Should You Gamble on the Internet?
I'm not a big fan of the current state of affairs in Internet gambling, but also don't believe Internet gambling should be banned or made illegal. I believe in freedom of choice, and that important consideration aside, banning Internet gambling won't prevent it.
Every time the U.S. government has tried to make a "victimless" action a crime, it has wound up funneling money to the wrong people. We need look no further than alcoholic Prohibition in the 1920's. That well-intentioned law essentially created organized crime in the U.S., by sending huge profits into the illegal mob businesses that sprang up to fill the public's demand for alcohol.
Try to make Internet gambling illegal, and people willing to break the law will benefit; only the unscrupulous will own Internet casinos. There's also a practical problem. I don't see how the U.S. government can or should tell another country what it can or can't do. The framers of the U.S. constitution didn't have the Internet in mind when they created the American system of justice. A whole new legal way of thinking will be needed, eventually, to deal with the Internet.
That said, the current Internet gambling situation isn't healthy, either. I think that too many consumers of Internet slots, blackjack, and other Player vs. House games (poker isn't a Player vs. House game) are unsophisticated and/or problem gamblers for whom the Internet has made access easier.
Issues That Should Concern Online Poker Players
There are two somewhat different (and hence somewhat overlapping) sets of concerns for online gamblers. Because I'm the poker writer here, I'll discuss the poker issues first, but even if your only Internet gambling is poker, I strongly encourage you to stay with me for the generic Internet gambling issues, because some of them very definitely apply to poker.
Poker works differently than Player vs. House gambling, both in cyberspace and in real poker rooms. The House doesn't play against the player. The House makes its money by charging the players a fee: sometimes it's an hourly rate, sometimes it's a per-round rate, and sometimes it's a percentage of the pot.
Whichever method the House uses to earn its profit, you can see that the House doesn't really mind if you're good (unlike blackjack or sports betting, where being good means being asked to leave), because you aren't winning the House's money. The House's only interest is having a full table, and the more full tables the better. The best way to have full tables is to provide good service, so the interests of the House and the Player/Customer overlap significantly.
This is also true in cyber poker, so I wouldn't be worried about getting cheated by the House in a cyber poker game; it could happen, I think, but the operators would have to be greedy morons, or be employing an underpaid, unscrupulous, and talented hacker.
Realistic Poker Fears
The only realistic fear about poker casino ownership should be whether they are adequately capitalized to pay you when you win. Even though this shouldn't be a problem-for every player who wins, there has to be one who loses, a very different situation than sports betting or Player vs. House games-I could envision it, if the operators were undercapitalized or faced losses from other business operations.
So, my first advice about cyber poker is, if you're going to play, make sure you play in a casino whose ownership is either quite wealthy, quite well-known (so they have valuable reputations at stake), or both.
By the way, I don't own stock in, or part of, any casino, cyber or otherwise. Now, did you believe that last statement? Well, it's true. Did you believe THAT last statement? Well, it's true too. Get the point? You should maintain a healthy skepticism about self-serving statements made on the subject of Internet gambling. I know I'm not going to lie to you, but you can't be sure of that, just because I say it. Maintain that skeptical attitude when handing over your cash, and you'll stand a much better chance of getting it back.
Partners Pose Biggest Danger in Cyber Poker
There is one major concern for cyber poker players: partnerships. Even in live poker games, players have to be wary about players who pool their resources, in an effort to trap other players. It isn't a question of passing Aces back and forth under the table, but rather partnership play, which works something like this:
Players A and C are partners; Player B is just a regular player. Player A bets, B calls, C raises, A raises, and B folds, because he figures his hand isn't strong enough to play against both a raiser and a re-raiser. A and C later split up B's money.
World-class players aren't too afraid of this sort of thing, because usually they will wait until they have the sort of powerful hand that will bust up A and C. Merely good players worry, but they do have casino personnel on hand to help keep an eye out for this sort of thing, and they also know that the cheating partners have to fear getting the tar beat out of them if the other players discover what's happening.
The risks of partnership cheating in cyber poker increase, for a few reasons. First, the cyber players don't have to fear physical reprisal; at worst, they'll lose their money. Second, you don't need two players; one player, with two computers, two telephone lines, and two separate accounts, can do it all by himself, and he has the additional advantage of being able to see his "teammate's" hand.
The Ultimate Partnership Nightmare
Want to really feel a chill? Imagine yourself wandering into a cyber poker room where ALL FIVE of your opponents are sitting in the same room (or are sharing a conference call or chat room), working together, seeing each other's cards, and the like. Not only would knowledge of each other's cards be a huge advantage, but they would be able to select only the strongest hands to play, making it very difficult to prove cheating even by post-hand review.
