Interested in playing poker online? From real money and play money games to private clubs, crypto sites, sweepstakes sites and more — there’s so much choice, it’s a bit overwhelming. This guide is here to help.

Online Poker GuideWe’ll discuss real money online poker — games where you can deposit real money, sit at cash games and tournaments, play against real people and win (and lose!) money. We’ll help you understand the pros and cons of these games, go through your options depending on where you are in the world, and make some recommendations to help you get started.

But there’s a lot more to online poker than real money games: subscription poker, where you pay a fee to access games and win real prizes; sweepstakes poker, which extends that concept to a point where it is near indistinguishable from real money poker; free play games, which are just for fun; and club or “app” poker, which is ostensibly free-play but may operate more like private real money clubs.

In a word — it’s a minefield. Terminology is ambiguous and most websites will only talk about one or two types of online poker — the ones they want to promote. It makes it impossible to get a clear picture and understand the choices. This guide aims to fix that.

Type What is It? Where Can I Play It? Our Recommendation
Real money online poker Sites where you can deposit and withdrawal real money directly. Worldwide — but in some places it is illegal or unregulated. Best option if you are in a location served by big operators, like PokerStars, GGPoker or WSOP.
Club-based app poker Free play app but with big private clubs where games are run for real money. Everywhere Real money clubs should be considered high risk.
Sweepstakes poker Subscription and “modern” sweepstakes poker sites, where you can win real cash prizes. Australia, United States, Canada Good option if you don’t have regulated sites.
Social and free play poker You can spend real money, but you can never withdraw. Everywhere Might scratch your itch but won’t be the same experience as a real money game.

Our Online Poker Recommendations

Our online poker recommendations are based on where you live. We break it down into three categories:

  1. Markets with legal, locally regulated online poker (which includes four states in the US, Ontario, and many European countries.)
  2. Markets without local regulation, served by large, trustworthy poker sites (including the rest of Canada, parts of Europe, and South America)
  3. Everywhere else (rest of the USA, Australia)
This guide is for players of legal gambling age. Poker is an adults-only game. Please check the legal age to gamble in your jurisdiction — it could be 18+, 21+, or higher. Do not play any forms of online poker if you are underage.

1) If you live somewhere with legal, regulated online poker, we recommend a site with a local license.

Applies to:

  • United States: Michigan, New Jersey, Nevada, Pennsylvania
  • Canada: Ontario
  • Europe: Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Italy, France, Germany, Greece, Latvia, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK
  • ROW: India

If you are in one of these jurisdictions, we recommend real money online poker for the best experience and the chance to win — as long as you’re comfortable putting your own money on the line. A site with a local license is recommended because you can trust your money is safe, the games are policed, and there’s recourse with the regulator if there are any problems.

You can play safe, real money online poker from these places. If you live in one of these states or countries, you can access safe, regulated, real money online poker and in most places you’ll have a choice of different sites. PokerStars (in the US, Ontario, Canada and Europe) is a great choice, or follow our recommendations below.

Recommended Sites:

  • PokerStars operates in almost all regulated markets and is a very trustworthy, secure site with often the best games and tournaments (read more: PokerStars USA, PokerStars Ontario, PokerStars.com)
  • WSOP is the only site in Nevada, and it also operates in Michigan, New Jersey and PA too (read more: WSOP USA).
  • GGPoker is another great choice regulated in most of these markets (read more: GGPoker).
  • Other suitable alternatives that operate in some of the bigger European countries: Unibet, 888poker, partypoker, Bet365, Paddy Power, Betfair, Betsson

Considerations:

  • Obviously, with a real money site, you can lose real money — most do! It is a form of gambling, so think first if you’re comfortable losing your money. If not, then try a free-play site. It won’t be the same experience, but you can still have fun — and learn the rules and flow of poker — with no cost to yourself.
  • Sites operating from offshore may promise bigger (or juicier) games. However, we do not recommend them — they are openly flouting the laws of your country, and you’d be better served trusting a site that follows local laws.

2) If you live somewhere without local online poker regulation, but is served by big-name sites, we recommend a site like PokerStars or GGPoker.

