Poker is more than just a game of skill. It’s a highly social pastime that’s equal parts rivalry and comradery. Success at the tables takes more than just knowing the odds. To truly prosper, you’ll need patience, stamina, and an appetite for what amounts to psychological warfare.
Ultimately, poker is as much about knowing how to play properly as it is about sizing up your opponents and outwitting them over and over again. That’s true whether you play with your friends in person, at a poker room on the Las Vegas Strip, or online.
For the most part, the leading internet poker sites do an excellent job of duplicating the live experience. Yet there have always been challenges. When the first poker sites burst onto the scene in the 1990s, players wondered how the absence of traditional tells like poker faces would affect their play. Others worried whether the games were actually fair and random. When legal issues emerged a decade later, players were mostly nervous about sites getting shutdown and losing their hard-won cash in the process.
In 2020, the biggest concern players have is one that’s shared with the site themselves, namely the presence of poker bots. Poker bots are by no means new. They’ve been used to exploit poker sites and their players for over two decades. Yet despite their long history, there’s a lot of confusion about how bots operate and interfere with the game.
Anyone who casually follows the AI industry or even skims the headlines ought to be familiar with Pluribus. In 2019, the artificial intelligence poker player, which was developed by Carnegie Mellon University and Facebook AI Labs, defeated renowned poker pros in a 6-player Texas Hold’em tournament. Later, Pluribus played 10,000 hands and bested 13 more pros who had all previously won at least a million dollars playing the game. What’s even more phenomenal is that Pluribus learned to master the game in just eight days.
The good news is that Pluribus is far superior to the bots that aim to infiltrate today’s leading poker sites. In fact, the average poker bots not only have nothing to do with machine learning, but they lack any sort of advanced artificial intelligence abilities. The truth is they are rather rudimentary and barely give the players who use them any edge aside from saving them the trouble of having to be present.
The poker bots of 2020 are little more than basic computer programs. While using them will certainly violate the user agreement of every respectable poker site, bots don’t cheat in the conventional sense of the word. Poker bots aren’t particularly innovative. They don’t have the power to see the future. They can’t look inside the deck and they certainly can’t see your opponents’ cards. Rather, poker bots use straightforward programming scripts to eliminate the need for the human players to be involved.
Bots operate by reading data while seated at a poker table. They function by inputting all the available information at the table such as the user’s pocket cards, bets, stacks, pots, and community cards and make decisions that have been preprogrammed by the bot maker. It’s critical to understand that bots only have access to information that a human player would also have. Their benefit is that they don’t require the presence of a human player to function. While some bots are customizable, the most versatile bots do little more than allow the user to pick from a number of preprogrammed playing styles. Even if the user can tweak certain settings, bots can only use simplified strategies.
Players who rely on bots have little chance of crushing a big tournament. Even if their utility over time is highly debatable, software companies that make bots continue to do brisk business. If you scour popular online poker forums, you’ll find countless stories of unethical players successfully using bots to clear promotional bonuses, earn rakebacks – which are effectively rebates of the house’s cut to host poker games – and milk poor cash game players. Unlike novice players, bots aren’t subject to emotional outbursts and never tilt.
There’s no denying that players who use bots have an unfair advantage simply because they never tire and can play multiple tables at once without getting distracted, irritated, or bored. From the bot user’s perspective, playing poker is as simple as pressing a button, walking away, and coming back hours later to see how much you’ve won or lost. Whether or not bots actually work is largely irrelevant when you consider that they are deceptive and undermine the very soul of the game.
That’s precisely why Americas Cardroom, which is the flagship brand of the Winning Poker Network, has ramped up its efforts to stamp out bots. ACR made headlines in April 2019 when its Chief Executive Officer, Phil Nagy admitted that bots were a problem. In a candid video message to the poker community, Nagy not only acknowledged the prevalence of bots across the Winning Poker Network, but he vowed to do something about them once and for all.
Nagy’s words were far from the typical lip service PR departments concoct when they enter crisis mode. The CEO not only promised to rid the Winning Poker Network of the very bots that plagued their sites’ cash games and tournaments, but he had a multi-pronged plan of action to make it happen.
Within five short weeks of Nagy’s video hitting the web, WPN had successfully beefed up its Bot Team and Customer Assessment Team. But adding manpower was just one piece of the puzzle. The network also improved its security protocols and created tools to stop bots dead in their tracks.
Americas Cardroom’s greatest achievement in the war on bots came on May 20, 2019 in the form of a major software release. Among its ground-breaking features was the implementation of a CAPTCHA that required users to prove they are human from within the poker client. If you’ve ever purchased tickets to a sporting event online, you should be familiar with having to prove you’re not a robot. That’s so sites can thwart scalpers and ticket resellers whose bots also aim to exploit the system.
Back to Americas Cardroom’s poker client, players who fail to pass the test within the allotted time have their account temporarily suspended. In order to regain access to their account, suspended players need to upload a video of a new playing session, which WPN then compares to their history on the site.
While CAPTCHAs are generally effective, WPN went even further by robbing bots of the very data they need to operate. Most commercial bots work by reading the pixels that appear on the screen to size up key information including the cards, stacks, and position. What WPN did was alter the graphics table pixilation, effectively blinding the bots. What’s more, the software team at WPN regularly modifies the graphics at the pixel level to continuously frustrate bots. When developers are forced to constantly code these changes, knowing that they could change again before even being implemented, they quickly decide that it’s just not worth their time.
WPN has gone even further by introducing a transparent and verifiable reimbursement policy. Whenever a bot is removed from a network site, WPN publishes the banned player’s screen name for the community to see. Yet WPN gives players more than a Hall of Shame to sneer at. The network also has a generous refund policy that reimburses affected players when a bot or other offending player gets banned. There is currently a cap of $25,000 per offending player.
Americas Cardroom’s efforts have already paid dividends. To date, several bot makers including Shanky Technologies (BonusBots.com), Medusa (PokerBots.com), and Kraken Poker Bot have publicly admitted that their software no longer works at WPN sites. Although some of these developers claim without evidence that they’re working on a fix, it’s more likely that they’re trying to save face.
Keeping its word, Americas Cardroom has refunded $199,572 to 13,910 affected players so far. What’s more noteworthy is that those numbers won’t grow much higher since bots can no longer operate on any Winning Poker Network site.
Although Americas Cardroom is an industry leader when it comes to stopping bots dead in their tracks, other poker sites are also doing their part to defend their business, earn the trust of players, and protect the integrity of the game.
Party Poker in particular has a dedicated fraud team, which is made up in part of former online poker pros. Using their intimate knowledge of the game, the Party Poker fraud team actively monitors the site to detect bots, banned tools, and collusion.
While Party Poker doesn’t share their exact detection methods, they proudly publish monthly reports that showcase the number of accounts closed for violating their user agreement and the amount of funds redistributed to affected players. In the first seven months of 2020, Party Poker closed 432 player accounts and refunded $403,461.
PokerStars, which is the world’s largest poker site, goes even further than Party Poker to keep its site and players safe. The company’s Game Integrity Team features a dedicated staff of 60 ex-pros, software engineers, stats experts, and data analysts who use special tools and software to detect cheaters, including bots.
What’s more impressive is that PokerStars has used machine learning algorithms to analyze the 200 billion hands the site has dealt over its history. It uses this knowledge in real time to detect patterns and spot suspicious behavior before the team follows up with its own investigations. Considering the lengths PokerStars goes to protecting players, it’s no surprise that the online cardroom regularly refers to its Game Integrity Team as superheroes.
You can find more information about Americas Cardroom’s transparent and verifiable reimbursement policy at AmericasCardroom.eu.