Safe Gaming TipsThe purpose of this guide is to explain a litle bit about gambling in the world of online casinos for those players who are looking to give it a try but are not quite sure what to look for and ensuring that they end up playing a safe casino where player integrity is the principle quality.
A lot of the content is geared up to reviewing the top casinos I have played myself (good examples if you want to start quickly being the excellent 32Red or Ladbrokes (see my 32Red review or my Ladbrokes casino review accordingly). Before delving in headlong, it seems like a good idea to get the basics sorted so you know what to expect. Before you start out however, if you are a person who has an addictive personality, or you lack will power, please check out our Responsible Gambling page first.
Skip to section:
- What to look for when choosing an online casino
- Software Platforms and Casino Games
- Money Issues: Depositing, Bonuses and Banking
- Other Factors in Choosing a Safe Casino
What to look for when choosing an online casino
First off, check that your local laws allow you to gamble online. For example, the US states of Louisiana, Maryland, Utah and Washington (and possibly others) have outlawed online gambling and some other countries have similar restrictions. If you are sure it is legal, read on....
The online casino world has been active since around 1996 and is still arguably in a state of transition. Some casinos have come and gone, but since the turn of the century we have seen it settle down and there is a now a core of reputable operators, some of whom will be well known while others less so (check out my online casino reviews for some of the better, more prominent brands that are safe).
As the industry has expanded, we have seen a few software providers come to the fore and indeed, the majority of the best casinos now operate on of a handful of software platforms. This means that many casinos offer the same games, so choosing a casino comes down as much to the quality of service offered.
Later in this guide, we will explain the differences in operations that will help you choose a casino that suits you best, however it is safe to say that due to this natural course, there are now lots of online casinos with good solid reputations falling within jurisdictional guidelines of operation.
Software Platforms and Casino Games
There are several software providers that have come to the fore providing platforms for perhaps 90% of the best online casinos operating online: Microgaming ("MG"), IGT, Playtech, Novomatic, Aristocrat, WMS and Real Time Gaming ("RTG"). Of these, the bulk of top casinos run on the Microgaming and Playtech platforms and while IGT don't have a platform anymore (they licence individual games) most of the big brands have IGT games in the portfolio.
Indeed, household names like Ladbrokes, Vernons and William Hill use either MG or Playtech to provide their games. Other well-known "bookmakers" in the UK such as Coral and BetVictor use more land-basd providers including IGT and Novomatic.. The fact that big brnad names like these are using one or other of the aforementioned software systems is in itself a good sign that the platform offers a "fair game", as none of these are likely to want their names tarnished by crooked deals.
Probably the most popular platform with players is Microgaming. Aside from having strict controls in place as to who licences their software, the range of games is huge (around 500 as of July 2012) and the graphics are generally regarded as second-to-none.
Another great benefit of MG software is "expert mode" - for newbies this is a godsend as the software has built in intelligence which ensures the correct cards are automatically held to ensure the player is playing the best strategy for the chosen game. Essential in Video Poker considering the many variations offered on MG software! The slots are the best you will find online and have a configurable "auto-play" feature which takes the tedium out of clicking "Spin" each time.
Of the software providers mentioned above, both Playtech and RTG have had their problems with disreputable operators in the past. Indeed, care still needs to be excercised when picking a casino on one of these platforms as they are largely left to their own devices. With RTG for example, casinos can create their own payout tables for certain games - a feature not permitted by other software.
While the above makes for more interesting options (and will have 100% expected return games as a result), it can mean that you end up playing a game which doesn't give you a great return. Some investigative work on strategies and payouts pays off!. That said, both Playtech and RTG have made real advances in licensing recently and newer casinos are proving much more reliable in general than in previous years.
All the platforms above generaly offer a good range games across the board so unless your favourite game is "niche", you'll probably find all the casinos have it, or a variant of it.
Some casinos use what is termed "proprietary" software that they have developed or have had developed for them and them alone. This can be a double-edged sword. On the negative side, you have little idea as to the fairness offered in the games while on the positive side, you usually get a different range of games to the generic casinos using a popular platform. You could use one of the casino forums to help you decide which casino software is popular and which isn't or there are plenty of other good casino review sites to help you decide if Top Choice stops short of answering your questions.
Money Issues: Depositing, Bonuses and Banking
Let's be honest, there are generally two main things you want from a casino: a fair game and the prompt hassle-free payment of any winnings. The above section deals largely with the "fair game" issue, but money is another thing altogether and this is generally the one thing that causes the most discussion on the player forums.
Before we get into money, there are two distinct areas that need to be distinguished: free money ("bonuses") and your money ("deposits"). The former is the single largest cause of player upset and its at this point where you need to decide whether you are what is termed a "bonus hunter" or a "player". If it's the former, expect some grief along the way but hopefully less so on the latter - let's explain a bit more:
Most online casinos will try to entice a player in with usually a 100% match on the initial deposit, so for example you may deposit $50 and the casino gives you a one-time $50 to go with it. Sometimes you have to email and claim the bonus, other times it is credited automatically. Once again we have a double-edged sword here. Because of so called "bonus abuse" (where players open multiple accounts just to get the free money), these bonuses usually have terms attached, known as "wagering requirements".
