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FIND YOUR COMFORT ZONE BEFORE YOU PLAY

There are quite a few areas you should seriously address before you begin gambling online.

And although this is by no means a definitive guide, we have tried to identify many of the problems you may encounter when you gamble with online casinos.

Is It Legal?

The first question to answer is, are you?

You'll need to be over 18, and the casino will expect you to provide solid proof such as an ID card or a utility bill to show that you are.

Secondly, it depends on where you live. In the US, for instance, online gambling is considered illegal in the states of Illinois, Indiana and, oddly enough, Nevada. Check out Gambling-Law-US.com for full details of individual state law.

Most casinos are based offshore, (many in the Caribbean), and are licensed in that area but are not controlled by any government agencies. Australia, on the other hand, has strict controls which some countries have also adopted. However, although you'll find some online casinos are licensed, many are not, so choose one that is. That way you MAY have a better chance of getting your money back should the casino you select decide to pack its bags and run.

Just remember, it's a big wide world out there, so make sure that wherever you are it's ok to play.

By doing your own research, you'll be able to find what support you can get from local government agencies should you fall foul of fraudulent activity or cheating.

It's also very important that the casino you choose has support systems that are up to scratch. You'll want a 24/7 toll free help line and email contact. But don't take it at face value on their web sites. Call the help line and send them an email to see how fast they respond. After all, it's your money and it's good to know there's somebody there if you need them.

What Software Do They Use?

Well, you'll surely not find it at your local Nintendo outlet. his is seriously sophisticated stuff bought from specialist software companies. They supply the interfaces - the casino that appears on your screen - along with the games, e-commerce functions, and technical support. It's this that you'll be able to download.

Some of the biggest providers are Microgaming, RealTime Gaming, CryptoLogic, Boss Media, Playtech, Rival Gaming, Vegas Technology, WagerWorks and Net Entertainment.

There are others, but these companies are the big ones. The "brand value" to the player is that the casinos don't have access to their operating systems, so playing a casino that uses software from one of these company's is generally a safe bet. However, as with most things, there are no guarantees.

The Games

Video Poker - Check the payout schedules before you start. By betting the maximum you'll find many casinos give a payback range of around 99.50%. Not betting the maximum means the house has a bigger edge. Always play games that give the highest possible payback, but avoid the 'double up' bet with no house edge. Even if it's not, you might get the feeling it's rigged. And if you start thinking this, then it's not going to be much fun to play now is it?

Baccarat - Before you start, make sure the rules of the game follow the industry standard and that the amount of commission charged on a winning Banker bet is no more than 5%.

Roulette - Check whether the game has one or two zeros. House edge for a single zero is 2.70%, whereas for two zeros it's 5.26%. Online casinos with the 'en prison' rule appear not to exist. But should you find one please note that, coupled with the single zero rule, the house edge will reduce to 1.35% on even money bets.

Blackjack - With online Blackjack the deck(s) are shuffled after every hand, so it's virtually impossible to card-count. However, as a single deck game has a lower house edge than for multi-deck games, the options such as doubling on any first two cards or surrender etc. have a value. The aim is to play games which have the lowest house edge, so it's important to check that the dealer doesn't have a 'hole' card. This changes the basic strategy of the game and gives an extra 1% edge to the casino. For example, if you double an 11 against a dealer's 10, and the dealer then pulls an ace, you'll lose both bets.

Slots - In the 'real' world as opposed to the virtual one, casinos can set their slot machines to return almost any percentage. In the US, for example, each state has its own minimum payback. However, it's unclear whether Internet casinos have this minimum restriction, so stick to playing online slots at online casino that have an auditing report or come from the big software providers. Otherwise stick to Video Poker, Blackjack, Pai-Gow or Baccarat. And if you don't know how to play them, don't worry. Remember, you're smart enough to have read this before you start, so you're clever enough to learn.

Caribbean Stud - The $1 side bet for a progressive jackpot is unavailable at the majority of online casinos. There are also some strange schedules on some of the games. Check to see whether the pay schedule is 'standard' before you start. Better still, don't even play. On average, the house edge is around 2.7%.

