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Canada has been a gray market for online poker and other forms of internet gambling since the first internet poker rooms started appearing in the late 1990s. That is slowly starting to change, however.
Canadian law doesn’t explicitly allow or disallow online gambling. As a result, international poker sites can serve Canadian citizens without much consequence.
The operators that choose to serve Canadian customers include some that are fully legal and licensed in other jurisdictions. However, it’s important to remember that these are acting in an offshore capacity. Among other things, that means they do not pay Canadian taxes and players have no regulatory body to appeal to if something goes wrong.
At the moment, the only fully, explicitly legal online poker products are those offered by the provincial lotteries. Unfortunately, not every lottery has such a product.
The good news is that Canada is rethinking its approach to new forms of gambling. This may mean that offshore sites – even reputable ones like PokerStars – become unwelcome for a time and cease serving Canadian customers. Ultimately, however, it should mean that Canadians have access to better options, ones that are fully legal and therefore safer.
There hasn’t been much discussion of online poker in Canada, specifically. However, there’s been a lot of talk about sports betting, and about online gambling more generally. As we’ve seen in the US iGaming market, poker often follows along with those other products, especially online casinos.
After many years of resistance to the concept, the currently ruling Liberal Party is suddenly amenable to the idea of single game sports wagering in Canada. This has been one of the few forms of gambling explicitly forbidden under the Criminal Code. Now that it is legal in many states to the south, Canadian casinos have been pushing hard to make it legal here as well, to avoid losing customers to cross-border competition.
At the same time, provinces are taking it upon themselves to expand legal online gambling options. Several provincial lotteries have introduced casino games and/or poker. Ontario, meanwhile, is looking to privatize its online gambling market, which would be a Canadian first. Depending on how that plays out, we could see Canadian provinces start to emulate the likes of New Jersey and Michigan, or even European markets which are more liberal still.
The Canada Criminal Code says very little about gambling, except to delegate authority over it to the provincial lotteries. Private companies cannot offer any sort of gambling except through partnerships with a public lottery corporation. Some limited forms of gambling are available to charitable groups, however, with provincial approval.
The Code does specifically forbid a few types of gambling. Most significant among these is betting on the outcome of a single sporting event, which makes sportsbooks impossible at the moment, and limits the lotteries to parlay betting. Fortunately, poker is not among the excluded games, and live poker is available at many Canadian casinos.
Importantly, the Code says nothing at all about online gambling. The concept hasn’t really been tested in court, either, but the status quo seems to be that online games are treated the same as live games. This means it would be illegal for online casinos and poker rooms to operate on Canadian soil without a lottery partnership, but that Canada doesn’t make any attempt to stop foreign companies serving its citizens.
By a strict interpretation of the Code, it is probably illegal for citizens to play on those sites, or even to write about or promote them. In practice, however, the country has shown no interest in prosecuting gamblers themselves, only those who operate illegal gambling operations on Canadian soil.
Canada comprises 10 provinces and 3 territories, all of which have access to a lottery. Only residents of Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia currently have access to online poker through their lotteries, however.
Many of the 13 provinces and territories are too small to operate lottery all on their own. The result is that the less populous regions have banded together. There are five provincial lottery corporations in total, three of them for individual provinces, while the remaining two cover regions consisting of multiple smaller provinces or territories.
From east to west:
There are additionally three iGaming sites owned by the lotteries, whose jurisdictions don’t line up exactly with those of their parent companies:
Of these, Espace Jeux and PlayNow have a poker product. The good news is that these two sites both use the same technology courtesy of IGT, and are therefore able to pool their players together. Thus, officially authorized online poker in Canada effectively consists of one big network shared by three provinces. These are also among the Canadian provinces with legal online casinos.
Quebec was an early adopter of legal online poker, launching a poker product on its Espace Jeux website in 2010. It rebooted this in 2020 with a new product, OK Poker, using IGT technology.
PlayNow launched the year after Loto-Québec’s original poker product, in 2011. It didn’t rebrand in 2020, but has been brought up to date with the same features as OK Poker, as its technology is likewise supplied by IGT.
These are more modern sites than you might expect from a lottery. Aside from Texas Hold’em, you’ll find a decent array of games:
* Soko, aka Canadian Stud, is a rarely seen 5-Card Stud variant described further down this page.