Applies to:

  • Canada: Everywhere except Ontario (see above)
  • Europe: Andorra, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, Ireland, Malta, Monaco, Norway, Serbia, Slovenia
  • ROW: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, Uruguay

While the legality of operating in your country may be ambiguous, if your region is served by a respected, trustworthy global online poker site, then that’s what we recommend. Your money will be safe with one of these providers, and you will have access to a global pool of players to play against.

You can play safe, real money online poker from these places. If you live in one of these countries, you can access the biggest online poker sites in the world. We recommend PokerStars and GGPoker because they have been around for many years and operate in many regulated markets around the world.

Recommended sites:

  • GGPoker has the biggest selection of cash games and tournaments in the global market (read more: GGPoker).
  • PokerStars is the second largest, and is the most trustworthy site with a long history as a reliable, honest operator across the globe (read more: PokerStars).
  • WPT Global is a newcomer to online poker, but is backed by a huge international brand. It might not offer the most games, but they are considered softer than PokerStars and GG (read more: WPT Global). Note that this site does not operate in any regulated markets.

Considerations:

  • If you are in a country with a local monopoly gaming provider (like in Austria, Finland, Sweden, some Canadian provinces), then you may choose between this local operator or an international one. The former is probably the absolute safest, but the games might be limited compared to international sites.
  • Because there are no local laws in your country, you do not have regulations to fall back on — so it’s important to pick a brand you trust. The sites we recommended have been around for many years, and have built a reputation for taking security seriously — both policing the games, and protecting your money.
  • As mentioned before, with a real money site, think first if you’re comfortable gambling — most players will lose their money over the long-term. If you don’t want to lose real cash, then try a free-play site.

3) If you live somewhere which is not served by big-name sites, we do not recommend real money online poker. We recommend subscription, sweepstakes or free-play apps.

Applies to:

  • United States: Everywhere except Michigan, New Jersey, Nevada, Pennsylvania
  • ROW: Australia, Russia, most of Africa, Asia and the Middle East

Unfortunately, if you live in one of these places, then legitimate companies like PokerStars do not operate in your country, and we cannot recommend you play online poker for real money.

Do not play for real money in these locations. It’s just not worth possibly losing your funds. Whatever people tell you, playing games for cryptocurrency or in a private club in an app doesn’t make it any safer, nor does it make it any more legal. You might have sweepstakes options instead (see below), which could offer a safer but similar experience.

Recommended sites:

  • We do not recommend any real money online poker sites in these locations.
  • If you are in the United States, we recommend modern sweepstakes online poker, which comes close to the real money online poker experience — and gives you a chance of winning real prizes — while staying within local laws. This won’t be an option everywhere — most Sweepstakes sites are not available in Idaho or Washington DC, for example.
  • We recommend the subscription site ClubWPT in the US and Australia.
  • If these options aren’t available to you, we can only recommend pure free-play sites, like PokerStars.net, or even try a VR experience like Vegas Infinite.

Considerations:

  • Even though we don’t recommend it, there will be real money online poker options available to you. Because the legal environment is so risky, any site offering you these services probably cuts corners in payment processing, game security, and protecting your money.
  • We do not recommend you try to play through an international site that prohibits your location. You might read about people using VPNs and fake names to play on global sites from the USA. You risk your money if you are found out — licensed sites look for attempts to circumvent their location checks and will close your account if found. They may seize all your deposit money and winnings.
  • You will also be served by “club” apps, but again, we do not recommend you join any that operate with real money because of game security issues and risk to funds.

Real Money Online Poker

We will define real money online poker sites as any site that directly allows you to deposit real money onto an online poker site and be able to withdraw your winnings directly.

We’ll restrict our definition to peer-to-peer online poker — that is, games where you sit and play against other players, not against the house. Sometimes, you’ll see games called poker in online casinos, but these will be house-banked games like Casino Hold’em, Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Caribbean Stud and Three Card Poker. These casino games are outside the scope of this guide.

Sites offer a variety of deposit methods, including credit and debit cards, direct bank transfers, third-party apps and wallets like PayPal and Skrill, and possibly cryptocurrency. Critically, you can also withdraw winnings as well. It’s this ability to deposit and withdraw which sets real money online poker apart from other forms discussed in this guide.

Real money poker sites will have an internal “wallet” or balance that represents your money, often in your local currency — though US Dollars are often a default, even if a site is not active in the US. Once money is in your online wallet, you can use it to buy into cash games denominated in a real world currency, and enter tournaments with buy-ins that cost real money.

