February 2, 2006

Linux poker online

Author: Brian L. Shaver

Poker is everywhere nowadays, from television to books to poker rooms popping up in almost every casino -- and of course, you can play poker online. Unfortunately, many of the most popular sites say they require Windows. However, as with most software strings that bind you to a particular proprietary operating system, these bonds are easily cut.

Looking to improve my game but frustrated by some sites' lack of support for Linux clients, I sent an email to the support for PokerStars, one of the first online gaming sites I tried. The site's support team indicated that their client software would run on Linux under Wine, and they even offered some help if I had any difficulty getting it to work. I tried it, and it worked perfectly for me under Wine.

I'm glad I asked. I had not thought of using Wine, and would not have tried it without prompting. It had been several years since I last used Wine, and my previous attempt was met with mixed results.

I have since mailed a similar support request to many other poker rooms. None of the responses has been as informative, or encouraging, as the one from PokerStars, but given how successful the experiment was with the PokerStars software, I tried other sites as well. I was surprised how many sites worked well under Wine. In addition to PokerStars, the clients for UltimateBet, Fair Poker, Party Poker, ParadisePoker, and Titan Poker ran well under Wine.

To determine whether the client software for your favorite poker room will run properly using Wine, search the Wine AppDB to see what results other people have had.

Some clients I tested would work after some small amount of tweaking, or they would run, but significant features did not function properly. Other clients would run, but then quickly consume all of the CPU, which I considered unacceptable. Someone more experienced than me at working with Wine might have more success by customizing their Wine environment for the problematic poker clients. However, I was pleased with my success using a simple Wine setup procedure.

To set up Wine, download and install the binary packages for Wine and WineTools. WineTools is a useful application for installing base software under Wine and setting up your .wine directory. Using WineTools, step through the Base setup, Windows system software, and Microsoft TrueType core fonts installation steps to initialize your Wine environment.

After this brief setup, you can start installing poker client software with the wine command. For example, download the file PokerStarsInstall.exe from PokerStars and save it to /tmp. Then issue the command:

wine /tmp/PokerStarsInstall.exe

This will start up the PokerStars installation, and the steps you follow then are the same as you would follow to install the application on a Windows system. Setup typically involves accepting a license agreement and selecting the directory in which to install the program.

Drive locations under Wine use the virtual drive labels created by the WineTools setup. I recommend installing everything under C:\, which will be under the ~/.wine directory by default. Just as on Windows, some applications will direct you to reboot your machine when the installation is complete. You don't need to reboot your Linux system, only the Wine environment. Run the wineboot utility to simulate a Windows reboot; instead of taking several minutes, it will typically complete in a few seconds.

After installation, you may have a new desktop icon with which to start the poker client. If not, find the actual installation directory -- for example, ~/.wine/c/Program Files/PokerStars -- and run the application directly using the command wine PokerStars.exe.

I started my evaluation using Wine version 20050524 on a laptop running Fedora Core 4. Since then I have had success with newer versions of Wine as well, including the 0.9.4 release.

For the first couple of months, I played online with play money only. Eventually, my confidence was high enough to deposit some of my real, hard-earned cash with UltimateBet. I have now played at UltimateBet for many, many hours, and can say I have never experienced a problem that affected the outcome of any hand I was playing -- though I have seen a few minor glitches.

The most common problem occurs when you're leaving a table. In most poker software, the lobby window should reappear when you leave a table. Occasionally, when the lobby window is restored, the restored window will be tiny and not resizeable. You can still exit the client by closing the tiny lobby window. The frequency of this problem has decreased significantly with the more recent versions of Wine.

Another common problem I have had is missing or distorted sound. With some clients, sound will function properly for a while, but then get stuck in a distorted sound loop playing the dealer or betting sound effects. You can just turn down the volume and restart the client at a convenient time.

I recommend always evaluating a site's suitability under Linux and Wine by using the play money tables first. Also, if you upgrade your Wine version, you should retest the client software under the new version to make sure it continues to function properly.

The Java alternative

Wine is not the only alternative for Linux users who want to play poker online. Some sites advertise multi-platform support through Java-based clients which run in any Java-enabled Web browser.

All of the Java clients I evaluated bear a striking resemblance to one another. It's not just my imagination: all the Java client software appears to come from a single source, the Ongame Network. The Java applet clients do not offer all of the features of the standalone desktop clients. For example, they do not allow you to keep notes on your opponents, and you cannot see statistics on your play during the current session.

I evaluated the Java clients for PokerRoom, HollywoodPoker, EuroPoker.com, and HoldemPoker.com.

The Ongame Network partners page lists many more sites with Java-based clients. PokerListings.com also mentions a couple of other sites as offering a "No Download" client: 24hPoker and Pacific Poker, which are not mentioned at the Ongame Network partners page, so these two sites may be running different software clients. However, I had no success getting the PacificPoker client to run on my system.

The virtual monopoly on Java poker client software intrigued me, so I sent some questions to the Ongame Network support. I wanted to know if the list of partners on their Web site was complete and if all the sites listed should work as well. They do not publish a complete list of partners, but they confirmed that all their partners are offering the same version of the Java poker client. As far as they know, their Java client interface is the only contender on the market for serious poker sites.

You can follow the same type of trail for the downloadable poker client software as well. Once you find a client you like that runs well on your system, there may be other online poker rooms which use the same software. For example, I noticed that the Fair Poker and Titan Poker clients appeared to be the same piece of software. PlayTech produces both programs. On the PlayTech Web site you can view their client portfolio to find other online poker rooms which would run well on Linux. PlayTech's clients include several other popular poker rooms, such as Noble Poker and BetFred Poker.

If you're ready to get serious about playing Internet poker, there are many great resources online. For online poker room reviews, signup bonuses, and many other pieces of useful information, PokerListings.com is a valuable source. If you are interested in playing freeroll tournaments, then try Freeroll-Tracker.com. The Linux Poker site is dedicated to playing poker online with Linux, but it is light on information and may not be updated very often. Finally if you really want the face to face, across the table action, check out HomePokerGames.com to find a home game running in your area.

To all you poker playing Linux users, good luck at the tables.


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