All about Online Gambling
by Michael Bluejay • Last update: September 2019
What is online casino gambling? How does it work?
Online casinos have videogame-type representations of traditional casino games like blackjack, craps, roulette, slot machines, and even poker against other human players. You can play for real money, though all casinos let you play their games with play money, hoping you'll decide to eventually gamble with real money.
At most casinos you can either download their special software to play the games, or play the instant versions right in your web browser. (Bovada has a good selection of play-in-browser games, and you can play for free without risking any actual money. If you see a registration box, you can close it and be able to play without registering.) To play with real money, you make a deposit with a credit card or by doing a Bitcoin transfer.
Is it legal to gamble online?
More or less. Playing online doesn't break any (U.S.) federal laws. You might run afoul of state laws, but even there prosecution is rare, and in most states simple gambling is only a misdemeanor anyway. Legality aside, online gambling is already so common that the government can't do much to stop it. Internet casinos are doing a brisk business with U.S. customers for this reason.
See my article "Is online gambling legal?" for more details.
Are online casinos honest?
Pretty much. Most casinos don't cheat because if players lost their money too quickly they'd never return. Like every other operation, casinos depend on repeat business. Also, it's pretty easy for watchdog mathematicians like the Wizard of Odds to discover cheating by analyzing the results, and casinos who get caught cheating usually go out of business. So in short, there's more money to be made by dealing an honest game. Just like land casinos, online casinos make their money from the fact that the odds are in their favor. They don't have to cheat, they already have an edge.
Of course there are exceptions, like Casino Bar which had a crooked blackjack game. (They were quickly outed by the Wizard, and their business soon dried up.) But cheating casinos are the exception and not the rule. In fact, the bigger problem with online casinos is that sometimes they take a long time to pay out a player's winnings—or in the case of a big win they might try to claim some loophole to avoid paying the player altogether (like Betsoft and Betcoin.ag). And if this happens to you then you're often out of luck, since online casinos are often unregulated or only loosely regulated.
For this reason, it's crucial to choose a reputable casino. I like Bovada, because they've never failed to pay me, and payout complaints about them from my readers are exceptionally rare (and usually quickly resolved). Bovada has also promised that if anyone who clicks over to Bovada from my site has a problem they can't resolve, Bovada will allow me to try to mediate. (I can't remember the last time I was asked to do that in such a case, but I'm sure it's been over ten years.) Bovada has its problems, but payout integrity isn't one of them, and since most online casinos don't serve U.S. players because of legal uncertainty, Bovada is as good as U.S. players are going to get.
Of course, if you play anywhere else (or if you didn't sign up with Bovada after clicking through from my site), and you have a payout problem, then you're on your own.
How do I get money in and how do I get paid?
You can often make a casino deposit simply by using a credit card, just by typing the number into the form on the casino site. That's hit or miss, because U.S. banks will block the transaction if they figure out it's for an online casino, but they often don't know that and the transaction sails through just fine. I tested over a dozen cards and some worked and some didn't. (Don't ask which ones worked, because what works and what doesn't is constantly changing, and also depends on the casino in question.)
If your credit card doesn't work, most casinos now accept Bitcoin, using a service like Bitstamp. If you're unfamiliar with Bitcoin, it's basically a currency like dollars or Euros, but it exists only electronically; you don't hold physical Bitcoins in your hand. The way it usually works is:
- You open an account with a Bitcoin service like Bitstamp.
- You transfer money from your bank account to Bitstamp (or competing service) to purchase Bitcoin. Some services let you buy with ac credit card.
- You send your Bitcoin to online merchants who accept them (like online casinos), electronically, through a web form.
You can also use Bitstamp or similar service to receive Bitcoin from others, such as a payout of casino winnings:
- The casino sends Bitcoin to your Bitcoin account.
- The service lets you sell the Bitcoin to convert it to U.S. dollars.
- You transfer the U.S. dollars to your bank account.
Bitcoin accounts are sometimes a little trouble to set up, but once they're set up, moving money in and out is very easy. Bitcoin has replaced older casino deposit/withdrawal methods like using Western Union, which has high fees and horrible customer service. And PayPal won't handle casino transactions.
For payouts, some casinos will mail you a physical check, but they're increasingly moving to Bitcoin payouts, because it's easier for them and more reliable. They might require that you fax them a copy of your ID before your first withdrawal. Don't freak out, that's just standard security protocol at most online gaming sites.
Which casino should I pick?
- If you plan to play only with play money (as opposed to real money), then Bovada, because they're the only online casino I know of that lets you play for free without registering an account. (If you see a registration box, you can close it and play without registering.)
- If you're in NEVADA, NEW JERSEY, OR DELAWARE, see the list of casinoss at Casinomeister.us. Those states license a handful of online casinos to their residents, and regulation means there are player protections (such as dispute resolution).