Again, what’s critical here is that you can win those cash games and tournaments for real money, which goes back into your wallet. You can then withdraw that money back to your bank, credit card, or ewallet.

Should you play online poker for real money? For lots of people, they don’t want to play poker if it’s not — the experience just isn’t the same if your opponents are not making decisions with their own money on the line. For others, the chance to win money is one of the key reasons to play. But of course, this means also that can you lose your own money. You need to make sure you are comfortable with that before depositing.

On the legality of online poker When you read whether online poker is legal or not, it is normally referring to the sites themselves — can they legally offer you online poker? Rarely is it illegal for you, the consumer, to actually be breaking laws by playing online poker. But that isn’t the case everywhere — it is against the law in a few jurisdictions around the world to participate in these games. This guide isn’t legal advice. It is another reason why we do not recommend online poker in black markets — you could be breaking laws yourself.

What separates different real money online poker sites is ultimately their legality: Is the poker site allowed to offer online poker to you? Sites in “white markets” are fully legal and regulated; there’s no ambiguity. On the other end of the spectrum, “black markets” are what most consider as in contravention of local law. In the middle, there’s a sliding scale of legality, broadly termed the “gray market.”

Why does this matter? The country you live in defines whether you can access white, gray or black market sites. The “grayer” the site, the fewer protections you might have as a player. We’ll get into that in more detail later in this guide — but for now, it’s important to know and identify what you have access to.

Regulated Real Money Online Poker: The “White” Market

Go back 20 years, and it was the wild west of online poker. Laws had not caught up to the online world: historic gambling regulations did not make sense in an online setting. This resulted in an explosion of online poker globally, with sites operating offshore serving players in countries around the world.

In the last two decades, many countries have realized that gambling laws needed to be updated to address online gambling. Sometimes, it is outlawed, but thankfully most lawmakers realized that regulating the activity is the smarter course: It addresses the need to protect consumers, while also raising revenue by taxing the activity.

Federal and state governments around the world have passed laws that allow companies to apply for licenses and serve citizens their online poker product in a safe, legal environment.

How do you know if you’re in a white market? There’s no gold standard of knowing for sure. The “recommendations” list at the top of this page is your best guide, which we will keep up to date. Here’s a broad summary by continent:

  • North America: Ontario, Canada is a white market, other provinces in Canada are gray. Four states in the US have active online poker; four more have passed laws but have no active sites. The rest are black markets.
  • Europe: Around two dozen countries are now white markets with local regulations, most open to the world. The remainder are mostly gray markets.
  • Africa and Asia: Almost all gray-to-black markets, and difficulties with local payments mean many operators avoid these markets.
  • South America: Mostly gray markets.
  • Australasia: Australia is a black market; New Zealand gray.
Don’t be tempted by unregulated sites. If you live in a regulated market, we recommend a site that has a local license. While it may mean a smaller player pool (see below on segregated markets), it is not worth the risk playing on a site that flouts your country’s laws.

Monopoly vs Open Markets

One important distinction with white markets is whether online poker is provided by a single, monopoly provider, or whether it is a market open to competition.

Ontario is an open, regulated online gambling market and there are half a dozen sites offering legal online poker. In the neighboring provinces of British Columbia, Quebec and Manitoba, there is regulated “white market” online poker provided by the provincial lotteries. The same can be seen in a couple of European countries: Win2day and Veikkaus are regulated monopolies in Austria and Finland, respectively.

In these situations, there will often be an active gray market alongside the monopoly. International operators like PokerStars and GGPoker offer online poker throughout Canada, Austria and Finland, for example. In these cases, you’ll often get a choice between the “white” monopoly option and the bigger international gray market operators.

Liquidity: Closed, Open and Shared

Another important factor — and often a downside — of white market real money online poker is a lack of access to international player pools. In certain countries, regulators prevent licensed operators from allowing players between jurisdictions to combine.

This is called a segregated market. One example is Ontario. When regulation passed here in 2023, the regulator prohibited licensed operators from connecting their Ontario sites with their international player pools. It meant that players went from access to global networks on PokerStars.com and GGPoker.com to much smaller, provincial sites.

