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An unexpectedly wholesome poker game

Sites designed to exploit users’ gambling addictions are going to be a little predatory. Poker Now somehow turned out to be different.

Image: Mengxin Li / The Verge

Like every story set during the height of social distancing, it started with boredom. By the summer of 2020, I had already burned through a few pandemic hobbies with varying degrees of both success and enthusiasm: grilling ribs (successful!), dancing the Charleston (enthusiastic!), watching all the Resident Evil movies (tolerable!). Hmm, I thought, as Milla Jovovich kicked a zombie dog for the sixth time in as many days. I wonder if there’s an easy way to get an online poker game going.

For a while, it looked to me like the answer was no. Even now, if you click around looking for a free online poker service, you’ll get a list of shady-sounding websites that will happily take your information, give you nothing in return, and blast you with spam emails that can’t be unsubscribed from no matter how many times you try. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that sites designed to exploit users’ gambling addictions could be a little predatory. But it was still disheartening to watch the internet being devoured every day by shady ways to bet on cards and sports and who’s going to play James Bond next — to the tune of an expected $153 billion in 2023 — lined up to carve a slice out of me and my friends.

And then, just as I prepared to give up and try my hand at basket weaving or whatever, I stumbled onto the most wholesome version of an online casino: Poker Now. “Play poker with your friends in two clicks! No download or registration required! For free!” These are the site’s promises, and they sounded a lot like the half-dozen or so other brazenly lying poker sites I had already tried. The trick is that Poker Now somehow makes good on them.

My bar was low enough that I probably would have been satisfied if Poker Now had been functional

What I wanted felt simple: a website that allowed me to host a game of Texas Hold‘em in a web browser. With that much taken care of, I could invite a group of strangers from across the country to join in some very low-stakes gambling, with the game itself offering just enough structure for everyone to goof around. My bar was low enough that I probably would have been satisfied if Poker Now had been functional. What I was not prepared for was how functional its intuitive, absurdly clean UI would turn out to be. With no tutorial and a minimum amount of fuss, I was able to set a poker game to my exact specifications — 2,000 chips per player, no limit on bet size or time — and send a URL to anyone I wanted who could then seamlessly join the game in seconds. No one would even have to download an app.

My test pilot game with three other friends went off seamlessly. A month or two later, the game had become a weekly ritual among a group of 10. The website worked so well that none of us ever really needed to think about it. Apart from the times when an impassioned monologue would run so long that the speaker forgot to call or fold, we could casually zip through dozens of hands in an hour while focusing much more on our stories and in-jokes than the actual game.

And as chummy and personal as our game felt, we were far from alone. In fact, we were slightly behind the curve. Poker Now’s creator, Samuel Simões, recalls a night in March 2020 when the site crashed so suddenly and so badly that he assumed it was being attacked. No: it was just a bunch of people looking for something to do during a global pandemic, overwhelming the server and driving the site to a peak of 56,000 players in one day. It ultimately reached more than 1 million people per year.

In an age where every “free” game comes laden with ads or microtransactions, I still marvel at what Poker Now offers

In an age where every “free” game comes laden with ads or microtransactions, I still marvel at what Poker Now offers. You simply don’t expect a game that asks for nothing — apart from an optional Patreon donation — to play this well. I could talk about how the game ensures bragging rights by automatically keeping a tally of hands won by each player. Or how it quietly ensures that even the most amateur player will have all the information they need to grasp their best possible hand. Or how it jacks up the suspense on an all in by giving you real-time updates on every player’s chance of victory. There’s a Tournament mode that allows you to blend multiple tables and a Spectator mode that allows non-players to see each player’s pocket cards, much like when you watch poker on TV. The game even integrates free audio and video chat (although my table has never broken the pandemic-era habit of using a separate Zoom link instead). About the only thing it doesn’t offer is a way to handle money, but even that makes sense for Poker Now. Unlike a traditional casino, this house doesn’t get a cut.

But mostly, I didn’t think about any of that because I was playing poker. If the best interface is an interface you don’t even notice, Poker Now is practically invisible: a million little design decisions that add up to a website that stays out of your way so you can play cards and goof around with your friends and howl when you get knocked out by a gutshot straight draw on the river. 

Nearly three years later, my pandemic poker table still convenes almost every week. By now, the group has developed its own rules and rituals, its own friendships and rivalries, and its own inside jokes. There are players in every time zone, and it is no exaggeration to say that, due to our weekly Poker Now habit, I’ve now hung out with friends I would never even have met on both coasts. 

It could go on forever, but I’m dubious about how long it can last. A few months ago, the site’s creator announced that he had partnered with something called Rio Gaming, and it seems unfathomable that a website this good will continue indefinitely for free — not when there’s money to be made. (Simões did not respond to a request for comment.)

But even if the service currently provided by Poker Now becomes another hobby relegated to the pandemic, it was there when we needed it most: a lucky draw in the seemingly bottomless pile of gambling sites scrabbling for your money, providing everything you could want and asking for nothing in return.