Online Poker

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Online Poker is simply playing poker online. Online poker has had a long history of regulations and legalization. [1] There are many different varieties of poker, such as Texas Holdem, Omaha, and Short-deck, with Texas Holdem being the most popular.[2]. Texas Holdem involves receiving two hole cards at the beginning of a hand, with four rounds of betting and community cards being revealed after each hand. A player's final hand is the best possible hand of five cards, using any combination of the two hole cards and five community cards.[3] A few of the most significant ethical issues related to the online poker industry today are collusion, bots, and gambling addiction risk.

Poker Stars logo, one of the most popular online poker platforms[4]


While poker is played with many different variations, anyone can learn a variation of poker if they know some of the basic fundamental concepts. Here are some of the basics to a game of poker. [5]

Card Values

Poker is played with a standard deck of 52 cards and sometimes with the addition of joker wild cards. The most important concept in Poker is the value of hands. A poker hand consists of 5 cards. The variation of cards in any given hand determines the hand’s value. The graphic on the right shows the commonly used 10 poker hand rankings.
Poker hand rankings[3]
If two hands have the same rank then the highest one is determined by the highest card in the hand. If the two highest cards are the same number value then the next two highest cards are compared and so on. If all cards are the same value then the hands are the same value and the pot/winnings are split between the two players.


During a round of poker there will be one or more intervals on betting on the chances of your hand winning. Poker requires the skill of minimizing your losses with poor hands and maximizing your winnings with good hands. Before players can see their own cards there is a round of betting called an “ante” where a set amount of chips is contributed by all players to the pot. This is to prevent players from waiting for good cards before betting. Each betting interval begins when a player makes a bet to the pot. Betting continues with the person to the left of the previous one. To continue playing, a player must “call” that bet by betting the same value of chips of the highest bet or they can “raise” that bet by betting a higher value of chips of the previous highest bet. If the players do not do one of those two actions they “drop” or “fold” their hand, bet nothing, and are out until the next round of cards are dealt. Players that fold lose all the chips they put into the pot. At the beginning of a new round of betting a player can also “check”. Checking is essentially betting nothing. All subsequent players may also check. Betting ends when all bets have been equalized. After the final round of betting, all players show and compare hands and the winner takes the pot. If a player raises and everyone else folds, that player automatically wins the pot without showing their hand.

Texas Hold’em Poker

Texas Hold’em is considered the most widely played version of poker. In this version of poker a dealer button is given to the dealer for the current round. Immediately to the left is the small blind and to the left of that is the big blind.
Setup of Dealer, Small Blind, and Big Blind
The small blind is typically half the big blind but the values change depending on the stakes of the game. The small and big blind are forced bets that a player must make. After the small and big blind are paid comes the Pre-Flop. Players can look at their cards and a round of betting then begins. The minimum bet to play is now the value of the big blind. After betting ends comes the Flop. The dealer shows 3 community cards that players can use to build their hand. Another round of betting occurs and players can now check if no previous players raised. The next stage is called the Turn. The dealer reveals a 4th community card and betting occurs like in the Flop. A final fifth community card is revealed by the dealer in what is called the River. A round of betting occurs and finally comes the Showdown. In the showdown all remaining players reveal their cards and the player with the highest hand wins. After the pot is awarded to the winner the dealer button is moved to the player on the left and likewise the small/big blind. [6]


The rise of online poker has been evident in the last two decades, much due to Chris Moneymaker. In 2003, Moneymaker entered an $86 buy-in tournament on Pokerstars and came first, with the reward being a spot in the $10,000 buy-in World Series of Poker(WSOP) main event. He eventually won this tournament and $2.5 million in winnings. This led to a boom in the online poker industry as by 2006, the field for the WSOP main event increased ten-fold and Pokerstars hosted more than 38 million tournaments.[7]

However, in 2006 President George W. Bush introduced the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), [8], which led to the illegalization of online poker in the United States. In 2011, Pokerstars was taken to court in the United States vs. Scheinberg, the founder of Pokerstars, for a multi-million dollar internet gambling business in violation of UIGEA. [9] This resulted in Europe being the powerhouse in online poker, evident still today.