There’s a middle ground, where regulators prohibit general international player pool sharing, but allow for limited shared liquidity with other jurisdictions. Most famously, there’s the Multi-State Internet Gaming Agreement (MSIGA) in the United States, signed by regulators in Delaware, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, and West Virginia, which permits operators to combine player pools across state lines (no sites have launched in West Virginia yet).

Name Description Markets
Global shared liquidity Sites can combine players with the rest of the world UK, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Romania
MSIGA Pact between US states to allow cross-border player pooling Delaware, Nevada, New Jersey, Michigan
Southern European liquidity Pact between European countries to allow cross-border player pooling Spain, France, Portugal
European monopoly deal Pact between two European countries with state monopolies Austria, Finland
Canadian monopoly deal Pact between provincial lotteries British Columbia, Quebec and Manitoba
Segregated player pools by regulations Pools are entirely separate from all other countries Italy, Ontario, Pennsylvania

Two caveats here: Sometimes, local regulations might not specifically stipulate segregation, but other local laws might imply it. In India, the current status quo is that operators maintain segregated pools, not specifically because of igaming laws, but to adhere to laws around money laundering and foreign currency transactions.

There are also operators that choose to just serve a small market due to business decisions. Russian sites are considered black markets, though there are local operators serving purely the Russian market. there’s also sites dedicated to the Ukrainian, Georgian and UK markets.

Offshore-Regulated Online Poker: The “Gray” Market

The “gray market” broadly refers to any countries or jurisdictions where there’s no explicit local regulation, but either there are no existing laws that relate to online poker or they are ambiguous enough that sites can justify their operation.

Let’s take a simple example. In New Zealand, it’s illegal for online gambling to be provided by a local company, but it is legal for New Zealanders to gamble on offshore sites. This is clear-cut: it is clarified by the NZ Department of Internal Affairs. It notes that lawmakers of the Gambling Act of 2003 “couldn’t have foreseen the way that gambling would develop online.”

Therefore, sites like PokerStars, GGPoker, 88poker, Unibet operate in New Zealand with explicit impunity. Strictly, it is the “gray market” — they are not licensed locally — but it is legal for them to do so.

Often, they might be called “unlicensed” or “unregulated,” but this is almost never the case. Any site that accepts real money deposits will have a license somewhere; otherwise, it would be next to impossible to facilitate payments. These sites are therefore regulated offshore. This could be a place like the UK, but more commonly it is somewhere with more favorable tax and gambling laws, like Malta, the Isle of Man or Curacao. These locales have regulators that issue multi-jurisdictional licenses, which regulate the activity of providing gambling services across the world.

Make sure you pick a trusted site. We recommend you play on a site that has a long history operating a successful online poker business, especially one backed by a big brand you know. One that maintains licenses in regulated markets like the UK, Netherlands, Sweden and the US is the most trustworthy.

Most jurisdictions are not as clear-cut as New Zealand, and companies will justify their presence — or exposure — to these markets in various ways. In some places, like Canada and Brazil, it is argued that online poker is a game of skill and so falls outside of existing gambling laws. In the European Union, operators might assert that prohibitions run contrary to EU free trade law.

In the last decade, online gambling sites have been shifting more and more towards the “white” end of the spectrum — limiting their markets to only those fully licensed, or those clearly justifiable (like New Zealand), and withdrawing from others.

Why? First, many online poker sites are now owned by big public companies that want to reduce their risk. For example, nothing has explicitly changed to the legal landscape in, say, China or the United States — but there is a general consensus that these are now black markets.

Other times, there might be legal changes that remove legal loopholes and ambiguity. In Australia, online poker was quite clearly prohibited under a gambling act of 2011, but it took the passage of an enforcement act in 2017 — which gave the regulator more teeth to fight offshore operators — which ultimately changed industry consensus to it being in the “black” end of the spectrum. In Russia, most sites withdrew after the outbreak of war in the Ukraine and subsequent international sanctions.

Why it matters

What does that mean for you, if you live in a gray market? You will often have the best of both worlds:

  1. You’ll have access to some of the best online poker sites in the world, like PokerStars, GGPoker, WPT Global, Unibet and more, plus
  2. You’ll also have access to the biggest games. The global, “international” pool is shared across all gray markets, and also connects to many other regulated markets like the UK, Sweden, Netherlands, Germany and more.

