Play online poker securely in Canada
There has been a debate over the fairness of the deal ever since the first hands of online poker were dealt. Rigged deals are only one aspect of a poker site being safe. Other key factors to consider are collusion, bots, and whether the operator of the site is a safe place to store your money.
Fortunately, staying safe while enjoying online poker is simple. By understanding how the sites work, how they are licensed and monitored, and what to look out for while playing, you can keep yourself safe.
This guide to the safest Canadian poker sites has everything you need to find and enjoy profitable poker games — without putting yourself at risk.
Players that are new to online poker have worries that the deal of cards is unfair. Many players believe that the sites are specifically targeting them with set over set, bad river cards, or draws that never hit.
More profound variations of these claims suggest that new players are ‘rewarded’ for bad play early on, and then the sites take their money once they are hooked.
All of this is nonsense.
Billions of hands of online poker have been dealt. Audits have been performed, individual players keep million+ hand databases and tracking services collect tens of millions of hands. Not one of them has found any evidence of an unfair deal in 25 years of online poker.
Poker sites make millions of dollars in profits by taking tournament fees and small amounts of rake from cash game hands. It’s absurd to think that they risk this to take an individual’s $5 tournament buy-in with targeted river cards. If a big site were ever proven to be unfair, they would lose half of their players overnight.
Poker sites control their shuffle via software known as a ‘Random Number Generator’ (shortened to RNG). This powerful software creates a brand new set of random numbers for every hand. It has no memory, simply performing new calculations for shuffled decks each time a hand is dealt.
To prove that the output of RNG software is truly random, third party auditors are employed. These auditing companies run millions of hands, making sure that the deal is fair before certifying a site. These are big international auditors, not small outfits controlled by the rooms. Big names include Technical Systems Testing, iTech Labs, and iGaming Labs.
Verification of RNG fairness and fair terms and conditions also comes via industry bodies. The eCOGRA group is a well-respected example.
Bots refers to computer software designed to play poker. Some shady offshore sites have been accused of using them to fill tables during the early years of online poker. While players may try to get an advantage using them, this is all but impossible at the big brand sites these days. Security software will easily detect suspicious activity. The types of mistakes (and timing style) made by humans is easy to detect — add patterns to this and a bot would stand out a mile.
Poker sites now also ban ‘advice engine’ software. In the past, add-ons would watch your play, categorizing player types, displaying pot odds, and ‘advising’ you of the best moves. Also now banned by most big sites is HUD (heads up display) software that tracks your opponents and displays their tendencies, betting percentages, and so on.
Collusion between players does happen, though, again, experience from poker room security teams makes this very easy to detect. Soft-play between friends — or targeting in-between players with re-raises — is easy to detect when hole-cards are known. Another form of this is ‘ghosting’, where a pro takes over the decisions at the final table of a tournament. This is thankfully rare, though harder to detect.
Overall, collusion is rare — though it can and does happen. It is important that all players report any suspicious activity to site security. Even if you are wrong, the times that cheating is actually uncovered will more than make up for this, keeping the games safe and fair for everyone.
To operate legally around the world, poker sites require a license. These licenses are issued nationally. Some countries license poker sites within their own borders, while others license sites to welcome players from around the world.
Just because a site is licensed to welcome international players does not mean that players from anywhere can enjoy the real money games. This depends on local laws — where there is a grey area, you could be putting your money at risk.
Major poker and betting brands are licensed in European jurisdictions. These are considered legitimate licensing bodies, that have codes of conduct and protections in place for players. Examples are the Isle of Man, Malta, and Gibraltar. If you find a site licensed in these places, you can be sure they are among the safest poker sites. RNG testing, separation of player funds, and fair terms and conditions for bonuses and rewards are all part of the licensing process.
Other sites are licensed in the Caribbean, and Central and South America. These are the ‘offshore’ sites — many of which welcome players from the US. Bodies from Panama, the Netherlands Antilles, and Costa Rica license sites, though do not have a high-level of oversight. If you deposit money at this type of site, there is nobody to complain to if the site closes overnight, taking your funds with it.
Sweepstakes poker sites are not licensed. This type of outfit uses marketing laws to operate, employing a dual-currency model to effectively turn their games into mini-sweepstakes contests. While safe, this type of site again lacks the oversight of fully licensed poker rooms.
It is an unfortunate reality that some individuals develop problems with gambling behaviour. The best poker rooms take a proactive approach to this area, with protections available for anyone who needs them.
Responsible gambling includes protection for underage gamblers (this is 19 in most provinces, 18 in others).
Sites should do more than just have a page with information. Look out for the following to make sure you are playing at a legitimate poker room:
Once you find a poker room with a certified RNG, security against bots and collusion, and a license from a respected jurisdiction, the next step is to deposit some money. There are some restrictions from Canadian banks, but that said, the most important factor is making sure that you are playing at one of the safest poker sites.
