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The Perks of Online Poker:Rakeback

by Dave Shoelace |  Published: Nov 30, 2008


Rackback gives online poker players a portion of their rake money backIf you are unfamiliar with the term "rakeback," you have to stop what you are doing right now and read this article in full, because it is an absolute must for any serious cash-game or sit-and-go player. Online poker is so competitive these days that you really can afford to shop around with the poker rooms you choose and pick a cardroom that maximises your profits as a reward for your loyalty.

Whenever you play a hand of poker or enter a tournament, you generate a rake. This is the commission you pay to the poker room for organizing the game. Rake is typically between 1 percent and 5 percent of the winning pot, though sometimes it is paid in a lump sum per hour or per tournament. Almost all cardrooms or affiliate partners offer schemes that return part of your rake as an incentive for you to stay with that site; these are in the form of rakeback (otherwise known as loyalty bonus) and sometimes reward points.

The few poker rooms that don't offer some form of rake rebate are usually the sort of rooms you want to avoid anyway, as they tend to have very few games running (albeit softer ones) and struggle to support software like PokerTracker.

Rakeback, which started in 2004, is essentially a refund of the rake that you have already paid to the poker room. It is calculated monthly and returned to your bankroll. Most rakeback schemes typically return around 30 percent of the rake that you pay, and if you are a cash-game player who puts in long sessions, this can make a noticeable difference to your bankroll. Most poker rooms have this incentive built in, while others pay via a third-party affiliate that you used to sign up to the poker room, which takes a smaller percentage of your rake from the cardroom.

To give some general examples of what you can expect from rakeback, a $1-$2 no-limit hold'em player could stand to get back $45 for every 1,000 hands he plays, and a $2-$4 player could get back $100. (These are rough figures and depend on the table size and style you play.) If you are playing lots of tables at once and playing every day, you can expect to see hundreds or thousands of dollars a month alone in rakeback. Let's say you play 30,000 hands a month of $2-$4 no-limit, so you could be looking at between $1,800 and $3,000 a month in rakeback alone; if you were a pro player, this could cover lots of your personal expenses. Most rakeback deals offer between 25 percent and 45 percent rakeback; just go to your PokerTracker database or e-mail support to see how much rake you have already paid to see just how big that is.

To give you an idea of how big a contributing factor rakeback can be, there is actually a concept called a "rakeback pro" - someone who plays so many tables for so long that he really only needs to break even or lose slightly to make a living. I know a player who plays 10 tables of $1-$2 six-max for about 40 hours a week on Full Tilt, and he makes over $40,000 a year on rakeback, as well as his winnings and other bonuses, which a high raker on the second-biggest poker room in the world may have.

The biggest poker room in the world, PokerStars, does not offer rakeback, and it amazes me that so many American cash-game pros reside there, when they can get, for example, a 27 percent rakeback deal from a Full Tilt affiliate. What PokerStars offers instead is a second-to-none VIP store, where your Frequent Player Points can be exchanged for tournament tickets, gifts, electrical items, freerolls, and gift vouchers. Although the scheme is great value, it is probably not ideal for the pro player, because it's harder to make use of "gifts" week in and week out than it is cold hard cash. (Now, if they offered things like Tesco vouchers, it could be a winner.)

If you do have a preference to play on one of the big two USA-friendly poker rooms (if you are a serious sit-and-go player, you probably have to go with Stars anyway), PokerStars would suit you only if you can afford not to get the rakeback every month. What I mean by that is that the real value in the PokerStars VIP programme is in saving up for something big. By big, I mean a Porsche Caymen or a seat in a big tournament like the World Series of Poker; if you are planning to play it anyway, it's a great reason to go with PokerStars. You can cash in your points for a cash "bonus," but be warned that this isn't money in the bank just yet, as you then have to release it in the same way as a sign-up bonus.

For what it's worth, most other poker rooms have forms of VIP stores as well as a rakeback service, although they are nowhere near the value of PokerStars.

Sometimes you may already have a poker account that doesn't have rakeback attached to it - for example, a Full Tilt account. You can actually contact some of the more reputable Full Tilt affiliate websites privately and explain the situation and see if they can attempt to add you to their own rakeback deal; it doesn't always work, but I managed it, and a friend recently did, too. Some poker rooms will allow you to sign up a second account (Full Tilt doesn't) in order to benefit from rakeback, and if you explain to them that you are a high raker, strings can be pulled.