You’ll just have to be a bit careful with who you go with, because you do not have the resources of the state regulator to fall back on. In white markets, the regulator may impose lots of requirements on licensees — like protect your deposits, police the games, and ensure comprehensive software a safe environment of play.

That’s why we recommend you pick a site that is regulated in a lot of countries; even if you are outside it. Because PokerStars operates it so many regulated markets, it has been forced to follow best practices across its organization, from data protection, cheat detection, to deposit protection and more.

“Unregulated” Online Poker: The Black Market

As you continue down the color spectrum of offshore-regulated online poker, you’ll enter “black” territory, also known as illegal or unregulated online poker. This is where sites cannot obtain a local license, and there’s a general industry consensus that serving that market from offshore cannot be justified. Doing so might attract the attention from local law enforcement, and this could impact their business in our jurisdictions, risks payments being seized, and even executives arrested.

Markets considered too risky to conduct business include Russia, the United States (outside of a few states), Australia, China, Japan, Israel, Indonesia and South Africa. You won’t find the bigger, regulated online poker sites — especially those run by a public company, like PokerStars, 888, Unibet or partypoker — operating in these markets. It’s just too risky.

With that said, almost all markets are served by at least one or two operators, and there are operations that thrive in these under-served markets. Bovada, Ignition Casino, and Americas Cardroom are the most well known to offer real money online poker in markets that other sites avoid, like the United States and Australia.

How do you identify whether a site is a black market operator? Ultimately, if you’re in one of these jurisdictions, then you’re in a black market, and any site that says it offers you real money online poker is a black market operator. These sites will be regulated, usually somewhere in the Caribbean (traditionally Curacao or Antigua). They also likely take cryptocurrency deposits.

Don’t play on black market sites. If you’re in a black market, including the United States (except Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey or PA) or Australia, we don’t recommend you play online poker for real money at all. That includes crypto sites, real money private club apps, or any that run payments through offline agents. Instead, look for sweepstakes poker as a legal, alternative option.

Cryptocurrencies

There’s nothing inherently dodgy about cryptocurrencies. Indeed, some strictly regulated online poker sites support deposits and withdrawals via cryptocurrency. However, it is far more common to be the primary deposit and withdrawal method for black market sites.

Why? A regulated site has to run various checks on any deposits and withdrawals, like doing KYC (know your customer) verification and following anti-money laundering procedures. Therefore, many of the perceived advantages of cryptocurrency (like apparent anonymity) are nullified anyway.

However, for an operator in a black market, by far their most difficult and costly part of doing business is facilitating deposits and withdrawals. Credit cards won’t work with you, ewallets like PayPal won’t work with you, and doing bank transfers can be traced and blocked. Local bank accounts are at risk of being seized. Cryptocurrency solves many of the issues for the business. It basically shifts the burden of payment processing onto the user (who has to work out how to convert real money to crypto and back)

Agents and “Offline” Payments

Another way sites get around payment processing issues is using local agents to facilitate deposits and withdrawals. Needless to say, this is highly risky and a large signal that the site you are playing on is operating in a black market.

You ultimately have to have full trust in these individuals that you’ll get your money back when you want to cash out. If you go this route, be sure to consider these risks.

Should I Play Real Money Online Poker?

The first question you should ask yourself is an obvious but important one — do I want to take the chance of losing my own money? Poker is awesome when you can win money, but the flip side is, obviously, you can lose too. Poker is a game of skill, and the better players will win over the long-term. However, most people will lose money playing over time. There are many more losers than winners.

If you don’t want to chance losing your own money, you can still play online poker, but it will not be the same experience. When money isn’t on the line, people don’t really take it seriously, so don’t expect people to fold!

Are you sure you want to chance losing your own money? Take a moment and make sure that’s the right decision for you. For many people, online poker only makes sense if there’s real money on the line — but keep in mind that most players lose over the long term. If you don’t want to chance losing your own money, then you have alternatives: It might not be quite the same experience, but check out the information below on sweepstakes poker and free-play poker sites.

A middle ground might be a subscription site: obviously that’s real money, but more like a Netflix or Amazon Prime subscription. For that, you’ll get to play in games where your opponents take things more seriously than entirely free play sites like Zynga.