- If you're in ANOTHER U.S. STATE, then Bovada. You can't play in a licensed casino if you're not in one of the magic three states listed above, then because there aren't any licensed casinos serving the rest of the U.S., because no one will license them, because of the legal gray area. So, if you're in another U.S. state, then it's crucial to pick a casino with a good reputation, because if you have a problem then you can't complain to a licensing authority. That's why I recommend Bovada. Note that some states outlaw gambling, though in those states it's usually a misdemeanor and online gambling is almost never prosecuted. (more...)
- If you're in another COUNTRY, then click the link to Bovada and see where you wind up. Bovada sends non-U.S. players to one of its sister casinos (owned by the same parent company), with the same good reputation as Bovada.
Blacklists are obsolete
Websites (like this one) used to compile "black lists" of bad casinos to warn players away from them. But those lists were a nightmare to maintain, and they didn't prevent players from getting hurt by new, rogue casinos before those bad casinos could make it onto the blacklists. The modern, better method is white lists, which are short lists of casinos known to be reputable, compiled by respected webmasters.
On my site, I vouch for Bovada, as my readership is mostly U.S. and I feel they're the best bet for U.S. players. Casinomeister tests and validates casinos extensively and maintains a respected list of "accredited" online casinos, but none of them take U.S. players, because none of the U.S.-facing casinos is regulated, because no decent regulating authority will touch U.S.-facing casinos until online gambling becomes explicitly legal. (It's not explicitly illegal, either, but it's not black-and-white enough for U.S.-facing casinos to get regulated.)
I routinely get email from readers asking me to help them because some online casino (not Bovada) won't pay them. (This isn't a service I offer, but desperate players try anyway.) And 99% of the time, the casino isn't on Casinomeister's "accredited" list, and is usually on Casinomester's "rogue" list. This validates Casinomeister's work, that he's doing a great job of identifying which casinos are naughty and which are nice.
Should I download the software or use the Play-In-Browser version?
Download is usually better, because there's a larger game selection, and the games load faster. But download isn't an option for Macs, so on a Mac you'll be playing the browser-based games.
By the way, if you play at multiple casinos, you might notice the games look the same. That's because there are only around a handful of software makers who provide the games to the thousands of online casinos.
Online gambling is big business, and many casinos think nothing of selling your email address to other casinos. And even if casino management doesn't have a policy of selling customer info, rogue employees sometimes do so. So, if you play online, use a separate email account just for your online gaming. (Yes, even at Bovada.) If you start getting flooded with spam, just switch to another new email address for online gaming. This way your primary email account never gets spammed.
Playing with a Macintosh / Mac OS
Bovada has a nice selection of Mac-compatible browser-based games. They get big kudos for being one of the first casinos to support the Mac (possibly the very first casino to do so). Before they came along, Mac users had no good options for playing online. Here's more on Macintosh casino games.
Bonuses: A blessing and a curse
Online casinos offer free chips for making an initial deposit or subsequent deposits (like $250 to $1500 on your first deposit, usually offered at Bovada). In exchange for this generosity, they require that you give them a certain amount of wagering "action" (aka "play-through") before you can cash out the bonus, spelled out in the fine print.
But the bonus system fuels lots of player complaints. Most casinos limit which games satisfy the playthrough requirement, and players who didn't read the fine print get angry when they learn that all their action didn't qualify. And all online casinos (including Bovada) will cancel your winnings if they think you're trying to scam them on bonuses, like opening multiple accounts to claim multiple bonuses. (Almost all casinos will give you a refund of your deposit in that case, just no payout of any winnings you'd earned.) It's perfectly reasonable for a casino to cancel a player's winnings when the player is actually trying to pull a bonus scam.
However, a casino might mistakenly think you're trying to scam them, and still cancel your winnings. And to be honest, I wouldn't be surprised if that happened at even Bovada at some point. Here's my advice on how to avoid this.
- Obviously, don't actually try to scam bonuses.
- Don't even try to maximize the benefit of the bonus mathematically. Play normally, as if you weren't even getting a bonus, so the bonus is exactly that: a bonus.
- Don't open multiple accounts on the same Internet connection. (e.g., Father and adult son living in the same household shouldn't each have an account at the same casino.) Also, make sure you don't open an account at a sister casino of one you've already got an account with. For example, if you've already got an account with Bovada, don't sign up for a separate one at Slots.lv, Café Casino, or Ignition Casino.
Note that some casinos cancel your winnings even if you satisfied their terms and conditions. I hate to sound like a broken record, but this is another reason recommend Bovada, because they don't pull that kind of crap.
My related articles
- I found a good article detailing the history of online gambling (through 2011).
- Online Casino City has the most comprehensive directory of land and online casinos anywhere.
- A sleazy industry. I don't generally hang with other gambling webmasters (the Wizard of Odds excepted), because other webmasters' single-minded devotion to profit at all costs is rather annoying, as is the fact that few of them produce websites that have any real value to the reader. Here's an example where the webmaster of another popular gambling site actually offered to sell the names and addresses of a player database to other webmasters. I figure in this story, where I pointed out the sleaziness of that offer on the website in question. Anyway, wherever you register or play online, I suggest you always use a non-important email address, since it's very likely it will be sold to others.