Likewise, it pays to get friendly with the cardroom/VIP manager at your current cardroom, even if you do have a deal. You can tell him that you are planning to shift 100 percent of your playing activity to that room if they can get you a good deal, and most will jump through hoops to get you to stay with them. The best place to do this is on a network like iPoker or OnGame, because the skin has to compete not only with other poker rooms, but other skins on the same network, and they constantly undercut each other to do this. Sending an e-mail to the cardroom managers of several skins on one network will present you with some surprisingly generous rakeback deals, ones that they could never publicly advertise.

You can even afford to be picky with very good rakeback deals, because it is such a saturated market that cardrooms put even more value into promotions for high rakers. Blue Square always has Grosvenor UK Poker Tour seats on offer for free to loyal customers, and VC Poker, for example, has a regular reload bonus every month on top of its cash back, and you can also cash in reward points for sponsorship packages. It depends on what you are looking for, but all the major poker skins should have something extra to tempt you into joining them other than the sign-up bonus.

The lure of guaranteed rakeback does tempt a lot of players into playing more tables and more hours than they are used to. You should already be familiar with determining what your earn rate is depending on the number of tables you play, and stick with the number of tables that is correct for you. That said, if your earn rate remains unchanged between, say, four and five tables, rakeback is a very good reason to opt for the fifth table.

You can even factor your rakeback into your hourly earn rate projections: Monthly rake ÷ number of tables you play at one time ÷ number of hours played a month x rakeback percentage expressed as a decimal.

So, if you generate $4,000 of rake a month, playing four tables at once, for 30 hours a week (120 a month), with a 27 percent rakeback deal, it's: $4,000 ÷ 4 ÷ 120 x 0.27 = $2.25 in rakeback an hour per table, or $9 an hour in total on top of your current earn rate.

As you can see, you can actually make a reasonable (not great, but reasonable) income by simply breaking even playing lots of tables at once when you have a good rakeback deal.


Prop players get 100 percent rakeback for filling up empty or short-handed tablesThere is a way of getting 100 percent rakeback, and maybe even more than that, when you become a prop player. A prop player is someone hired by the poker room to keep games going and start new ones up. Their job is to sit down at nearly empty tables that could close in order to keep them running and encourage others to join. They also start new tables up, and sometimes when you see one lone player at a table, he could well be a prop. Prop players get 100 percent to 140 percent rakeback because they ultimately generate more revenue for the cardroom by encouraging others to play. Although this might seem like rakeback nirvana, being a prop player isn't usually a hugely profitable venture.

First of all, game selection goes right out of the window and you rarely get a chance to sit in the juicy games that have waiting lists a mile long, which, as a serious player, should be your bread and butter. They also tend to be in poker rooms that have very little traffic, and you might well be better off earning normal rakeback on a site you can multitable effectively on. Finally, prop players are governed by a lot of rules and regulations that can hinder your game, such as leaving when the table gets full and not using the chatbox, which almost sounds a bit too much like real work.

Bonus Whoring

There was a time when I would have strongly advised against bonus whoring for its own sake, but in this heavily saturated market, it does present a viable alternative, or even partner, to rakeback. Bonus whoring is regularly moving between poker rooms until you have unlocked the sign-up bonus with each. I used to advise against it because you wouldn't get much chance to get familiar with the profitable fish at the particular poker rooms you joined, and every few weeks, you would be starting afresh with no reads on your opponents.

However, as there are a number of "networks" that host many skins of the same poker room these days, bonus whoring does have some real benefits. If you take the iPoker network as the best example, it has more than 30 skins attached to it, all of which offer between $500 and $600 in sign-up bonus. You can now play at the same tables on different skins and then move to the next one, while still maintaining your reads and PokerTracker database on your opponents. There is also the huge advantage that while your alias will change with every poker room, most of your opponents will not, and you will know plenty about them while they think they have no reads on you.

This could equate to over $15,000 in combined sign-up bonuses for that one network, all of which a high raker would release in less than a month per poker room. Add on top of that a loyalty bonus and the fact that iPoker skins are a lot less strict about having more than one account per room, and you could be onto a very lucrative deal.

