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Randomization of Card Distribution
You can't play a game of cards without shuffling the deck. In a live game of poker we all know how that works, but you might wonder how the deck gets shuffled in online poker.
To start, all online poker sites use a random number generator, or RNG, which is defined as any system or device designed to produce a string of seemingly unrelated numbers. A series of those unrelated numbers is generated by the RNG and used to create a 52-card deck for use in your poker game.
Once the deck has been created, the cards are shuffled randomly until a hand needs to be dealt. At that point the shuffle is stopped and the cards are dealt to all the players in the hand.
What happens after that depends on the shuffling method used by the poker room where you're playing. On some sites, such as Full Tilt Poker, the remainder of the deck is continuously shuffled until another card needs to be dealt, and then is shuffled again in the same manner until the hand is complete.
Other sites, like PokerStars, generate a deck randomly but do not shuffle the deck continuously once the deck is set, i.e. the shuffle works just like a deck in a live card game.
Any legitimate poker room won't ask you to simply trust their word that the RNG they use produces random results. Rooms who want your repeat business submit their RNGs for audit by independent firms such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers, BMM International, Cigital Inc. and others. (It was a group of analysts from Cigital who discovered a flaw in the Planet Poker RNG back in 1999.)
The results of those audits, which involve testing the RNG and shuffle algorithms as well as any software designed to protect the security of the random numbers, are always available on your poker room's Web site.
A random shuffle is an absolute necessity for a fair game to be played, and with properly audited RNG systems in play your chances of getting a random shuffle are much better than if you play in a live game with a hand-shuffled deck. That doesn't mean your opponents won't suck out on you, but it does mean that they won't have any better chance of winning than their skill - and luck - allows.