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Exploring the Online Poker Room

The first decision that poker players face is in which poker room to play. There are literally hundreds of online poker rooms to choose between and that which sets them apart from eachother is not easy to know beforehand; and researching them is a very tedious and unwelcome task for the casual player looking to have some fun with the little time and money he/she has to spare. In this article we will explore the poker room basics and help the casual player get the big picture.

To get a good view on the poker rooms you need to look beneath the skin. You need to look at the poker networks. The poker room is actually just a skin; an interface between the players and the infrastructure of the poker network. When you are playing in an online poker room, you are confined to the network and the players that frequent it. There are many poker networks in the world, some of which have many skins and some with only one skin. In the case of networks with only one skin such as Full Tilt Poker, Party Poker and Poker Stars, the network is operating the skin on its own. In the case of networks with multiple skins such as iPoker, the majority of skins are licensed to third parties.

Skins on the same network use the same software and are basically the same thing in so far as poker game performance and functionality. The games and the tables are shared with all other skins on the network. You face the same players regardless of what skin you are playing on, as long as the network is the same. There are basically two things that set networks apart from eachother:

1. Number of players
2. Software performance and functionality and backbone server performance

Obviously you want to play on a network with many players for you are more likely to find players that you can beat there. With the networks out of the way we come to the three things which sets the skins on the same network apart from eachother:

1. Payout and deposit options
2. Support
3. Promotions

Support is not really a big deal as long as the network and payout & deposit options are working as they should and they normally do. The promotions, on the other hand, are a whole different ball game. This is where you find differences that matter. All poker rooms derive their income from rake and tournament fees. Rake is the 5% fee (typically capped at $3) that the poker room takes from each pot in cash games. Tournament fees are paid when entering the tournaments and they are typically 5-10% of the buy-in. All promotions that the poker rooms offer are based on the concept of giving a portion of the fees back to the players who paid them. The more fees a player has paid, the more of a return he can expect, whether we are talking about a first deposit bonus or a rakeback deal. Even in the case of free poker money offers, the player is expected to play enough hands/games to cover the money invested in him.

In the case of first deposit bonuses you need to look at three things:

1. The percentage figure
2. The max bonus figure
3. The bonus to fee ratio

100% is pretty much an industry standard while max bonus figures typically range between $500 and $1000; though figures up to $5000 are not unheard of. However, the poker rooms have deviced complex point systems to hide the true bonus to fee ratio. The best ratios we have managed to decipher are slightly above $0.40 bonus / $1 fee and the worst around $0.20 bonus / $1 fee. This means that the best first deposit bonus deal you can expect is around $0.40 bonus released for every $1 paid in fee/rake.

In the case of rakeback it gets a little more complicated for rakeback deals can not be aquired directly through the poker room. They must be aquired through affiliates with a revenue share deal. The maximum revenue share that the affiliates can get is usually 40% which leaves less than 40% for the player in form of rakeback. Rakeback figures around 30% are standard in the business. Please observe that the revenue share and the resulting rakeback deal encompass both tournament fees and rake. When you start "raking" really big money, we are talking $5,000 per month or more, you should be aiming at a 50% rakeback figure which is possible to get on several networks via special affiliates.

There are also hybrid deals that include both rakeback and a first deposit bonus. Here you typically see 30% flat rakeback and relatively high percentage and max bonus figures although the bonus to fee ratios tend to be low. The flat rakeback and the deposit bonus typically add up to a 50% rakeback but only up to the max bonus figure. These kind of deals are targeted at relatively skilled players and you will only find them via special affiliates.

To understand the promotions you must understand where the money in poker is coming from and where it is going to. All money in online poker, whether we are talking about Texas Hold'em, 7 Card Stud or Omaha - come from players making deposits. The poker networks are only interested in the total revenue which is a direct result of the number of tournaments and cash game hands that are played. What the networks really want are depositors playing against eachother. Depositors which in the long run are winning just about as much as they are losing. Nobody wins big and nobody loses big but the rakes and fees are paid all the same. The problem is to get enough players to play on the network. Most poker networks outsource to external companies who get to operate a skin and drive traffic to the network. A skin can enroll totally new poker players, players from other networks or players from other skins on the same network. Getting totally new players is all about being seen in search engines and other media. Getting players from other networks or from other skins on the same network is all about the promotions. The poker network sanctions the winning over of players from other networks, naturally, but is not very interested in having its own skins competing over the same players.

The network's revenue is based on the total fees and rake paid by all players. The network must grow in absolute numbers to increase revenue. However, if the network gets too many professional players it will scare away depositors and if the network gets too many depositors it will attract professional players. In either case, the depositors will eventually disappear. Without depositors there will be no action and no revenue on the network. Things are further complicated by the fact that the poker rooms, the skins, are not based on depositors, they are only based on how much their enrolled players pay in fees and rake. Single poker rooms can increase their revenue while the revenue of the network as a whole decreases. The poker room just need to offer professional players juciy rakeback deals and they will get a lot of income from all the cash game hands and tournaments they play, despite the fact that the bankroll of these players tend to stem from depositors on other skins on the same network. Thus, the poker networks must impose regulations on the poker rooms to keep the network attractive and accessible to depositors worldwide.
Sometimes you see insane offers such as 60% rakeback but they tend to be short lived. You only see them on intermediate sized networks with many skins where the skins are desperately trying to win over players. You never see them on big networks with few skins. It is not in the network's interest to give big money back to the players and the skins can loose their license if they push it too far. All the money in poker comes from depositors and the poker networks have very little interest in players that only win money from others without making deposits of their own. Poker networks love amateur depositors and have little interest in professional players. Licensed poker skins love depositors as well but they do not depend on them as long as players are depositing through other skins on the same network. Typical depositors are on top of that hard to reach for they do not know the poker rooms well and can't really tell one deal from another. Rakeback based professional players, on the other hand, are very easy to reach for they know exactly where to get the most value for their time and they keep themselves up to date. Thus the revenue share affiliate programs and the resulting rakeback deals become an easy way to make money for the individual poker skins seeing as their income is based on how much rake/fees their players pay, not how much they deposit. That is, until the poker network descends upon them and put an end to the imbalance in their system.

So what poker room should you choose then? As you may have understood by now, it depends on many factors. The more players and the fewer skins there are on a network, the worse the promotions will be. But number of players is also important. You need people to play against and win money from. You should be looking at a network with at least 10,000 peak players and preferably over 20,000. Finding the poker room that suits you best is ultimately a compromise between number of players and the quality of the promotions. If you are new to poker you should be looking at a first deposit bonus or a free poker money deal. If you have passed the beginner state you should be looking at a rakeback deal.

Below is a summary of the essential data:

Desired number of peakplayers on network: At least 10,000, preferably 20,000+
First deposit bonus: $0.40 bonus / $1 fee is the top ratio in the busines, 100% is more or less an industry standard and so is the max bonus figure of $1000.
Rakeback: 30% is a good figure for a moderately successful player. 50% is a good figure for an advanced top player.