How do you protect yourself from this? Like most forms of cheating, a suspicious nature is a good start. If the same two players keep re-raising each other, be wary. They might just be wild players, or something might be happening.
How the Cyber Poker Room Can Help
But I also think the cyber casino needs to help. They need some sort of appeal and review process, where a player who thinks he's been the victim of sharp practice can press a button and have some casino employee review the hands and the betting. If Player C has re-raised with a bad hand, we know what's going on. The cheaters should then be permanently barred (tougher in cyberspace than in real casinos), their accounts frozen, and the losing player should be awarded the pot (or pots) that the cheaters took down.
Unfortunately, sophisticated poker cheats know better than to re-raise with a bad hand; they'll wait for a situation that's more defensible. That's why I think we're a long way from high stakes poker being practical on the Internet, with the possible exception of one-on-one poker, and most players don't like to play one-on-one.
If you can find a cyber poker situation where the ownership is well capitalized and where there is an effective review process, I'd say you're probably as safe playing cyber poker as the live version. I do not endorse (explicitly or implicitly) any particular cyber poker room (or Internet casino), so don't write asking for recommendations. I can help identify the issues that should concern you; after that, you need to do your own work. Things can change fast in this business.
Comparing Cyber Poker to Live Poker
For people who don't live within an easy drive of live legal poker rooms, cyber poker offers some very real advantages over illegal private games. It's very easy to get cheated in a private game, it's no fun getting arrested, and I assure you, the first time you play in a game that gets hijacked (robbed) by three guys brandishing shotguns (which happened in one of my old Atlanta games), you'll develop a stronger interest in the safety of cardroom poker.
You also need to consider your own strengths and weaknesses as a poker player. If you're a very good "technical" player but aren't very good at reading other people, or at keeping a poker face, cyber poker may be a better option than live poker. If technically you're merely adequate, but no one can "read" you and your intuition about other players is good, you need to find a live game.
Me, I prefer the camaraderie of a live game, but that's a personal preference, easy to indulge because I live 15 minutes from a card casino, and also because I don't think poker is as good a game without all the fascinating human factors. If the drive isn't that easy for you, or if you're a math professor type, cyber poker is a viable option. But like they used to say on Hill Street Blues… be careful out there!
Generic Internet Gambling Problems
While most of the problems I'm about to discuss apply more to Player vs. House games than to poker, I think you'll see the potential applications to poker. And if you, or your friends, like the other kinds of Internet gambling, you owe it to yourself to read this next section very carefully.
Internet gamblers face the potential problem (as yet unproven) that the software of an unscrupulous, fly-by-night Internet casino could be "cooked." By "cooked," I mean that if you chose the wrong Internet casino, your Internet blackjack dealer might win more hands than he would in an honest game.
This SHOULDN'T happen, for the same reasons why people shouldn't fear it in regular casinos: the built-in house edge should provide sufficient profit for the house, without any cheating. If a casino did cheat, people would lose too quickly, and take their business elsewhere.
But a land-based casino with a multi-million dollar investment has a lot more to lose from a cheating scandal than a cyber casino, so I'm still wary of Player vs. House Internet gaming, especially when you're dealing with a company that can easily fold up and start anew if things go wrong.
If a cyber casino is owned by a large, well-respected business, I think the dangers of being cheated drop dramatically-probably to levels equivalent to those found in land-based casinos, where realistic people don't need fear systematic cheating planned by the ownership, but do need to keep their eyes open for something that might be done occasionally by an unscrupulous dealer.
What's In a Name?
Because I've just advised you to look for connections to a large, well-respected business, you should also know that just because a cyber casino's name sounds a lot like the name of a land-based casino, or some other known business enterprise, you can't assume you're dealing with the owners of that respected land-based enterprise.
I'll make one up as an example. If you see an ad for the BALLagio Internet Casino, and that name makes you think the Ballagio is connected with the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, you should confirm this connection, if your belief in it is what leads you to trust the hypothetical Ballagio.
Just because the hypothetical Ballagio isn't actually connected to the real Bellagio doesn't necessarily mean that gambling at the Ballagio would be a bad idea. It just means you shouldn't select the Ballagio based solely on the trust you have in the land-based Bellagio.
Special Sports Betting Problems
Internet sports bettors also encounter a number of problems not found when betting with a regular sports book. You're still playing against the House, and if you start winning too regularly, you may find-as some of my very savvy sports betting friends have found-your bets getting cancelled for strange reasons. I see a lot of Internet sports books marketing themselves by proudly announcing, "We pay on time!" Gee, thanks a lot.
Why would such marketing statements be necessary, do you think, unless there had been problems with some slow-paying cyber-sports parlors in the past?
