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I know one of the most widespread conspiracy theories in poker, aside from Jack Four offsuit being the nuts, is that online poker is somehow rigged.

These theories range from the setup theory, that online sites create big cooler hands to juice rake, to the thought that online is rigged to make certain players lose.

While I may never be able to convince anyone who subscribes to these theories that they are wrong, I wanted to walk through some of my thoughts about online poker and why I think these theories are so pervasive.

To be clear, I generally prefer live poker. I play online, often, because it is very convenient and I live in a state where online poker is legal. The fact that it is legal in my state gives me a bit more confidence that the games are fair and regulated since we all remember or have heard the stories of the rampant cheating scandals from online poker’s heyday in the early 2000s.

Stories of collusion, stables, multi-accounting, and “God Mode” accounts spread like wildfire across social media even to this day. However, even with the persistent rumors of shady practices online I still believe most legal and regulated online poker is on the up and up.

In my opinion, many of the “evidence” people present as their “proof” that online poker is rigged can easily be explained away.

“The sites create coolers to juice the rake”

This is one of the most popular theories among losing online poker players and I can see why it is so strongly ingrained in some people.  Often the player who is telling anyone who will listen why online poker sites generate cooler situations is to juice rake does not truly understand how rake works.

For most sites, rake is a percentage of the pot taken out for the site to keep to pay expenses, those servers aren’t free after all. However, the major flaw in this theory is that the rake is generally capped for most sites and no additional rake is taken out for pots over a certain threshold. For example, on PokerStars, at a $0.25/$0.50 NLH game is raked at 5.00% up to $2.50 meaning that once a pot reaches $50 no additional rake is taken.

This means that IF a site wanted to “juice” its rake it would need the program to create situations where the vast majority of pots would be close to $50 therefore maximizing rake. 

In reality, the vast majority of pots online end up being heads-up or folding around which is the opposite of maximizing revenue through rake.

In my opinion, the real culprit responsible for so many cooler hands is the ranges that are played pre-flop and the stake being played.

In my time on the virtual felt, I have thought to myself countless times, why in the world did this player call with 74 offsuit to a 3-bet?  I think it comes down to the stakes played online, meaning that the pain of losing $20-$50 online is unlikely to have much if any, effect on the player’s overall financial well-being. 

Conversely, losing $500 – $1000 in a live game feels much more like real money due to the amounts involved. 

The fact that online games are for much smaller absolute dollar amounts leads players to play far wider than they would in a live game and they will also play many more starting hands than they would live. After all, it is far easier to call a raise to $1.15 with 10♠︎3♠︎ than it is to call $15-$20 pre-flop with the same hand in a live game.

Then, when a player flops top pair with a flush draw and either loses to another player with top pair and a better kicker or hits their flush only to learn they have been overflushed they feel the game is rigged.

The truth is they were playing badly but were not able to look at their play with a critical eye and realize that fact.

Conversely, when one of these players, who are playing too widely, hits their mericle one outer to suck out on your flopped boat it is also hard to not start thinking something is amiss.

However, these outliers are not justifications for how online poker is rigged. It is just a demonstration that variance is real, and unless you have the stone-cold nuts, there is always a chance the one outer actually comes in.