Free Poker Online
Online poker sites offer games for two kinds of stakes: real money and play money.
Real Money Games
Real money (cash games) are just what it says: you make a cash deposit and play poker on virtual tables against others who have done the same thing. You download the software of the site you want to play on and make a money transfer from your bank or credit card. Online poker sites make it very easy to effect that transfer. They often offer a bonus with your first deposit. They might, for example, match your deposit, up to some maximum, which might be anywhere from $50 to $1,000.
Usually there are certain restrictions that accompany the bonus, generally a requirement to put in a certain number of hours within a given period of time (say a week or a month). That money —initial deposit plus bonus — then becomes your online bankroll. When you want to play, you open a table, which is the online equivalent of sitting down at a table in a bricks-and-mortar cardroom (one with a physical presence, with real human beings sitting at the table, often with a live dealer, with real chips and cards), you specify how much you want to play for, and that amount is subtracted from your bankroll and appears at your virtual position at the table (as your stack).
The table itself is a graphical representation of a poker table. The money in your stack is virtual — that is, it isn’t real money but just a representation. But it’s real enough when you bet with it or cash out. Wagers you make are subtracted from your stack at the table; pots you win are added to your stack. When you are done playing, you cash out. (This assumes, of course, that you haven’t lost all the chips in your stack. If you have, you can always add more chips from your bankroll.) Cashing out from a game adds those monies back to your bankroll and closes the table view. That money remains in your bankroll for the next time you play (or until you withdraw it).
To help new players, and to provide a venue for players who want to just play for free, poker sites have “play money” tables.
Play Money Games
In play money games, anyone can get tokens that look and act like real poker chips, but have no value and cannot be cashed in. There are lots of play money tables on most poker sites, where players bet with imaginary chips. The raison d’être for such tables is to familiarize players with how the betting, card distribution, acting in turn — basically all the actions that are required in a money game — work.
Play money games look just like real money games; the only difference is that real money games require, well, real money, that is, a deposit of cash with which to play. Those chips (virtual chips, really, but they represent actual money) can be cashed in at any point (at any point that a player is not involved in an actual game). If a player loses all their chips, they can buy more (by making a new deposit). If a player runs out of “chips” in a play money game, they can request more, which they get for free. 888 Poker makes the process very easy. A new player gets 1,000 play chips when signing up. Lose those chips, and the player automatically gets another 1,000. If you win, the chips are added to your (virtual) bankroll. (Some sites offer cash for building the play bankroll above a certain level, and that cash can be used to buy in to real money games.)
We recommend that if you have never played on a particular poker site you start out in the play money games. Even if you have played online, it is a good idea when starting out on a new site to play in the play money games of that site until you are completely familiar with how to bet, raise, and fold, how to exchange cards in games like five-card draw, lowball, badugi, and others, how to specify automatic bets and other actions in advance, and so on.
You will find that play money games are unrealistic. Poker is a viable game mainly when the stakes have some value. That is, if it costs $100 in a real money game to call a bet, you might have to think hard about it. But $100 play money means nothing, and you’ll have no trouble calling. In play money games, you’ll often see all or most of the players in on every round of every hand, whereas in real money games, a typical pot has only two or three players. There’s not much bluffing in play money games, another aspect that makes them different from real money games.
Some players like play money games so much that that is all they play. As long as you recognize that the games bear little resemblance to cash games, you can have fun for free.