If you do want to play real money online poker, then it comes down to where you live. The less “regulated” your country or jurisdiction, the more risk there will be to your money, to the security of the games, the privacy if your personal information, and the hassle of depositing and withdrawing money.

If you are in a white or gray market where sites like PokerStars and GGPoker operate, then we recommend these sites. You’ll have a great experience, the operator is trustworthy, and your money will be kept safe.

If you live in a black market, we do not recommend you play real money online poker. We instead recommend sweepstakes poker, if available — see the section below. In our opinion, the risks do not outweigh the benefits. We do not recommend you engage in private club apps that run real money games on a free-play platform. The risks are just too high.

But that’s a personal choice — if you still want to, at least now you know the risks.

Club-Based Poker Apps

Poker apps is an unfortunately vague and non-descriptive term that is used to describe a new style of online poker site that is offered exclusively, or predominantly, through mobile phone apps. However, pretty much all sites have mobile apps — from regulated sites like PokerStars, to free-play sites like Zynga.

When you read the term poker apps, it could be describing this new wave of sites that are, ostensibly, free-play online poker sites — you play with chips that have no monetary value, and there’s no cashier with deposit and withdrawal methods.

However, what sets the “apps” apart is that they allow players to set up private clubs and — this bit is critical — they give administrators of those clubs control over the flow of free play chips. This allows club owners to enforce their own rules on clubs. One such rule might be that these free chips actually resemble real money, and these administrators will facilitate methods of deposit and withdrawal — potentially through cryptocurrency or agents — to allow players to deposit and withdraw.

These are completely unregulated forms of real money online poker. The poker apps themselves say they are just free-play sites, and do not promote nor facilitate real money gaming. For that reason, these apps are often available in App Stores like Apple and Google Play. They argue that any real money poker is being operated by the host, not by them.

Don’t play on club-based poker apps for real money. We recommend these apps for free play: Many of these sites have modern, exciting poker apps, offer loads of fun games, and are a great way of learning the game, having some fun, and playing with friends. But we do not recommend you play on real money clubs in these sites. They are a completely unregulated wild-west: you should expect games to be rife with cheating and collusion and you have no guarantee you’ll get your money back out.

These sites might have a public lobby of free play games, but it’s the private games which make up most of the gameplay. Clubs can number thousands or tens of thousands of members. There’s a whole ecosystem of clubs, agents, super agents, unions (multiple clubs that connect together), affiliates and players, and the lines are blurred. Many players are affiliates, with “downstream” referrals. Affiliates might become agents. Agents join unions. Unions can even span multiple poker apps.

It’s a whole thing. And in black markets — The United States, Israel, Russia, India, Korea, Philippines, Australia — it’s massive. It’s also popular in white market sites where the choice is restrictive: There’s a big union operating in Switzerland, for example.

Some big sites in club-based poker include PPPoker, PokerBros, X-Poker, uPoker, Pokerrrr and Suprema. Note that most of these state clearly in their terms that their games are not for real money, their chips have no real value, and they do not endorse nor condone clubs acting like real money operators.

Should I Play On Club-Based Poker Apps?

We do not recommend that anyone play on these private poker apps if they operate like real-money operations. While the allure is great — the promise of super-soft games and huge player pools — but the risks are also very high.

For a start, you cannot expect game integrity to be taken so seriously from a site that calls itself a free-play site. They are entirely unregulated. Secondly, you basically have to put your entire trust into the person running the games and facilitating deposits and withdrawals.

If you still want to jump into private clubs, just consider this: If you were invited to a private cash game in someone’s home, but probably be a bit wary — you’d want to check who’s running the game, who your opponents are, and why you’ve been invited. You’d want to allay those fears before buying in.

Now imagine that in that home game, the cashier is anonymous, your opponents are all anonymous, you can’t see if they’re talking behind your back and sharing hole cards, and the person who owns the home has explicitly said these games are for play money only.

Would you go to that home game? If the answer is still yes, then proceed — you now know the risks.

Sweepstakes Poker: Subscription Sites and “Modern” Sweepstakes

There’s a class of online poker site that justifies its operation under what’s known as sweepstakes laws, designed to allow companies to reward loyal customers and increase sales with prize draws that fall outside of the traditional definition of gambling. Consider, for example, the famous McDonald’s Monopoly sweepstakes. If you ever hear a radio ad for a promotion which says “no purchase necessary,” that’s a sweepstakes promotion.

