Canada. The commission requires license holders to comply with a number of regulations which include a requirement to offer a fair game. The commission claims to conduct monthly audits to ensure continuing compliance.

Note that many smaller sites have not gone to such trouble to reassure their customers that the game is fair. That doesn't necessarily mean they are crooked, but there are other risks to playing at a smaller site, so why bother? Stick to the big sites.

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