This essentially means you have to make so many bets before you can withdraw any winnings. This is usually expressed as a multiple of the bonus, or of the deposit and bonus together - each casino has different terms and you'll probably see an average of "x10 Deposit and Bonus". In this example this means you put in $50, got given $50 on top and have to make $50+450 ($100) x10 worth of bets - $1,000 in this example - before you can withdraw. Some casinios are more generous - Ladbrokes for example insist on only an x4 wagering requirement, while others are considerably less generous - x45 in some instances.
You'll also notice when you read the Terms of each of these "promotions" that the type of game you play is often restricted. This is usually in place to prevent a bonus player using "50/50" games (ie: Red/Black bets on European Roulette) or very low "house edge" games (The "house edge" is the term given to the percentage of profit a casino expects to make on a single bet and is usually in the 0.1 - 5% category depending on the game) to meet the wagering requirement. If you are playing with a bonus, read the Terms closely first!
Additionally, it is often difficult to keep track of exactly how much you have wagered when it comes to these terms. Microgaming software based casinos usually have a built in "Play Check" feature which allows you to keep track, but many casinos do not have this facility so it helps if you keep a manual track as best as possible.
A common player complaint is being unable to withdraw after playing with a bonus and more often than not this is either down to them not meeting the "wagering requirement" yet or that they have not read the Terms and ended up playing inelligible games. Always check the Terms!
Depositing players less interested in the bonus are generally on safer ground. There are no restrictions placed on your own money if you are not claiming a bonus - you play, withdraw and get paid. That's the theory. A first-timer will usually be asked to email over ID when making their first withdrawal, especially if the deposit wa smade using a credit or debit card. This is perfectly understandable and in a non face-to-face transaction not only reasonable but often a legal requirement imposed on the casinos within their licensing jurisdiction for auditing and best-practice purposes.
You may find if you live in the same jurisdiction as the casino then documentation is not required, or you may find that small withdrawals are processed without the inconvenience, but money-laundering online is common-place so larger "first-time" withdrawals will almost always encounter this requirement. The ID usually takes the form of one piece of photo ID and a utility bill in the players name.
One of the biggest issues faced by online casino players is that of Reverse Withdrawal: the process where a casino hangs on to your cashoit for 2 days and leaves it sitting there waving at you in the hope that you will "reverse" it to your account and play with it. Some casinos insist on this while others either don't bother with the concept or offer a "manual flush" which prevents you from accessing it, reversing it and potentially losing it. Check out the article on Reverse Withdrawals and Manual Flushing for information on which casinos don't use this function or offer flushing.
Banking services vary from casino to casino. A very popular way of depositing and getting paid quickly is to use an "e-wallet" service such as Moneybookers or the excellent NETeller. These are relatively easy online banking services and accepted by many casinos for depositing and withdrawing. They are also much quicker to process than credit and debit cards or cheques.
Most casinos will offer several withdrawal options. These almost always include NETeller, debit card (UK), cheque or "ACH" bank wire transfers (BACS to UK residents). Because of credit card restrictions imposed by the major credit card providers (Mastercard, VISA etc), you may sometimes find that depositing from, and almost always withdrawing to, these cards is not an option. Debit cards have less restrictions and are usually fine, particularly for UK residents.
In the majority of "e-wallet" instances, you cannot withdraw to an e-wallet before you have first deposited at least $20 into the source. There are two reasons for this: firstly it verifies you are who you say you are and secondly it helps to restrict money-laundering activities.
Other Factors in Choosing a Safe Casino
Software and banking isn't everything and while it can help to persuade a potential customer that a casino is doing the right things, it doesn't guarantee good casino management! So what other ways are there to tell if a casino has the right qualities? You could try dropping a quick email to their support team with a simple question - for example asking them how long it takes to process a withdrawal or whether they require player ID on withdrawal.
Aside from giving you some useful information, the time it takes to respond is usually a good indicator of how a casino regards it's customers - the faster the better obviously. If its within the hour and answers the question then this may seem like they have their act together. Some will be 15 minutes, others a day or more!
A look at the website will also yield a couple of interesting trust factors. Things to look for: do they display a PriceWaterhouseCoopers accounting logo - its not the be-all-and-end-all but it shows a respectful nod in the right direction. Are the Terms clear as to who can and can't play bonuses? Do they display the eCOGRA logo? This is an organisation that oversees online gaming practices.
Have a look at the "about us" page too - this usually reveals interesting information about ownership, regulatory restrictions and date incorporated. If you are considering gambling at an online casino but have not yet learnt the online gambling basics, this is the best place to start.
All these factors can help to give a fairly good feel for a casino but perhaps the player forums are the best source of feedback. Don't be put off by complaints regarding bonuses though - these are commonplace and often mis-placed and for non-bonus-hunters should be of little concern.