A poker site’s software ultimately determines what it’s like to play there. You could argue that the only thing that matters is making money… but you’d be missing the point. The design quality does impact your ability to play a solid game for better or worse. Never does this become more apparent than when you find yourself in a poker room with sub-par software.
To borrow an old cliché, signing up for an account at a poker site with poor software is like buying a shoe that doesn’t quite fit right. It may seem like no big deal as you test the shoe around the store, but minor annoyances become major issues as you put in more time in your new shoes. Even minor problems like delayed button clicks or the occasional crash can end up ruining the entire experience. You will do yourself a big favor over the long run if you only play at the poker sites with the best software.
You can tell a poker site has high-quality software when you forget that it’s even there. When you find yourself lost in the cards and focusing only on making the best play in each situation, you’ve found a site that does it right. Top-notch software stays out of the way. It doesn’t distract you, frustrate you or waste your time with poorly designed features.
For example, one time, I somehow ended up at a poker site attached to some obscure sportsbook. It was obvious the poker was thrown on as an afterthought, and the software was atrocious. The symbols on the cards were tiny, animations were frustratingly slow, and the lobby only seemed to update the list of tables whenever it felt like it. It ended up being impossible actually to play a decent game of poker there.
This is an extreme example, but it goes to show how bad it can get out there. Most of today’s major poker sites have software that is at least playable. Some sites definitely do it better than others, but you’re not going to find a mainstream poker site anywhere today with software that bad.
What the Best Poker Software Does
Now we’re going to dive into the realm of subjectivity. What you find most important in poker software might not line up exactly with what I consider important. We’re all bound to have our own preferences when it comes to these things. However, I think there are a few basic standards that I think we can all agree on.
First of all, the software needs to perform all its basic duties. Software needs to be free of crashes, serious lag, and other random bugs that sometimes plague poorly designed programs. This is just a minimum level of quality that needs to be established before a poker site is worth considering.
The most important design aspect of any poker software is its ability to present the information you need cleanly and intuitively. The best poker software stands out by clearly labeling cards, showing the pot size, and providing all of this in an appropriately-sized font that doesn’t leave you squinting to see what’s going on.
Clean design is even more important than fancy, high-quality graphics. In fact, I’ve always leaned towards poker sites that take the minimalist approach. The latest 3D graphics may look nice first, but you tend to forget the graphics pretty quickly. Once you get sucked into a good game of poker, the graphics are the last thing on your mind.
Here’s where I get controversial and probably drive some of you crazy. I’m just going to say it: I am not a fan of PokerStars’ software – at all. I’ve always found the software there to be too cluttered and distracting. It’s not terrible by any means, but it’s just so much easier for me to concentrate at sites that go with a cleaner, leaner approach.
Ability to Multi-Table
The ability to play at multiple tables is huge for all you high-volume players out there. If you like to run more than one table at a time, you need to check into your poker site’s policy on allowing multiple tables. Most sites are happy to let you run at least four tables at a time, while some will let you run up to 20 tables at a time.
One of the big trends to sweep the poker industry in recent years is for sites to cater to recreational players at the expense of skilled players. Casual players are the lifeblood of small poker sites because these are the players who make the most deposits and keep the economy chugging along. The grinders, on the other hand, take money from the casuals and make frequent withdrawals.
Some sites have taken steps to handicap skilled players by limiting multi-tabling and even introducing anonymous tables to hinder note-taking. Keep this in mind if you like to play at more than four tables at a time.
Speed of Play
Speed is important for casuals and grinders alike. Poker is supposed to be fun, and it’s no fun to sit there and fold hand after hand when the cards go cold. A speedy poker site keeps the games running at a nice pace so you can see more hands, play more flops and make more money.
Few things are as frustrating as playing at sites that run slow games. The best poker software developers know this and make sure to integrate fast animations and software that responds promptly to user input (such as clicking the fold/raise/call buttons). Even a modest change in speed makes a big difference in how many hands you see over a session of poker.
Some features are almost must-haves by this point. Four-color decks, the ability to take notes on other players, and resizable tables are all basic but essential features. Four-color decks are especially important because they make it so much easier to spot potential flushes and avoid mistakes. Fortunately, this feature is offered by default at every poker site I’ve ever played in recent times.
Table resizing comes in handy for obvious reasons, while note-taking is useful for keeping track of your opponents’ tendencies. The poker sites with the best software also provide table statistics such as % of players to the flop and average pot size so you can find the softest tables at any stakes. Tournament players should also keep an eye out for the ability to cut deals at the final table. I know PokerStars, Full Tilt, Party Poker, and possibly others provide this ability.
Mobile and Mac Friendly
There’s a strong correlation between compatibility and overall quality. In my experience, the poker sites with the best software have always made an effort to make their software available on modern operating systems. A compatible poker client shows the poker site is serious about its players and is willing to invest in development.
Even if you don’t plan on playing poker on a mobile device or Mac, it’s still good to see compatibility because it brings more players to the site. Sites that cater to a broad audience end up with more active tables, bigger tournaments, and a softer overall level of competition.
Easy to Download and Install
It shouldn’t require a computer science degree to get the poker software installed and working properly on your computer. This is obvious stuff, but it’s amazing how many smaller, low-quality sites distribute software that’s so buggy that it’s unusable for half the people who download it. It’s hard to trust your money with someone who can’t even iron out a core piece of their business model.
The best poker downloads tend to be about 50-100 MB in size, although it varies. For example, 3D poker sites are much larger, while mobile downloads are smaller in size. In any case, you won’t have any trouble if you have a decent internet connection. These are not very large downloads compared to most software.
Fun features are little extras that aren’t necessary but are nice to have. Little extras like the ability to rabbit hunt (see what the remaining cards would have been even though everyone folded), show one hole card, and add players to your friends’ list are especially appealing to casual players. And as we all know, it’s good to have casual players at your table.