Two things to consider with poker site finances:
Payments depend on how comfortable you are using your own cards or bank online. While Visa and MasterCard (plus Discover and Amex) are welcomed at many sites, transactions are frequently declined. This means alternatives are needed. Your options are iDebit, Interac, electronic wallets including Skrill (where accepted), or prepaid/gift-style cards. You will find some sites welcome Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. While those are typically safe ways to transfer value, the types of sites that welcome them generally lack oversight and are licensed in less reputable jurisdictions.
Checking out withdrawal speeds and policies up front will save you headaches when it come to taking out your profits. Look out for sites with a high minimum withdrawal for your preferred method. It is easy for small stakes players to end up with a bankroll ‘trapped’ online — for example by a $100 minimum withdrawal via bank wire.
You will find more information on Canadian poker payment methods elsewhere here at PlayCanada.com.
The saying ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is’ applies to online poker sites as well as life in general. There is a lot more to consider than just the huge headline amounts that many poker rooms advertise for new players.
Often, the biggest bonuses are almost impossible to ‘clear’ for smaller stakes/recreational players. You will play for weeks, only to see the bonuses expire way before you get close to the number of points needed to redeem them.
All bonuses require some play before the bonus credits are cleared and moved to your cash account. From there you can withdraw them. Rake collected in cash games and fees paid for tournaments all contribute to clearing your bonus. The best bonuses clear quickly — a quick calculation should show that you get 25%+ of the fees paid for rake back as part of your bonus. They also clear in increments, hitting your cash account when you get to $5 or $10.
Conversely, bonuses at bad sites clear in one big lump sum. This means that if you miss your point target (even by a few points), the bonus disappears. Look out for offers where the points needed to clear your bonus are hard to accumulate at smaller stakes. Bonuses with super-short time frames should also be avoided.
Note that when you withdraw, any outstanding bonuses are automatically removed. This happens at the safe poker sites, as well as the shady offshore ones.
It is also worth checking out whether a site has a history of voiding bonuses for minor issues. For example, if someone plays a hand of blackjack while enjoying poker. Sites with this type of reputation are the same ones that find excuses to delay your withdrawals.
Even the biggest poker sites have some risks, as a quick look back at the history of the online game will show. Many Canadian players fell victim to ‘Black Friday’ in 2011, when several of the biggest sites of the time were shut down by US authorities.
At the time, Full Tilt Poker was considered one of the safest poker sites. It was represented by a big roster of poker pros, and welcomed players from all around the world. When the domain was seized after Black Friday, it was quickly discovered that the owners had been using player funds for operational costs — the site was insolvent.
While some money was paid back (via US authorities) many players lost their entire bankroll. The lesson that endures to this day is to only keep money you can afford to lose at any online poker site, however safe they appear.
Other sites that have shut down include Ultimate Bet, Absolute Poker, and several old skins of the MicroGaming Poker Network. Lock Poker was involved in a separate scandal. Red flags were raised when withdrawals slowed down. Eventually this site closed, with thousands of players losing their entire bankroll.
Poker is well regulated these days. The biggest brands are listed on stock markets, licensed in individual countries (in addition to their global licenses), and have excellent reputations for fair play and great service. The scandals of the past should be a lesson that you never really know when the next site will close — and that any money you keep online is at risk.
If you are used to live poker games, then being aware of the ‘skill gap’ is critical. Online games are much tougher than live poker. One reason for this is that pro players tend to play multiple tables at once, while amateurs play just one or two. This means that on average, you are playing experienced opponents, with not enough opponents to go around.
This is so significant that buying in to a $200 game online and expecting this to play like a $1/$2 game in your local Canadian card room will see you lose your bankroll almost instantly. The hand-reading skills of this player pool is excellent.
Start off with games at 10% of your usual live buy-in and move up from there as you get a feel for the online games.
Bankroll management can help. If you play poker tournaments, 1/50 of your bankroll can be used for your average buy-in. Cash games should use 1/20. Using fractions of your bankroll will give you information on when to move up and down in stakes. Taking shots at the next level up becomes possible when you are a few buy-ins up. If you lose, then it is easy to drop down and rebuild.
Many of your opponents will be using software tools to analyze their own sessions. This shows which hands and spots are money-losers for them. This information is then used to plug leaks, focus learning activities, and to continually improve. Online poker is extremely competitive and even a great player will fall behind without regular study.
It is possible to find safe, legitimate online poker sites in Canada. The biggest brands have regularly audited shuffles, fair/transparent bonus terms, and don’t allow tools used by pros like advice engines and HUD software.
Staying safe requires a little due diligence from players. You should always check the terms and conditions of any bonus deal to make sure it can be cleared before your time runs out. Deposit methods, withdrawal minimums, and any history of declining withdrawals for minor/trivial reasons can also be looked up.
Fortunately, online poker is super-safe these days. With billions of audited hands, the ‘is poker rigged’ debate was closed many years ago. With some skills, and a good run of cards, there is nothing stopping you from making a profit from online poker tables right now!