An Ad-Lib Online Poker Future: PokerStars Joins Anti-Scripts Movement

The controversial task of leveling online poker’s out-of-balance competitive playing field has been in the news again of late, with PokerStars representatives confirming that they are in the process of making changes designed to limit the effectiveness of so-called “seating scripts.”  The scripts are automated computer macros, often handwritten or purchased from third-vendors, that are designed by their creators to run on PokerStars and many other sites and assist their users in monitoring online lobbies and selecting the best tables and seats at which to play.

Seating scripts in particular and automated software assists in general remain a controversial element of the online game — and that goes almost (but not quite) without saying.  Online poker was intended to be as close to real-life poker as possible, but the advent and use of such third-party programs has, in large part, taken the online version of poker in unintended directions.  The giants in the category of so called third-party assist software are HUD (Heads-Up Display) programs, which use accumulated stats on opponents to produce live-time profiles, providing live-time indicators as to opposing players’ likely actions in certain situations.

Scripts and HUDs are two different types of programs, though they both serve the same greater purpose, giving their users some sort of purchased advantage in the greater scope of the online-poker game.

Scripts in particular enter a very gray area regarding these third-party programs, and their cumulative effect on the competitiveness of online games is increasing, which is why various sites and networks are fighting back.  The traditional dividing line regarding the use of all such third-party software has been that if it can be used to make automated betting decisions for players, then said software is often banned by sites.

PokerStars LogoPokerStars is one of many sites that keeps lists of both acceptable and prohibited third-party software programs.  Manual scripts and script-based programs have tended to be on the “acceptable” side, but there have also been hidden reasons why: Many sites use scripts themselves within their lobbies and software clients, and detecting the how and why of additional scripts being used is a challenging programming task.  As long as the problem wasn’t -too- bad, it was easy enough to overlook.  Scripts, however, are like any other infestation: Left unchecked, they’ve overrun their host.

I’d received a tipoff from a Stars contact that such a move was afoot, and was pointed to a 2+2 forum post by PokerStars VIP Manager Chris Jonat a few days ago, in which Stars unofficially announced its intent as a site to tackle the growing “scripts” issue.

Here’s what “PokerStars Chris” initially wrote:

I am managing a project to review the seat scripting issues on PokerStars.

As an immediate measure we intend to implement a limit on the number of times a player can reserve a seat at a given table without playing. We don’t expect this to solve all the issues, but we expect it to improve the situation while we review the situation in more depth.

We hope this measure will end the scenario that results in tables being “locked out” by scripts perpetually reserving seats without intending to play and will reduce the overall effectiveness of seat scripts. But we also want to set the limit such that it will minimize the impact on players who are not using scripts.

As a starting point, we are considering allowing three reservations without game action per table for any given six hour period. Reservations resulting from reaching the top of a waiting list would not be counted.

Any input on whether these are appropriate parameters is appreciated.

Since then, Jonat has continued to participate in the form of responding to constructive suggestions for how to implement a way to reduce the impact of seating scripts, without necessarily having PokerStars take the extreme and difficult-to-enforce step of banning all such scripts in general.  As usual happens, the thread has otherwise devolved into the usual arguments between the pro- and anti-script forces.

When a site as high-powered as PokerStars can be significantly and negatively impacted by script users, however, it’s clear to any objective observer that the situation had to be addressed.  And that describes the current situation.

The most prolific and insidious of the script users are a sub-category of players derisively referred to as “bumhunters” by others, meaning players that take extreme measures to lock up seats at tables where one or more weak players are seated.  The scripts are also often tailored to try and seat the bumhunters immediately to the left of the perceived weak player, if possible, to obtain maximum positional advantage, to the detriment of non-scripters and newer, less-savvy players who don’t necessarily realize their possible positional choices have been impacted.

Worse, the proliferation of a few hundred bumhunters’ scripts on Stars have made portions of the site virtual unplayable.  It’s that truth, and the embarrassment that a video displaying this recently caused, that may have finally spurred PokerStars to action.

Witness the following.  (And while you’re enjoying the Benny Hill theme, keep a close eye on the chat boxes on these two tables as well.)

That’s the typical pattern in the 6-max tables on Stars where these scripts are most frequently employed: One player starts a table, a second joins (and immediately sits out), and the rest of the seats are perpetually reserved by other script users who see that the first two players aren’t fish, and thuse decline the seat when offered, adding themselves back to the waiting list.

The cycle runs over and over and over again, with no actual poker being played.

Besides the damage to the poker “sharks and fish” ecosystem and the barring of reasonable access to action to casual players, the script problem adds considerable operational overhead to Stars’ online servers and lobby programming.  That’s part of the same problem I examined in a post last week, looking at the use of similar seating scripts and the formation of so-called “cartels” by packs of script users in high-stakes heads-up sit-n-go tourneys, which have also rendered those games largely unplayable in a casual sense.

It’s clear that something had to be done.

If there’s a greater point to all this, it’s that the “recreational player” changes implemented by many sites over the last couple of years — now including PokerStars — is a movement that isn’t going to stop.  Whether it’s the “anonymous player model” oft ballyhooed by Bodog, the controversial table-segregation practices instituted by, the Revolution Network and elsewhere, or broader bans on seating scripts and other forms of software, the movement continues.  To see sites and games overrun in the manner displayed above is just no good, no good at all.

iconmicrogamingNor is PokerStars the first network or major site to look at the “scripts” problem specifically and decide to counteract it.  Just a couple of weeks ago, the development team at the mid-level Microgaming Network offered its own take on the scripting problem.  In “The Scripts,” Microgaming Head of Poker Alex Scott wrote that the proliferation and player imbalance caused by scripts and certain other third-party software assists were why the company split its own poker offerings.

The Microgaming Poker Network (MPN) now offers both regular and anonymous tables.  The regular tables operate much like those on Stars and other sites, and scripts, HUDs and other third-party programs are commonly used.  Or, players can opt for anonymous tables, designed to be untrackable by data-mining software, useless for opponent profiling via HUDs, and thus not accessible for the type of bumhunting certain script users embrace.

Wrote Scott, in part:

Arguably, we are now at a point where the game of online poker needs to be rebalanced again, just like

Titanfall. The weapon that is the seating script has become too powerful, and there is a lot more at stake than just points – the entire future of the online poker industry hinges on whether the game remains fun or not.

On the MPN, seating scripts are currently allowed, but that will not be the case forever. When we have determined a way to reliably detect such tools and fairly enforce a ban, then we will rid the game of them without a hint of regret.

In the meantime, we will be making lots of changes in 2015 aimed to make third-party programs less powerful. Winners will still win, and losers will still lose. But the game will be more fun for those that play.

Microgaming is only one of several networks and sites now using variations on these “anonymous” and “recreational” models.  All of it, from the MPN to Stars to Bodog to PartyGaming, Winamax, the Equity Poker Network and several others, is designed to rebalance the competitive flow to address modern market conditions.

Script defenders often protest that if scripts were so inherently bad, then they would have been banned long ago.  But as Scott alluded to elsewhere in his piece in addition to above, and as Jonat at PokerStars has also acknowedged, scripts have gone from being beneficial to detrimental to online poker as a whole.

Scripts then, will likely be phased out or severely restricted in the future.  Those market conditions are changing… again.  Turbulence ahead.

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