The promotions are decidedly old-school, in the sense that they favor a high volume of play. There’s an ongoing rakeback points system that returns 4% to the player in the form of tournament credit, plus progressive jackpots for both bad beats and high hands. Limited time promotions include such things as rake races, rarely seen on private sector sites these days, as they cater more towards casual players.
As far as tournaments go, the biggest is the bimonthly Mega $150,000 Guaranteed, which has a $320 buy-in and numerous satellites starting as low as $0.01. There is also a weekly $20,000 guaranteed tournament on Sundays, starting at noon for players in BC, which equates to 2 p.m. in MB and 3 p.m. in QC.
Both OK Poker and PlayNow Poker are available on the following platforms:
There is no in-browser play. Whether playing on desktop or mobile, a download is required. All the apps are available through the relevant websites. The iOS apps are also available directly through the iOS App Store.
Google’s 2021 policy change regarding gambling apps applies as much to Canada as the US. At some point, then, both apps should also be available on Google Play. Approval for gambling apps is taking time, however, and neither is available as of April 2021.
Both OK Poker and PlayNow have the same deposit options available:
For withdrawals, there is only one option, but fortunately it’s an easy one. Both sites will ask you for your online banking credentials and will handle withdrawals that way, through a direct transfer. PlayNow makes an exception in the case that you’re lucky enough to be withdrawing $100,000 or more. For such large sums, it will deliver a check to you in person.
Both sites are also similar in terms of their promotions. The main forms these come in are as follows:
Unfortunately, neither offers a first deposit bonus, despite that being standard practice in privatized markets. PlayNow does offer $20 free on first deposits of $20 or more, but this has a 30x playthrough requirement and can only be cleared while playing casino games, not poker. Likewise, both sites feature a near-continuous stream of limited time casino promotions, but far less for poker players.
Because OK Poker and PlayNow come from the same technology provider and share traffic, they have the same lineup of games.
Like all online poker sites, both spread mostly No-Limit Texas Hold’em. They have a variety of other games available in principle, but in practice you may find the tables empty due to low traffic. As mentioned in the site descriptions above, those games are as follows:
Soko is an extremely rare poker variant. It is effectively identical to 5-Card Stud except for having two additional hand rankings. In Soko, a four-card straight beats a single pair, and a four-card flush beats a four-card straight. Two pair beats either of these special four-card hands.
Both sites offer a variety of ways to play these games.
Also known as ring games, cash games are what people normally think of when they talk about poker. Players exchange cash for chips, then play as many or as few hands as they like. At the end of their session, players can get up and redeem those chips for cash again. The site takes a small amount of chips from each pot as rake.
Also known as multi-table tournaments, these are the highest variance way to play poker. Players pay a fixed tournament entry fee. Part of this is collected by the site, while the rest goes into the prize pool. OK Poker and PlayNow show the breakdown clearly, expressing buy-ins in terms such as $100+9, indicating a $109 buy-in of which $100 goes into the prize pool, and $9 stays with the site.
In return for their buy-in, players receive a supply of tournament chips with no cash value. The stakes escalate continuously throughout the tournament, forcing players to keep increasing their stacks or bust out. Eventually, one player holds all the chips, and wins the tournament. Prizes are based on players’ finishing position, with roughly 10% to 15% of players receiving a prize in a typical tournament, and most of the prize money going to the winner and next few runners-up.
Sit-and-goes, or SNGs, work on the same principle as scheduled tournaments, but start on demand. Especially on smaller sites like these, they usually consist of just a single table. A six-player SNG will usually pay the top two finishers, while a nine-player one will pay the top three.
SNGs have an advantage over scheduled tournaments in that they take less time. Even one with a standard blind structure will typically be over within an hour, and turbos can be much faster. The downside, especially for smaller sites, is that they can take a while to fill, and the wait is unpredictable.
French operator Winamax revolutionized online poker in 2013 when it launched Expresso, a fast-paced, three-player sit-and-go format with randomized payouts. In the years since, virtually every other company has adopted a similar format. Generically, these are known as lottery sit-and-goes or LSNGs, but players more often refer to them by the brand name used by whatever site they’re playing on.