There are some disadvantages, though. First of all, it can be a real chore to transfer your money back out of a poker skin once you have claimed your bonus, and a lot ask for photographic identification to do so, so don't put your entire bankroll in one skin. Secondly, the bonuses tend to be released in a drip-feed format rather than a lump sum, so it is very hard to notice the difference in your bankroll, and you could lose it before you get a chance to cash it out (whereas you get a lump sum at the end of the month with rakeback deals).

Finally, there are some real advantages to remaining loyal to one skin, and one of them is that loyalty schemes tend to be on a tiered basis, so the higher your rake, the bigger percentage you stand to get at the end of it. For example, at VC Poker, if you accumulate 225,000 action points over several months, the net worth is $1,125 cash; however, if you accumulate 225,000 action points in one month, it is worth $2,000, and 75 percent of the points get retained for use in the loyalty store or for tournament entry. Also, if you have shopped around with a number of poker rooms for a good deal as I advised, the chances are that your rakeback deal could be more lucrative than the combined sign-up bonuses anyway. Like anything, it's just a case of sitting down with a pen, paper, and calculator, and working out the best deal that's on the table.

Rake Races

Another huge consideration surrounding rakeback when you are a serious player is participating in a rake race. A rake race is a leader board where the winner is the player who either plays the most hands in a given time period or generates the most rake. They are promoted by online cardrooms or affiliate partners to encourage players to generate as much income as possible, and to reward the big hitters with a return on some of that profit. There are big money prizes at the end of a rake race, and a full-time player is in pole position to win them.

Winning a rake race is, however, very tough from a sheer numbers point of view. Some people spend an unhealthy amount of time playing poker at a sick number of simultaneous tables. Cheating is a genuine worry in rake races, although the poker rooms are not that concerned, and often the winners get accused of shared accounting or employing a "bot." Even if a cardroom suspected a high raker of cheating, it wouldn't really be in its best interest to reprimand him when he is generating so much revenue.

But this certainly shouldn't put you off a rake race, because as long as you are a winning player and continue to be throughout the race, you stand to benefit from them without losing anything, because there are big prizes for anyone who places highly in them, not just the winners.

You really need to clear your schedule with a rake race, because it requires much more than a normal working day at the tables, and can last for a month (though iPoker has recently held a weekly race that seems to be a much more favourable alternative). If you know you are going away for a long weekend during the race, don't even bother, because you will have to play too much catch-up.

It really pays to make a good start in a rake race, as the results are often published somewhere as they happen. If you can commit the most hours in the first week, you can demotivate others from carrying on - if they can see they are already 10,000 hands behind you.

Things that really shouldn't need mentioning are that you have to be a serious multitabler and ideally play shorthanded games, which play nearly twice as many hands per hour as full-ring games. Playing tighter than usual is also a big must, because races usually go on hands dealt, rather than hands played or rake payed. You will have so much more to contend with, with the added tables, that you won't be able to play speculative hands or make advanced moves as profitably, so tighter than normal is really the way to go. You might want to drop down to lower stakes if you are playing more tables than usual, because you won't quite be playing your A-game.

The games during a rake race are often less profitable because there are more tight grinders at the table, but are worth it overall because of the added value at the end of it. If you are losing because of the number of tables or time you are spending, quit the race, because your profit at the tables is still your number-one priority.

The great thing about a rake race is that if you are making the most of a rakeback/loyalty scheme, you are going to make a small fortune from that anyway, plus whatever spoils you can get from a rake race. For example, in a 17-day rake race on the iPoker network earlier this year, the winner got $7,500, with another 200 positions getting a cash sum. VC Poker has a sign-up bonus of $600, a monthly reload bonus worth $250, and it allows you to exchange its action points for $5 per 1,000 points, and in larger lump sums once you reach 150,000 a month. The winner was playing about 7,000 hands a day and accumulating 10,000 action points a day. I estimated that he would have made $1,900-$2,400 in cash back and bonuses on top of the rake race prize - making nearly $10,000 in total for the 17-day period. (This is all before we factor in what he presumably won, too.)

Rakeback, or at least a meaningful reward for your loyalty in the form of a VIP scheme, is a must for all serious online players, and can often be the big difference-maker in a poker player's career. It can turn a break-even month into a winning month, and a losing month into a break-even month. Of course, when things are going well, it turns a winning month into a monumental winning month. Never underestimate your value to poker rooms, and ensure that they are regularly giving you an incentive to play at their tables.