The software a poker site uses will have a significant impact
on your overall playing experience. In fact, many seasoned
online players would say that the software is the single most
important aspect of a site. It’s certainly something that we
look at very closely when we’re ranking poker sites and it’s a
critical component of how they actually work.
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Most players are probably not too concerned about the inner
workings of poker sites and the software they use. If everything
works as it should and they have a good experience, then they’re
satisfied because that’s what they truly care about. That’s a
perfectly reasonable view to have and it’s unnecessary to fully
understand how poker sites work to enjoy playing at them.
However, the basic mechanics of the software are relatively
straightforward, so there’s no harm in learning a little more
about them. We provide a simple explanation of how it all works
below and we look at the various types of software that poker
sites use. We also provide some additional information on online
Basic Poker Site Software Mechanics
The software used by a poker site sits on a central server
and communicates with the computers (or other devices) of all
the players that are logged in to that site. It keeps track of
all the cash games and tournaments running and displays the
relevant details so players can see which games are available
for them to join.
When a player goes ahead and joins a game, the software
displays a graphical representation of the table on their
screen. All associated details will also be displayed, such as
who their opponents are followed by their chip counts. All
players should be seeing the same screen as their opponents,
until after their virtual cards have been dealt and displayed on
the screen, as then each player will only be able to see their
own cards. When community cards are dealt, in games such as
Texas Hold’em for example, they are displayed in the center of
the table for everyone to see.
Cards are dealt randomly, as if from a shuffled deck. The
randomness of these cards is assured by the use of random number
generators (RNGs), which are programs worked into the poker site
software. These programs are constantly producing random
sequences of numbers and the software converts one of these
sequences into a specific card every time a card needs to be
It’s the RNGs used by poker sites which ensure games are
fair. There’s no discernible pattern to the order in which the
cards are dealt and the sites don’t influence the cards in any
way. RNGs are also used by online casinos to provide fair games
and we’ve explained how they work in more detail in our casino
section. You can read the relevant article here.
In addition to dealing the cards and displaying all the
action, the software used by poker sites effectively operates
the games. It prompts each player to act when it’s their turn,
usually by displaying a range of buttons to depict their
The player must click on the relevant button to choose their
action and then that information will be sent back to the
server. The server then processes the action and updates the
game accordingly. If a player folds for example, the other
players will see that players cards be removed from the table.
If a player makes a bet, then the other players will see that
The software also keeps count of how many chips each player
has and how many chips are in the pot at any given time. It
determines who wins each hand, according to the rules of the
game, and distributes the relevant chips to the winners.
This is a fairly elementary explanation of what poker site
software does, but we hope it gives you a better idea of how it
Downloadable Software vs Instant Play & Mobile
The early poker sites all required you to download software
in order to play their games. This trend continued for several
years and it’s still the only option at many sites today.
However, nowadays many sites also have alternatives available as
well. A number of them offer software that can be accessed
directly through your web browser and some sites have even
developed applications that can be used from mobile devices.
Downloadable software still offers the best overall
experience in our view, for a few reasons, but the instant play
software and mobile software also have their own advantages.
Let’s take a look at each one of these options in more detail.
Downloadable Poker Software
This is still the number one choice for most poker players
and it’s available at the vast majority of sites. There are
several reasons for its continued popularity, including the
- Higher Quality Graphics
- More Stability
- Better Functionality
- Additional Features
- More Games & Players
The graphics don’t necessarily affect the usability of a
poker site, but they do make a big difference to your overall
playing experience. It’s also worth noting that some players
play for long sessions and poor graphics can really hurt the
eyes after a while. High quality graphics are therefore very
important and the graphics are usually better in downloadable
software than in any of the other alternatives.
Stability is also vital for a good online poker experience.
Playing the game can be frustrating enough at times,
particularly during a run of bad luck, without the additional
frustration of software that keeps crashing or freezing. This
was especially a problem at the majority of sites during the
early days of online poker, but it’s a very rare problem with
the more advanced downloadable software used these days. It can
still be an issue with some of the instant play and mobile
Downloadable software tends to be noticeably more functional
and easier to use than the alternatives, which is obviously
appealing to players. It also usually has far more in the way of
additional features, and many players are used to having these
readily available to them. Special features such as player
notes, instant hand histories, customizable avatars and tables,
multi-tabling options, and even the chat rooms aren’t nearly as
widely available with the instant software and mobile
The final reason why downloadable software is still ahead of
the others is almost certain to affect the most players. The
selection of available games and the number of potential
opponents are both currently far more impressive than the
alternatives. This will probably change over time but for now
it’s a very good reason for why you should download the software
from poker sites.
Instant Play Software
An increasing number of sites offer this option and it’s
proving to be fairly popular. There’s nothing to download; you
simply log in to the site and access the software directly
through your web browser.
Instant play is a great option for those who might have
compatibility issues with a downloadable poker client. Some of
these clients are made to work specifically with Windows based
PCs, so those with alternative operating systems or other
devices (such as Apple Macs) may not be able to use them. You
won’t run into this problem with instant play software, as it’s
generally compatible with a wide range of operating systems and
devices and it’s typically powered by using Adobe Flash.
The instant play software used by poker sites is typically a
scaled down version of their download equivalent. There’ll
usually be less features, lower quality graphics, and there may
not be the same selection of games available. Overall, though,
it works in pretty much the same way.
Mobile Poker Apps
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Mobile poker applications are now available from several
poker sites. Like the instant play option, they tend to be
scaled down versions of downloadable software with a smaller
selection of games. They are perfectly usable and are great for
when you want to play a quick game while out of the house. The
apps are generally compatible with a wide range of smart phones
Gambling and betting from mobile devices is becoming
increasingly popular and it’s something that looks set to expand
rapidly over the next few years. You can expect to see much
better quality poker apps developed in the future and many more
people subsequently start using them.
Poker Online Server Versions
Online Poker Networks
Online poker networks are essentially groups of sites which
all share the same software. This software is typically provided
by a third party developer, who also manages the network. Each
site on a network will customize the look of the software to
match their own brand, but the software will work in exactly the
same way at all of the sites.
The idea of a network is that it increases what is known as
“player liquidity.” This term basically refers to the amount of
players at the tables. The way networks work is that players
from each of the sites on the network all have access to the
same games, which are all powered by the network software. This
generally results in far busier tables than at standalone sites,
where players are playing only against players from the same
We have a whole section dedicated to online poker networks on
GamblingSites.org. In this section, we explain in more detail
how they work and we also provide information on all the leading
networks and the sites that are associated with them.