OK Poker and PlayNow both call the format Slot & Go. Three players pay a buy-in and then a virtual “slot machine” spins to determine the amount they’ll be playing for. About three quarters of the time, this will just be twice the buy-in. Other multipliers are possible, from 4x up to 3,000x, with ever-diminishing probabilities. Buy-ins range from $1 to $25, for an overall maximum prize pool of $75,000 on the highest buy-in.
LSNGs are usually winner-take-all except for the very big multipliers. These Canadian sites are more generous in spreading the money around, however. Here’s how Slot & Go prize money gets distributed:
Given the low traffic of the lottery sites and the fact that legitimate international operators like PokerStars serve Canadian customers, it may be tempting to choose a gray market site. While such sites, which operate in fully licensed and legal fashion elsewhere, are a safer choice than black market operators, they still can’t provide you with the same level of safety you’ll enjoy at an official, white market site.
Here are the advantages that OK Poker and PlayNow hold over the gray market. Let’s call them the four Rs of the white market:
Those are the advantages of a white market site over a gray market site that is otherwise compliant and operates with a license elsewhere. The comparison between legal sites and black market operations is even starker. The latter sites don’t hold a license from any legitimate regulator, and serve even countries that actively try to keep them out.
Here’s why you should avoid black market sites at all cost:
All that advice isn’t worth much if you can’t tell the difference between operators. So, how do you know what type of operation you’re looking at?
It is explicitly legal in Canada for provincial lotteries to offer iGaming, including online poker. For commercial operators, it is currently a gray market situation. That is, they are not formally authorized to serve Canadians, but many do so anyway, and there has been no effort to stop them.
PokerStars serves Canadian customers, but in a gray market capacity. While you won’t get in trouble for playing there, it isn’t as safe as the lottery-run sites.
Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia. Quebeckers can play on Loto-Québec’s site, OK Poker. The latter two can play on PlayNow, which is owned by the British Columbia Lottery Corporation.
It’s a possibility. It’s unlikely that we’ll see the same sort of fully private market that many US states have. However, Ontario is looking at privatizing its iGaming sector, which probably means having multiple private sector brands partnered with the lottery in order to be compliant with Canadian law. Depending on how that works out, other provinces could follow suit.
Yes. This fact is buried deep in the sites’ FAQs, but despite cosmetic differences between them, PlayNow and OK Poker are in fact just two skins on the same network. No matter which province you’re playing from, the opponents at your table could be from any of those three provinces.
Not usually. By default, Canada charges no tax on gambling winnings, unlike the US. However, it does make an exception for someone it considers a professional gambler. The definition of this is somewhat subjective, but just being a winning player isn’t sufficient. If you have another job, for instance, and don’t play full time, then you will be fine.
It’s only if you’re spending long hours playing a skill-based game like poker, using a system to grind out profit, and relying on it as your primary source of income that you’re at risk of getting declared “a professional.” Once you have that designation, then you are required to declare your winnings each year and pay income tax on them.
The Playground Poker Club in Kahnawake (just outside Montreal) has arguably become the most popular poker room in the country, with different online poker sites choosing this location as the venue for their live events.
PokerStars has held its Canada Cup ($3,300 Main Event, $2 million guaranteed) at Playground, while partypoker is holding its Canadian Poker Championships throughout August and September 2017. This means that online players in Canada can satellite into live events online for a fraction of the buy-in.
The nearby Casino Montreal might be the best choice for newcomers and amateur players, due to the lower overall skill level of the common player. However, because of this the rake fees are slightly higher than those in dedicated poker rooms.
In Ontario, players can visit the OLG Casino Brantford which offers 14 Texas Hold’em tables. Cash games always run, but they also offer a varied tournament schedule including ladies events, bounty events, and deep stack tournaments.
The River Rock Casino in Richmond, British Columbia, is open 24 hours a day, offering around-the-clock cash games. Other recommendations include Casino Nova Scotia, Caesars Windsor, Northlands Park in Alberta, Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort, Medicine Hat Lodge Resort in Alberta, Casino de Mont-Tremblant, and Stoney Nakoda Resort & Casino (also in Alberta).