If you’re interested in playing poker for free online, chances are that a quick search in Google has led you to a gaming site like Zynga or Replay. These sites claim to offer players the opportunity to play Texas Hold’em and other popular poker variants online for free, and its worked. According to a March 2011 ESPN article, Zynga Poker is the largest poker site in the world, with 38 million players. In this article by Dean Takahashi, he claims that about 350 million people have played Zynga Poker.
Zynga, which I’ve downloaded and played on my mobile device, and on Facebook, is the free poker game that I’ll discuss here, since I’ve analyzed the benefits as well as the negative aspects of playing it.
People who play Zynga poker are usually casual players who want the fun of playing online poker without the risk of losing any of their hard-earned cash. Fair enough. But are these players actually playing for free, or do these kind of sites end up costing far more than it would cost to make a small deposit at an actual play-for-money poker site? When Zynga Poker first started, they found a way to monetize their games by selling poker chips by way of “lead generation,” where you, the player, could potentially earn chips if you got involved in revenue-generating activity for Zynga, like for example, accepting an offer to sign up for a subscription. This was quickly identified by users as spamming behavior, so Zynga had to change direction, which led them to their current business model.
This business model is now used, with huge success, by a number of social and mobile gaming sites. This approach? Let people play for free, and charge users for virtual chips or for special VIP benefits. It seems crazy that people would pay for poker chips to play with in games in which they could never actually win any real money, but the business model is extremely effective.
Ian Bogost, a game design professor from the Georgia Institute of Technology publicly criticized Zynga for creating games that tricked users out of their money and gave “no care about the longevity of the form or the experience.”
As part of my Zynga experience, I decided to spend $4.99 on a stack of poker chips that I used to play in a few tournaments. Over the course of a couple weeks I turned that five dollars into probably a fifty bucks worth of virtual chips. Fake, virtual chips that I can spend buying virtual goods or playing more poker. While I was playing at Zynga, I decided to spend another $5 playing in $1 buy-in Sit n Go’s on 888. I won two of them, and made about $25 (and that’s $25 actual dollars, that I can withdraw, for a net gain of $20) in the same amount of time, using the same level of skill.
I have always been very wary of poker sites that don’t charge players up front for playing. There is a real cost to operating ‘free’ sites and they need to pay their bills and turn a profit. The largest free sites are also huge businesses with millions of players who willingly hand over large amounts of money to play poker and expect nothing more than to be entertained.
Now don’t get me wrong, I like the entertainment aspect of poker and don’t see anything wrong with playing purely for fun. However, I suspect that a lot of players don’t really know how much money they end up spending on free poker sites when that was not their intention. Personally, I play poker largely for entertainment. I also like knowing that when I do win, I’ll be able to get my hands on my winnings.