My conclusion is that regulation is sorely needed, probably a combination of efforts led by the more reputable Internet casino operations, and by the licensing countries. Until the Internet "Player vs. House" gaming industry gets one whole heck of a lot better-regulated than it is right now, my first and best advice is "just say no."
If you still want to play on the Internet, you owe it to yourself to investigate, as thoroughly as possible, any cyber casino you're considering trusting with your money. How long have they been around? How well capitalized are they? Are the owners reputable businesspeople with stakes in other enterprises, or are they mysterious and untraceable?
By the way, a casino's press release or web site, by itself, isn't a sufficient source for this information. You need to confirm it elsewhere!
Consumer Reporting for the Internet
There are a number of web sites that attempt, or purport (whether "attempt" or "purport" is the more accurate term depends on the site), to act like the Consumer Reports of the Internet, "rating" Internet casinos according to their supposed reliability. While the information provided by these sites can help, in most cases, you need to take it with a grain of salt.
Almost every one of these consumer-reporting sites accepts-indeed, in most cases, lives off of-advertising from Internet casinos. I think it would be very difficult for the owner of such a consumer site to resist the temptation to give his advertisers a more favorable rating than they deserve, or to overlook problems he knew of with an advertiser. Certainly there are people who possess the integrity to resist this temptation; perhaps every site owner does. But I wouldn't bet that every site owner does, and knowing who does possess it and who doesn't isn't easy.
And not to be the ultimate pessimist, but just because a consumer-reporting site does not display ads from casinos doesn't mean it might not be receiving casino support!
Some other things that you should ask yourself and/or do, before forking over your hard-earned money, are:
1. Is the casino licensed by the country in which it is based? Some sites have their licenses available for on-line viewing. Some countries' licensing standards are considerably tougher than others, too. Right now, Australia's standards are the toughest (best from the consumer point of view). By next week, another country might be tougher. Like all Internet issues, old information is rarely useful.
2. Is there an 800 number for customer service? If there is, call it and speak to the support personnel.
3. Send an email with questions to their customer support and see how long it takes for them to answer it-if indeed they answer it at all!
4. Look for the Interactive Gaming Council (IGC) logo (which can be viewed at http://www.igcouncil.org).
5. Understand that the more you bet and/or win, the greater the potential for a problem. Cheating someone out of $25 isn't nearly as tempting as cheating him out of $25,000.
No one of these protective steps guarantees that you will be safe. Even taking all of them won't guarantee you're safe. Each one gives you a bit higher comfort factor, though.
The Name Game, Part Two
The Interactive Gaming Council (IGC) site explains that it is "working for the interests of the public and the interactive gaming industry."
This is a laudable goal, but if you can't think of situations where the "interests of the public" and the "interests of the interactive gaming industry" would not be exactly the same, you're too trusting to be gambling on the Internet. It's impossible to be a perfect consumer advocate and a perfect gaming industry advocate simultaneously.
Curiously, one recent development seems to give added credibility to the IGC. That development? The IGC. No, I'm not talking in circles. A newer organization, calling itself the Internet Gaming Commission, http://www.internetcommission.com, has popped up. This now gives confused consumers two different IGC's acting as theoretical industry watchdogs.
As far as I can tell, the Internet Gaming Commission does not appear to take advertising from, or to be connected to, any casinos, so its information and services may be quite useful. Note that I began by saying "as far as I can tell."
What I see looks good, but I don't know the people who run the Internet Gaming Commission, so this isn't an endorsement. It's hard to have a trusting nature when huge sums of money are involved. And while no one could blame a valid industry watchdog group for selecting a name like "Internet Gaming Commission," it's impossible to believe they didn't know that this would create confusion with the "original" IGC. What their motives were in selecting a potentially confusing name, I can't say. Even if they told me, could I believe them?
I know I sound paranoid. But just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that someone isn't out to get you.
Who Guards the Guards?
Rarely have I seen a situation that better calls for an application of the old Latin maxim "Sed quis custodiet ipsos custudios?" (But who is to guard the guards themselves?) You can't blindly place your trust in anyone else when it comes to avoiding unnecessary risks in Internet gambling. No single consumer site is enough, and neither is the IGC-either IGC.
While Internet gambling too closely resembles the risky "Wild Wild West" of America in the 1800's for my taste, and believe that you're gambling on more than a roll of the dice by playing, I also know that some people want to play. If you're in that group, you need to take personal responsibility for examining each situation independently, and for understanding the risks.
If all this caution sounds unnecessary to you, take out your monthly budget and add a big figure for "Internet gambling losses," because as surely as the Internet is going to keep growing, sooner or later, a risk you didn't consider is going to cost you-big time.