Today, numerous big-name sites command thousands of players daily, such as PokerStars, Partypoker, and Americas Cardroom. This is a massive increase from the previous decade. There are cash games of stakes from $.01/$.02 up to $100/$200. Tournaments often have prize pools of over $1 million. Additionally, the emergence of Covid-19 in 2020 significantly hurt casinos but was highly beneficial for online gaming. The Stars Group, the owner of Pokerstars, reported sizable growth in their first quarter 2020 trading update, with the increased usage of their poker software as a major reason. The group's revenue of $735m for the quarter was a rise of 27% year-on-year.[8]

Regulations in the online poker industry have also become looser as time has passed. Recently, Gretchen Whitmer passed the Lawful Gaming Act, [10] legalizing online gaming, such as online poker, in Michigan. The effects of this were recently realized, with Pokerstars being the first site available in Michigan, and their MCOOP (Michigan Championship of Online Poker) series have already awarded over $2 million to users.[11] This signifies that the current trajectory for online poker usage is only going upwards for the near future.

Online Gambling During the Pandemic

The discovery of Covid-19 led to a worldwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus in an attempt to keep populations safe. Among unintended consequences such as increased alcohol and drug use has been the increased popularity of online gambling. [12]

A study carried out in Sweden showed that different types of gambling experienced different types of effects during the lockdown period. The rate of gambling that takes place in physical spaces went down during the lockdown period while online gambling remained at high levels. [13]

Some studies have shown that increased screen time alone is not the strongest contributing factor of addictive behavior rates increasing but rather negative emotions. This is compared to the negative emotions brought on by the pandemic. The combination of pandemic stress with the lockdown can be attributed to the increase in addictive behaviors such as online gambling. [14]

The legalization of online gambling means that the pandemic has allowed for the legal monetization of online gambling. The lucrative nature of online gambling has meant that there is a lot of incentive to ignore the negative repercussions. [15]

Pop culture article on online gambling[16]

Ethics in Online Poker


A significant issue within the online poker industry is collusion. Collusion is when two players sit at the same table and give each other information about what hole cards they had in their hand or other information that is unfair to the opposing players at the table. This is a widespread technique and can be challenging to address. At Pokerstars and many other online poker companies, they can restrict two players from the same IP address from sitting down at the same table. [17] However, this is only a tiny blockade for players attempting to collude. Players can play from different locations and still give each other an unfair advantage against the rest of the table. This issue is not much of a problem for live poker as much as online poker as there are fundamental computer science problems that are very difficult to solve relating to discovering collusion. [18]


A headline describing the AI Pluribus making history[19]

"Bots" are the term in the poker industry for a player sitting at your table which is actually not a real person, but rather a computer program. This computer program can be programmed to play the most optimal [20] poker possible, making it virtually impossible to beat them. Poker is a game that depends heavily on mathematics. The odds of a person winning can be calculated at any point based on the information shown in any game. Those who can use probability, statistics, and mathematics have an advantage over those that can't. [21] In 2019, an AI named "Pluribus" decisively defeated six of the world's best players over a long duration of hands played. [22] While the bots played against aren't this computationally advanced, they are only increasing in term of ability as technology improves and are still far better than the average individual.

Gambling Addiction

One of the psychological issues related to online poker is the idea of gambling addiction, or the uncontrollable, compulsive urge to keep gambling despite the negative impacts that result from it. Gambling addiction occurs because the actions "activate the same reward circuits in the brain as drugs and the clinical characteristics of gambling disorder are the same as those of drug addictions or alcoholism"[23]. While this is a significant issue related to gambling in general, it is compounded by the accessibility and improvements of the online gaming industry. Playing poker has never been easier as all it requires is to sign up online and make a deposit, a task that takes no more than five minutes. This increases the urge to gamble as there are virtually no barriers to stop someone from doing so compulsively. Additionally, it is hard for friends and family to know that someone has a gambling addiction when they are doing it online, as it is not as evident. This results in a gambling addiction's downsides to potentially be much worse than if they had to gamble in person.