Some enterprising companies have taken this model and applied it to online poker. Playing poker is the contest, and winnings are prizes that can be redeemed. They are popular in the United States, where sweepstakes promotions are recognized in most states. Some operate Canada, Australia, the UK and elsewhere.

There are two types of online poker sites under sweepstakes law — traditional subscription poker, and a more modern interpretation that’s usually just called Sweepstakes Poker which we’ll call Modern Sweepstakes.

We recommend Sweepstakes Poker for players in the US and Australia Both ClubWPT and Global Poker in the United States (outside PA, NJ, NV or MI) are great choices. In Australia, we recommend ClubWPT. Both offer a good middle ground where the poker games should fun, realistic, and offer you a chance to win real money. They are safer than black market sites.

Subscription Poker

Subscription-based poker sites under sweepstakes law run online poker games which you can play with no purchase necessary. You can subscribe monthly to get extra play money chips and access bigger tournaments and ring games. The difference with these sites over pure free-play poker is that there’s real money cash prizes.

The longest-standing and best-known site under this model is ClubWPT, backed by the world-renowned World Poker Tour brand (and a sibling to the real money site, WPT Global). The site spreads a variety of cash games and tournaments around the clock. It sells two premium tiers — Diamond and VIP — which unlock various added benefits, most notably access to poker tournaments that pay out $100,000 a month in cash and prizes every month.

Subscription-based poker sites are on strong legal ground. These sites have been established for many years, and go to great lengths to ensure they fit within the criteria of “sweepstakes.” Players can play with no purchase necessary, and real money cash prizes are considered sweepstakes prize winnings.

The experience is going to sit somewhere between real money and play money games; you might not have the most realistic experience playing in these games, but for a low stakes introduction to poker online where you can win real prizes, subscription-based poker is a solid choice.

Modern Sweepstakes Poker

There’s another sub-type of sweepstakes poker, often just called “sweepstakes” or “social” poker, which we’ll call Modern Sweepstakes for lack of a better term.

These sites take the concept of sweepstakes poker established under subscription poker sites and take it to the extreme — to the point that they are nearly indistinguishable from real money online poker sites.

The way they work is that players make real money purchases of a play money coin, also known as a nonredeemable token. These have no monetary value, and cannot be cashed out — they are just for playing play money games. So far, this is just like a free-play app (see below). However, the twist is that when you make that purchase, you are also gifted another type of token: a Sweeps Coin.

These are, effectively, sweepstakes entries. You use them to enter ring games and tournaments denominated in sweeps coins. You win back sweeps coins. And the point is that these coins, used to enter into a prize giveaways (e.g., a poker tournament), can be converted (“redeemed”, in sweepstakes parlance) for real cash prizes — aka, real money.

Convoluted? Certainly. But the result is that you have games that effectively play like real money games. The key point is that there’s no direct way of purchasing Sweeps Coins. You are gifted them. Importantly, you can also get them with no purchase necessary: through daily bonuses, social media giveaways, or even sending a request by post. This means, the sites argue, that it all falls under sweepstakes laws, and are exempt from any real money gambling laws.

Does that legal argument work? So far, yes, it has. Global Poker, the original and currently only modern sweepstakes poker site, has been around for almost a decade and parent company VGW has run an online casino using this model for some 15 years. To date, it has operated in almost all US states, and every province in Canada bar Quebec, with few legal issues.

That’s not to say it has been completely without problems. The Michigan Gaming Control Board sent cease-and-desist letters to VGW and others in 2023, arguing that it conducted “illegal gambling by offering an internet game in which a player wagers something of monetary value.” VGW exited the market, and this assertion has not been put to the legal test. To date, no other state regulators have taken up the issue.

Should I Play On Sweepstakes Poker Sites?

If you have access to legal, regulated real money online poker, then we don’t recommend sweepstakes poker. So if you’re in Canada, we recommend PokerStars or GGPoker (in Ontario, a regulated Ontario online poker site; elsewhere, an international site like PokerStars). In Nevada, Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Jersey, we recommend a legal, regulated real money site.