Keno - Payoffs at online casinos differ to those in the 'real' world. For example, in Cyberspace a hit of 1 out of 4 could pay a half bet, whilst in a traditional casino it pays nothing. However, although you're more likely to win at the low end, the jackpot for 4 out of 4 is smaller than that in the 'real' world, so the overall payment is likely to be less. There is one advantage of course - your dollars will last longer.

Craps - Check the odds. Does the casino offer multiple free odds? If it does you should ask yourself the question: 'Am I sure I understand the concept of the free odds bet?' Some layouts will pay more for playing the field than others, but it's not something we would recommend.

Pai-Gow Poker - When playing online, the dealer is always the Banker which obviously gives them a natural advantage. Couple this with the 5% commission on a winning bet, and an experienced player can expect the casino to have an average edge of around 3%. This doesn't bode well for those who don't know what they're doing.

Playing for Free

Ideally, the casino should have a 'play' money mode. This enables you to play the game without parting with a single penny. This is important. You should NEVER start spending until you've tried out the game. By playing for free you can find any idiosyncrasies or quirks that exist, what the graphics are like, the choice of games available, the rules, the minimum bets etc. You may even find that you don't enjoy playing at that particular casino. And that's fine. Because you should only play somewhere where the conditions feel exactly right for you.

Minimum Bets

It would appear that at the majority of online casinos, the minimum 'coin' size bet is 50 cents, so it's not cheap for those wanting to play Video Poker. And expect to pay $2.50 a go for most games in order to get the maximum return. It's important to check the coin size you've chosen for each game. It's located at the top and is usually marked 'options'. Otherwise you could find yourself playing a hand of $25 Video Poker by mistake. There is a growing amount of casinos offering online games with 1 cent betting per line so you should be able to find something reasonable.

Slot Clubs

These do exist in the virtual world, although the best you're likely to find is around 0.1%. Whatever, regardless of how low the return, you should still sign up.

Getting Really Comfortable

Ever wished you could play Blackjack in your Bermudas? Well now you can. You could even shift your laptop onto the terrace if you want and give yourself a glass of your favourite wine, rather than suffer the free mouthwash the casinos are prone to dish out.

And if your backyard is a no smoking zone, that's OK too, it's your life.

Take it easy, but not too easy. Overdoing the booze and piling up the credits on your card will only get you into trouble.

One thing that won't, however, is having your VP software open. You can't do that in a real casino, it's illegal. But at home it's not a problem. So if you're not certain about a hand, VP will help you check it before playing. Perfect.

So that's the upside, what about...

The Downside of Online Gambling

Apart from the fear of downloading money from your credit card and keeping track of it, online gambling requires more personal discipline than the 'real' thing.

Here there is no physical money for you convert to chips or tokens, just credits on your card. And without that cash in front of you it can be difficult to keep track of your spending. The money in your wallet feels more abstract than real and that could prove dangerous. Some casinos allow you to set your own spending limit which is a good thing. Some e-wallet companies also do this.

We advise that unless your dad is a Gates or Mittall and fully supportive of your choice of entertainment, you do this too.

Another problem is impatience which usually arises after hours of chasing that elusive 'four of a kind' and finding yourself 250 dollars to the worse. That's time to quit, turn off the computer and take a rest.

You can reboot tomorrow with a new budget and a new game.

And Finally

Because you've now downloaded the 'casino' of your choice, you won't require the use of a web browser such as Internet Explorer. Therefore, we strongly recommend that your browser and any other on-line programs are turned off while you're playing on-line. This is because those programs may disrupt your connection just when what may be a winning hand is being dealt. It might also make you think that the casino is cheating on you when they're not.

And if you're worried about casinos cheating with your credit card details, don't be. Most will accept payments from ewallets, another good idea is to have your bank issue a new card with a low credit limit, say 500 dollars. In this way most people who steal card details will be deterred as they usually only go after big credit limits, making you a lower risk target.

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