Gambling addictions in online poker have been proved to be caused by certain psychological factors. One of these causes is “tilt,” which is also very common among gaming communities. Tilt is typically classified by the loss of rational decision-making during a game. The frequency of tilt episodes in an individual has been found to be one of the leading indicators of gambling addictions.[24] Another one of these causes is something known as “chasing losses.” Chasing losses is the result of trying to win back the money that was lost in previous rounds. As a result, people who chase losses will end up playing more than they originally intended to, and will even bet more money per round in hopes to win back their lost money faster. While poker is a game that involves strategy, many people justify chasing losses with a sort of false sense that the odds will eventually swing in their favor.[25] These factors that contribute to online gambling addictions could also be due to the demographic of players. A study done in Portugal showed that the average age for those who played online poker was almost ten years younger than the average age of those who played offline.[26] Players who are younger may be more immature and lack the emotional control that is needed for playing poker. This can make them more susceptible to tilt and chasing losses. As mentioned earlier, the accessibility of online poker is also a dangerous factor, especially coupled with these other psychological factors. The mental effects of gambling addictions are also not very pretty. One study showed that those with gambling addictions suffered from anxiety and depression as well.[27] This can create a vicious cycle for online poker players. Keeping a cool head to make smart decisions is very important, but having anxiety and depression can lead to having negative emotions and lead players to make rash decisions. The rash decisions could then lead them to tilt or start chasing losses.

Recent Developments in Sports Gambling Regulations

One of the most popular forms of online wagering has been sports betting. Still, this form of betting has been illegal in many states until very recently. On December 20, 2019, sports betting in Michigan became legal under bills signed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. [28] To place a wager under these new laws, a player must physically be in Michigan when the bet is set, and you must use one of the approved sportsbooks. The recent explosion in online sports betting is due to the United States Supreme Court getting rid of a federal ban on sports betting. Since this action, about 75 percent of states have either legalized sports betting or introduced legislation to do so. [29] These moves have not come without some controversy. One of the states to legalize sports betting was Tennessee in 2020. During Super Bowl LV, Tennessee authorities announced that two of the four legal sportsbooks "experienced 'illegal' betting activity during the Super Bowl." Although the activity has not been specified, it is clear that as more states continue to legalize sports betting, more issues like this one will arise. [30] In addition to legal controversies, ethical concerns of giving young adults easy access to sports wagering have been raised. A New York Times article spoke of a young man who became so addicted to betting that he had very few close relationships by the time he was 20, despite having played sports with his good friends growing up. [31] The article also goes on to note how the individual is often blamed for their gambling addiction and not the industry that seduced them into wasting their money. Additionally, Americans wagered $13 billion in 2019 and $4.4 billion was wagered in January, 2021 alone. [30] This is the sixth consecutive month that gambling has increased. Because online gambling seems like it is here to stay, the American public must educate themselves on the risks and dangers of gambling.

Future of Online Poker Ethics

Approaches to reducing issues in online poker ethics have relied on creating better algorithms to detect collusion. This is evidenced through the current software's inability to detect collusion at a relevant rate. There have been creations of bots who collude together where the poker software was unable to detect that they were colluding. [32] Similarly, the software was unable to detect that they were computer programs and not real people. It is possible to solve these problems through the means of either prevention or detection.[18] Advancements in these security aspects would catastrophically reduce the amount of cheating in online poker. Additionally, the effects of gambling addiction are prominent and as the current upwards trend for new online poker users continues, the likelihood of gambling addiction increases. Psychiatrists continue to research the effects of online gambling on gambling addicts but online gambling is just now starting to rise in popularity.


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