Is it safe to play online poker? I bet 100,000 articles on that very topic have been written, uploaded, and disseminated in the twenty years or so since Web-based poker play was invented.

The short answer is a simple yes. I know that trustworthy poker sites exist. I’ve played games at these sites. I’ve made deposits and withdrawals with these sites. I’ve spoken with their customer service reps at odd hours and even chased bonus money from time to time.

Online poker gets a bad rap because of a few high-profile scandals and the collapse of a baker’s dozen failed sites and brands. Let’s take a look at the past two decades in online poker scandals. It’s easy to understand why people are reticent to take part in Web-based poker games when you consider some of the headlines.

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Online Poker Scams and Scandals

A list of failed poker websites and brands would be long enough to take a nap on. Throw in a few major scandals that have gone down in the world of online poker play over the past decade or so and it would be tough to read.

For an industry that’s only been around since 1998, Internet poker has seen more than its fair share of controversy.

On the subject of online poker controversy, it doesn’t get much juicier than Black Friday – April 15, 2011 – and the near-complete shutdown of the US poker market. In all, thirteen major US-facing poker sites moved away from the US market, were shut down, or went belly-up within the year. Eleven people were charged with federal fraud and money-laundering charges.

But the industry’s troubles didn’t start there. Consider the Absolute Poker / Ultimate Bet super-user scandal of 2007. It was discovered that (between 2005 and 2007) millions of dollars of player money was lost to a small group of players who used a software glitch at these two sister poker sites to view opponents’ hole cards.

Less scandalous events that still gave the game of online poker a bad name have stacked up over the years. Think about the disqualification of the 2007 WCOOP champion (due to a cheating scandal), the discovery of two high-profile cheaters at Party Poker, and the collapse to insolvency of the Cereus Poker Network.

In case I’ve made the whole industry sound disreputable, I’d like to say that in light of the scandal and controversy of the past decade, I know that a number of legitimate websites offering head-to-head poker play exist. Playing poker safely on the Internet means identifying trustworthy poker websites and then playing games only at those sites.

Three Trustworthy Poker Sites

I learned how to vet poker sites the hard way – I made deposits and played games at a dozen different sites before settling on the two or three that earned my permanent business. I learned a lot along the way. Check out these brief reviews of three sites I find totally trustworthy. Notice the features they have in common.

1. Bet365

The fact that the site holds a gaming license from Gibraltar is the first sign that Bet365 is trustworthy. Gibraltar is one of a small number of licensing authorities with really high standards. The Gibraltar Regulatory Authority exists in part to deal with customer complaints about licensed properties directly, which means there is a regulatory body that Bet365’s customers can go to if they don’t get satisfaction from Bet365’s own customer support department. As an added bonus, the UK Gambling Commission has Gibraltar on its “online gambling whitelist,” a vote of confidence which means any gaming venue licensed by Gibraltar can legally advertise its services in the United Kingdom.

Support for sixteen world languages and more than two-dozen world currencies makes the site accessible to a large number of customers, but not to Americans. The American online gambling market is so fraught with legal danger, many of the world’s best-known names in Web and mobile-based gambling don’t do any business at all with US players. Bet365 is one of those big name poker sites that don’t make their services available to US players at all, which is a sign of legitimacy all its own. I’m not saying no legitimate US-facing poker websites exist, I’m just saying they’re a rare bird.

Because Bet365’s services are so vast – including casino, poker, sports and race betting, and bingo gaming – the site is known for having (in Brian Bailey’s words) “deep pockets for big wins.” I think that’s a little bit too blustery of a statement, but it makes a good point. Too often, “slow payout” complaints are a result of a site not having enough cash to pay their winners. That’s not the case with Bet365, in business since 2001 with a great reputation as a gaming provider.

2. William Hill Poker

Part of the iPoker network, the poker games available at this site earn a lot of my trust by the simple fact that they’re provided by William Hill. The company that operates the casino and poker games at William Hill’s website is one of the oldest names in the gaming industry, operating as a UK bookmaker since the 1930s. WillHill is licensed by both Gibraltar and UK gaming authorities. Association with a brand that’s been in operation for a long time is a sign of trustworthiness; so is licensure from above-board jurisdictions.

None of the gambling options available at WillHill’s website (sports betting, race betting, casino games, skill games, poker, etc.) are available to US players. Unfortunately for American poker fans, at the moment that’s a sign of legitimacy. When people ask me “Why doesn’t a site like WilliamHill accept American players?” I point out that the UIGEA currently in place in the US puts online gambling in (at best) a legal gray area, and at worst makes it totally illegal. Legitimate poker sites have the trappings of above-board businesses in any industry – stockholders and teams of lawyers that must be satisfied. That’s the case with WillHill.

A trick I sometimes use when researching the trustworthiness of any gambling site is to check gambling forums. Some might say that depending on anecdotal reviews gives me too small of a lens through which to look at a site, but an example of a quick Casinomeister forum search I did on William Hill Poker shows why this method sometimes works out really well.

When William Hill formed a new partnership with software developer Playtech in 2009, they absorbed a huge number of gaming sites that were known rogue operators. It’s a complicated issue that I didn’t fully understand until I read this article from Gambling911.com. Basically, William Hill bought a number of sites as part of the deal with Playtech and was in the (often difficult) process of converting them into above-board gaming sites. What this taught me about WillHill was definitely worth the minute or two it took me to find my sources – they are interested in above-board operation and are at least verbally committed to cleaning up the rogue status of any of their assets.

3. Bovada Poker

I wanted to include a US-facing site in order to do two things – one, to cover the US market (at least a little bit), and two, to dissuade people from thinking that all US-facing sites are untrustworthy.

Bovada is open to customers from North America only – that means the United States and Canada. Originally related to popular gaming provider Bodog (which pulled out of the US market after the UIGEA like everyone else), Bovada is now totally independent of Bodog but still offers a solid product. I’d say that Bovada is by far my favorite US-facing online poker provider.

How do I know it’s worthy of my trust? First of all, Bovada is listed as an Accredited Casino by Bryan Bailey at Casinomeister.com. Second of all, I could find nothing seriously disconcerting about their services in forum and review searches. The worst thing I could find was this claim about “fraudulent deposits” on AskGamblers.com that doesn’t seem too authentic to me. Truly rogue operators are easy to identify – they end up on blacklists and the negative reviews stack up so high that they’re hard not to find.

Though the site has only been open since 2011, Bovada’s association with industry heavyweight Bodog early on gives the site a little more clout than others that are less than five years old. If Bovada continues to handle customer disputes and build on a strong reputation, they could easily be one of my favorite places to play poker online. As of right now, it’s one of the only US-facing sites I’ll actually recommend to American players.

How to Test a Poker Site’s Trustworthiness

Are these the only poker sites that are trust-worthy? Not by any means. In looking at the details of three unique sites above, I was just hoping to teach other people how to identify sites that deserve their trust, and those that don’t.

I hope you saw some features that all three of the above sites have in common. Licensure from legitimate gaming authorities, good reputations in member reviews, accessibility and transparency – any one of these is a feather in a poker site’s cap, so to speak. The sites above have that rare blend of all three.

Finding the most trusted poker websites in the world is really nothing more than a slightly-difficult homework assignment. It requires some Google searching, maybe a free forum membership or two, and the patience to wait to make a deposit until you find a site and a service you’re totally comfortable with.

Playing poker safely means playing poker only at sites that have demonstrated an ability to earn your trust. The three sites above are great examples of legitimate online poker-based businesses, but they’re not the only ones available around the world. Do a little research and find trustworthy poker sites that offer something you want, then stick to playing at those sites and those sites only.