However, in Australia and the rest of the United States, sweepstakes poker is a great option — and we recommend it over a black-market site or a club-based poker app. The games will play quite like real money online poker, and you can win real money prizes.

ClubWPT is on strong legal ground, and it’s a good option. Give the free games a spin, try a monthly subscription and see if it’s for you. There’s very little money down to give the games a try. Along with almost all US states, it is also available in Australia.

Global Poker offers an even more realistic experience — you’ll find the games play similarly to real money. It might feel like a bit more of a legal “loophole,” and recently we have seen one US regulator complain about their operation. However, the ramification of this was just that Global Poker exited the state. No players lost their coins and there were no legal ramifications. The site has operated successfully for a decade. So this is a great choice in some 40+ US states where Global is active.

Social and Free-Play Poker

Finally, we have free-play poker, also known as “social” poker because of their historic strong presence on Facebook (but not to be confused with modern sweepstakes poker nor modern poker “apps”, which may also be called social poker).

The key thing about a free-play site is that there’s no way of winning real money. There’s no wink-wink-nudge-nudge “these chips are actually real money;” no sweepstakes opportunity to redeem a prize. Its all just for fun.

That’s not to say money isn’t involved at all. This can be big business. The most famous free-play poker site, Zynga, at one time made more money with its free play game than real money poker sites did with their regulated offerings. The business model is selling these free chips to players — letting them play in bigger games and bigger tournaments, buy in-game items, and just have for bragging rights.

But again, it’s important to stress that with free play poker you have no way of winning real money in any meaningful way. There might be some kind of underground trading of play money chips (they do have some value, after all — the site itself sells them!), but you should ignore that. These games are just for fun, and for that reason the games play very differently to either real money sites, or sweepstakes sites.

Play money games are great for learning the rules of poker. Free chips games are excellent for learning poker, and a great first step experiencing it online. You can practice identifying hand rankings and strength, learn the game flow and the betting rules, and just get experience keeping pace with the fast flow of the game. Just keep in mind that players will play these games very differently to real money — so you won’t gain any experience in the correct poker strategy.

Facebook and VR

Often, these sites have a genuine social (as in social media) component. Facebook can be a big platform for this game: Zynga Poker was once predominantly an app on Facebook.

Another growing player in this space is PokerStars VR rebranded in 2023 as Vegas Infinite. This game is mostly accessed through game stores like Steam, Playstation and Meta’s store for its Quest headsets.

Free-play “dot-net” options

An alternative is free chips games from within real money online poker clients. Historically, these have been known as “dot-net” sites, as these domains (pokerstars.net, partypoker.net, etc) would be used to promote free chips games, whereas “dot-com” would be their real money sites.

In most jurisdictions, you can download online poker software, create an account, and play free-money games without depositing.

Home Games

Another option here is setting up your own private games for your friends. A site like PokerStars offers a very sophisticated Home Games feature where you can invite your friends to play poker for play money. 888poker and partypoker have similar. These can be great if you have an existing group of poker buddies and you want to take your games online, or you have a board game group that want to learn poker together.

At this point, you might wonder what the difference is between this and the private club “poker apps” we talked about above. There’s a lot of crossover — and indeed, we recommend any app that you can play for free. The only difference is some have more of a reputation than others to turning a blind eye to clubs running real money games on their apps.

Should I Play on Free-Play Poker Apps?

Free-play poker sites are great for players who don’t want put any money down at all. It’s fantastic for learning the rules and flow of poker, you can do it from anywhere in the world, and there’s zero risk to any personal finances.

However, one big negative you should be aware of is that the games play very differently to real money. When there’s no money on the line, there’s very little reason to fold. A lot of what makes poker work is that real money is at risk: Without that, there’s little penalty in calling every hand, or running insane bluffs all the time. You can always reload and get more chips when you bust.

Some free chips sites might be better than others. Some have something of an “economy” in free chips; there’s a rake, you can’t quickly reload, and their internal value is enough to get some more realistic games going — particularly in “high stakes” free chips games. Playing home games with friends also might feel a bit more realistic — your friends might be too embarrassed to calling than all-in with bottom pair!

So in summary, play money games are great for learning the ropes. Just don’t think that strategies that work in these games will confer to real money tables.

If you or someone you know has a gambling problem and wants help, call the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling (VACPG) helpline at 1-888-532-3500