Can it be done? And if so, how? We give our thoughts regarding online pokers ongoing arms race
Before the days of online poker, cheating at the table meant smuggling in sophisticated devices – the earliest forms of these would simply allow you to keep an extra ace or two up your sleeve, but that was a risky proposition – what happens when two identical cards are spotted on the table at the same time? And if you were identified as the perpetrator of this low-tech con … the old regimes of Las Vegas were anything but kind to grifters.
As the era of integrated electronics dawned, the hardware required to calculate odds in real time based on the known distribution of cards was now available, but inputting this information into such a machine discreetly was no easy task. Let’s face it – cheating at live poker is hard.
Online Poker – The Cheaters Catch a Break
Now that the cards on the table could be seen and input into a secondary device without anybody else seeing, the computerized poker player was finally set to arrive. But that’s a tedious process in anybody’s view, right? We’re dealing with computers here; can’t they see the cards on the screen anyway?
Progress accelerated rapidly at this point, from the creation of the heads-up display (HUD) – a tool that can keep track of incredibly useful statistics that no human player could ever feasibly retain for every possible opponent they might face around a poker table – to the creation of the first real poker “bots” that give you guidance during. No wonder staying safe while playing online is a big priority to high-stakes poker players nowadays!
Whilst a HUD at least relies on a human player with a solid knowledge of the game to understand and interpret the statistics it gathers, a poker bot can do all of this automatically, and recommend – or even just automatically take – the most profitable course of action for every given situation.
Why are Bots Such a Huge Problem for Online Poker?
Computer programs that have been well written do not make mistakes, and they never suffer from natural human weaknesses such as fatigue. Bots can endure the natural variance of the game without letting their emotions cloud their judgement – a phenomenon commonly referred to as “tilt”.
What’s more, whilst earlier bots had significant disadvantages due to their inability to read a bluff or adjust to the strategy of their opponents in the way a human player can, newer bots are able to utilize HUD data to enable them to more accurately model what their opponents are thinking at any given moment.
The situation has become even more dangerous for players and poker operators, as newer types of Artificial Intelligence Neural Networks have been developed. In 2015, computers effectively “solved” the game of heads-up limit hold’em. The 2018 Libratus bot was able to demonstrate superhuman ability at heads-up no-limit hold’em, beating several of the world’s best players by a significant margin.
In 2019, a new bot from the creators of Libratus, Pluribus, extended this superhuman ability to six-max no-limit hold’em, the most commonly played single variety of poker in the world. The creators of these AI-based bots chose not to sell or release their software, as they did not wish to destroy the online game by enabling computer poker players the run of the tables. Less scrupulous developers are working on similar code as we speak however, so it’s clear that something needs to be done before such bots become available for purchase.
How Have the Poker Sites Responded
The tool that allows bots to work so effectively is the HUD – you need large amounts of data on your opponents to enable a bot to make accurate decisions related specifically to that player. HUD’s were already controversial before the advent of bots with the skills to defeat the world’s best players, but the huge increase in bans on these types of software right around 2015 makes it obvious that online poker rooms wanted to get ahead of the inevitable wave of bots before it arrived.
Unfortunately, PokerStars remains one of the world’s most popular sites for online poker by a significant margin, and they are in a difficult position with regards to HUD software. Banning such software outright would scare away a large chunk of their userbase, but it is likely that such a move will be forced on the site at some point in the future.
Other sites are doing better – partypoker has a large audience and has created anonymous tables, the ability to change your screen name, and removed the ability to select which cash table you wish to play at when choosing your preferred stakes. These features together, combined with the ability to download your own hand histories for analysis – should ensure that partypoker continues to grow going forward, without bots and HUDs spoiling the fun for recreational players.
Unibet created their poker software from the ground up with the intention of never permitting HUDs on the site, and the ability to maintain up to five different identities at any one time even makes manual tracking of player tendencies a difficult – if not impossible – task.
Global Poker took a different approach – their software is entirely web-based, preventing any hand history data from being stored on a player’s local machine for later analysis by bot or HUD software. Furthermore, their tables are not anonymous during each hand, but when viewing histories later, you’ll need an excellent memory to recall who was who in any given hand,
Finally, Ignition Poker used a mixture of the techniques used by all of the other operators listed above, including anonymous tables for all forms of cash game, and the inability to select your preferred table or seat beyond what stakes you wish to play and whether you would prefer heads-up, six-max, or full ring.
When bots of the quality of Pluribus and Libratus become available for sale, more measures may be needed to avoid online poker becoming a wasteland of computer poker players. In the meantime, recreational players should probably steer clear of PokerStars and stick to partypoker, Ignition, Unibet or Global Poker, as these sites seem deadly serious about keeping their games free of such software and tools.